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The Two-Party Duopoly: Why America's Politics are Nastier than Europe's

by Erik Fogg, published

In my experience speaking to Europeans and Canadians about our political system, they frequently demonstrate a lot of worry for us. Gone are the days of the usual cross-Atlantic holier-than-thou quipping and sniping. They’re just plain worried for us -- and, by extension, them.

Europe, no doubt, has its own bag of problems, though they try not to admit it to us Yanks. But the vitriol and mutual partisan hatred that is the new normal in American politics sets us apart. A large majority of Republicans and Democrats have very negative views of each other, and identify in their party because they hate the other one.

Studies in Canada, Germany, and the United States confirm that the mutual antipathy here is much higher. And yes, it’s quite dangerous. As Yoda said: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Not only is our political system going to remain deadlocked (and miserable) until we fix this, but history shows this threatens the fabric of the very nation.

I’ve already talked about the drivers of this growth of antipathy in Wedged, and you can learn more about it in this video by my co-author, or in this article by me. But why did the US go so far off the rails, when Canada and much of Europe seem to be ticking along with more normal levels of political friction?

One big and important difference is our party system. We have two, and most of our peers have more than two. When you have two parties, each party can identify itself as the antithesis of the other, evil party. When you have 5, it’s much harder to be anti-everyone. You need to show people a reason to vote for you more than the other 4 parties -- not just a reason to vote against the other party.

Even here in the United States, we’ve found that voting systems which encourage more party participation lead to more positive campaigns. Instant-runoff voting -- or ranked choice voting -- allows people to vote outside the two-party system without throwing their vote away. It works.

Open primaries can help, too. If winning a primary requires getting lots of people on board--not just the hardcore of a single angry party--it will deliver candidates to the general election that have broader appeal. It’s that simple.

Unfortunately, the two-party system isn’t all that interested in these kinds of voting reforms. Nobody wants to lose power. But they need to happen.

Luckily, dozens of states have adopted some form of open primaries, and ranked choice voting is just starting to pick up steam around the country. Maine even passed a ballot initiative in 2016 to use RCV as its method for electing members of Congress. Missouri just kicked off a movement to bring both reforms to the Show-Me State.

You’re reading this because you’re worried and frustrated. You may feel like there’s nothing you can do. But if you want to make a change, I encourage you to do your research and find the organizations in your state advocating for voting reform.

If you can’t find them, reach out to organizations such as the Independent Voter ProjectOpen Primaries, and FairVote to get help getting it off the ground yourself. Your country needs you now.

Photo Credit: Christos Georghiou /

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