Foreign Policy Blogs

The Third Wheel

As I write this, British voters are going to the polls in what has been billed as one of the most exciting UK elections of the post-war period. Nick Clegg, member of the third-party Liberal Democrats, could overtake his mainstream rivals Gordon Brown (Labour) and David Cameron (Conservative). Regardless of the outcome, this is the kind of campaign that inevitably makes you think hard about first-past-the-post systems.

Britain, like the United States, elects the members of its legislature through the infamous system in which whoever gets the most votes, wins. This has begun to look anachronistic in face of today’s global preponderance of systems of proportional representation, in which smaller parties have more than a fighting chance at legislative seats. While Americans may look at the battles over forming a coalition in places like Israel or Iraq and think the stability and governability of our system eclipse its disadvantages, it is hard to deny that having only two dominant parties limits voters’ representation and government accountability.

Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post last week, saying that Clegg’s rise in Britain should make us think on this side of the pond as well. Clegg has proposed far-reaching reforms to the electoral system that could seriously disrupt the current party system there.

The Liberal Democrats have in fact had more representation than third parties in the United States, which have not gained any noticeable traction in the modern Congress. The fact that running as an independent (e.g. Joe Lieberman) is preferable to joining a third party certainly distinguishes our two legislatures. Another major difference is that third-party Clegg could be head of government, a feat basically unimaginable in today’s U.S. politics. In the absence of major turmoil that disrupts our entire political system, the United States is unlikely to see an American Clegg in the presidential race any time soon. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader served the purpose of stirring up the debate more than presenting a viable alternative for the presidency.

This matters because we all know how stagnant the political debate can become when there are only two voices. If the entire political spectrum is divided into just two parts, parties rarely have to challenge established norms. This leaves them less accountable to the voters that put them in office, and instead free to select just a couple of main issues to fight for while leaving the remainder unchanged. That benefits no one but the people in power.

And so, in the next election, when some third-party candidate is eating into your majority-party’s share of the votes, try reveling in your opportunity for choice rather than bemoaning the spoiler.