Multiparty democracy leads to more broadly legitimate, inclusive and moderate policymaking

In a two-party democracy, voters can collectively toggle between a left party and a right party. Think of it like a thermostat with just two settings: too hot or too cold. This is great for the voters who like it hot when they can collectively grab control of the dial and set it to hot. But it’s terrible for such voters when they lose control of the dial. And pity the voters who want something in the middle but must perpetually flip back and forth between sweating and freezing.

In a multiparty system, voters get more choices on the political thermostat. Some voters might prefer it chilly, while others might prefer it sultry. But as long as some pivotal group of voters wants a middle setting, they’ll pick a party or parties in the middle. In a multiparty system, it is possible for them to register that preference. And this party can then become decisive in forming a governing coalition. Ultimately, the outcome is more likely to resemble something everyone can live with. 

In short, by giving diverse voters and politicians a broader range of settings on the policy dial, multiparty democracy enables easier agreement on a midpoint. But with just two divergent choices, there is no midpoint, just wild swings back and forth, and higher-stakes elections.

Multiparty legislatures in proportional democracies have a strong record of producing broadly acceptable moderate policy outcomes. As a general rule, when a wider range of parties gets representation in the legislature, it’s hard to form a majority governing coalition that doesn’t include the political center. And once coalitions form, they have a strong incentive to produce policy outcomes that are broadly acceptable because staying in the middle divides the potential opposition. 

True majority coalitions on complex issues are hard to build. They take time. But more inclusive policymaking brings in more diverse views, which almost always generates a more sustainable final output.

 In multiparty democracy, policymaking is more incremental, and thus more stable. In this respect, multiparty democracy is more conservative, at least in the Burkean sense of changing gradually and respecting the accumulated wisdom embodied in the current status quo, but being flexible enough to adapt in order to conserve itself.

 Gradual change is healthy because too much policy uncertainty undermines long-term investments for both businesses and individuals, and wild swings in policy erode political trust. A solid and growing economy depends on reasonably high policy stability. Because multiparty democracy demands broadly inclusive policymaking and makes it hard for minorities or even narrow majorities to change policy, voters in multiparty democracies are much more likely to view governments as legitimate regardless of how well their party did in the last election.

If parties don’t campaign in all-or-nothing terms, voters won’t see elections in those terms either. As a result, voters in multiparty democracies are happier with their governments, regardless of whether or not their party won the last election. This satisfaction has important consequences. It lends more legitimacy and support to government, which gives political leaders more space to solve big problems. Voters are more likely to feel like they are being heard, largely because they are better represented. 

Multiparty democracies make space for an urban party on the right and a rural party on the left, thus mitigating potentially destructive urban-rural polarization. Governing coalitions on the right typically include some representatives of the urban cosmopolitan parts of the country, and coalitions on the left usually include some representatives of the traditionalist rural parts of the country. This means that whichever side is in power, half of the country doesn’t feel entirely unrepresented. 

By contrast, in current American politics, if Republicans win, urban voters are shut out of power; if Democrats win, rural voters are shut out of power. No wonder that in American politics, political losers feel absolutely devastated. Consider this: following the 2012 presidential election, in which Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, partisan Republicans reported levels of sadness twice as high as Bostonians experienced following the Boston Marathon bombing. This is part of the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all dynamic that is breaking American democracy. 

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, host of the Politics in Question podcast and author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (2020).