Differences in Democracy

By Miles Horner

With help from Daniel Li

The 2018 midterm elections in the United States of America took place on November 6th. The Democratic Party reclaimed the House of Representatives, while the Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate. Now, the American legislative government is divided. Because of the many checks and balances in American democracy and the extreme partisanship between the two major parties right now, it is unlikely that any major policy will be passed in the next two years. This has led to the effectiveness of the American two-party system to be called into question for. However, before criticizing the American political system, it is important to recognize the different structures of organizing democratic systems.

Across the world, there appear to be three ways to organize a government: a one-party system, a two-party system or a multi-party system. It should be noted that systems can evolve as popular support for a party either decreases or increases. However, there are often policy changes and reforms that can be instituted to support the different types of systems. For example, whenever there is only one legislature in the federal government, multi-party systems are more common, as is the case in most European Union countries. In countries with multiple legislatures, like the Congress and House of Representatives of the US, one and two-party systems are more common.

A one-party system is a system in which one political party dominates the entire political landscape, controlling all facets of the government, and is the only party to appear on election ballots. A good example of a single-party system in action is China. There are benefits and drawbacks to this system. One benefit is that it allows for long-term policy and infrastructure programs as the party will have control over the house for a long time and not be hindered by opposition. For example, the Chinese legislature has 30 extremely large infrastructure projects in the past 10 years, such as the Baltic Pearl Project, a $1.3 billion foreign investment project to build public housing in Russia. This is a benefit for the party in control, as the legislative section of the branch is controlled by one party that always has a majority. However, one of the drawbacks of this system is that since one party can has no opposition and can pass laws very quickly, there are often no checks on power. Another problem this system presents is that one party does not necessarily represent the needs of all of the people, and minorities are regularly underrepresented. This type of system has been incredibly common in the past in fascist or communist states, where the use of a one party system gives the illusion of democracy. People think that they are participating democratically, but the fact that there is only one party means that democracy is not possible.

A two-party system is a system where two political parties collectively dominate the entire government. These two parties are the only parties that will ever have a chance to be elected, because alternative parties do not hold enough support within the electorate. A good example of this system is America, where the only parties that have had an effective majority in any part of the government during the past 150 years are the Democratic party and the Republican party. This system has some benefits and drawbacks as well. The benefits are that the system will often be partially controlled by both parties, making sure that there are checks and balances to power. No party can swiftly pass legislation that violates human rights or abuses power, because the other party will keep them in check. In theory, it allows for collaboration on both sides of the political spectrum. In practice, it often polarizes the country, with both sides working to win over voters as opposed to collaborating. With one enemy to overcome, there is no need for collaboration. For example, since the 1960s, America has been divided in its two party system. During Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, the Republican-controlled Senate blocked almost every single law that he proposed. The same happened to President Barack Obama, such as when his Supreme Court justice nomination Merrick Garland was blocked. The newly-elected Democratic House of Representatives is likely going to do the same for President Trump. A one-party system and a two-party system also share some similar drawbacks. If a group’s political needs are not being addressed by the two parties, then they will need to seek alternative methods. This often leads to the parties themselves being divided into factions, as is currently seen in the Republican party. The Republicans are currently divided between centre-right free market candidates and hard-right anti-immigration candidates, like the Tea Party. Occasionally, in times of great crisis, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, there can be unity between the political parties leading to extreme legislative action being taken. For example, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called a special session of Congress that lasted 100 days in which 15 major laws were passed that ended the bank panic of the 1930s. The main problem with this two party system is that often, not much gets done because collaboration between parties is often seen as unnecessary. Issues get divided down party lines,  and it becomes more important to deny the other party a victory than to actually make a difference in the country. However, for some, this drawback is the main appeal of this system. For those who believe that the role of a federal government should be limited to law enforcement and the military, this is the perfect system. It presents the people with a system that represents most people within that system, but the nature of the system means that not much will get done.

A multi-party system is where multiple parties, usually 6 or 7, collectively control all chambers of the government, each one holding enough seats to carry weight. This is a common system in almost all of Europe, where big countries such as England, Germany and France all have multi-party systems. This type of system has many benefits. First, a multi-party system encourages collaboration between different parts of the political spectrum as otherwise, nothing would get done. For example, for the past decade in Germany, a centre-right party called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has formed a coalition with a centre-left party, the Social Democrats of Germany (SPD). In those ten years, Germany has enjoyed a stable political system, marked by few protests or riots. Many laws have been passed, leading to social and economic growth in Germany, bringing it out of the great recession of 2008 and making it once again a global power. Since there are more than two parties, almost everyone has a voice in their political system. For example, in France, there are six parties with enough seats in the House of Representatives to have influence. La République En Marche (REM), a party in the middle of the political spectrum, often works and collaborates with the Republicans (LR), a centre-right political party, and with the Socialist Party (PS), a centre-left political party, to pass laws that they all agree on. The Socialist Party, the Republicans and the Republique en Marche have collaborated with La France Insoumise (FL), a left-wing, environment-focused party, and the Democratic Movement (MoDem), a centre-right party on specific occasions. The Socialist Party has on occasion collaborated with both La France Insoumise and the Communist party of France, a hard-left party, to pass more left-wing legislation. All of these parties, each representing starkly different political views, all collaborate with each other to achieve real change in their countries on the issues that they all have similar views on. In successful multi-party systems, laws are passed at a rate unachievable by a two-party system. Also, if a party is bogged down by scandal or has not provided for their constituents, then that party can be dissolved. They can be elected out of the discourse. It is even possible for an individual to establish their own political party if they feel unrepresented, which is infinitely more difficult in one or two-party systems. However, despite the many success stories, there have been occasions where collaboration between political parties has not happened and nothing has gotten done, even during times of crisis. This often happens when there are three or four parties with enough seats in the legislature to hold any power. Also, the fact that collaboration is necessary for the success of a multi-party system means that it is sometimes impossible to push any single political belief if it is not supported by any other party.

George Washington once said, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”  Despite his warning, American politics quickly embraced the two-party system with all of its benefits and drawbacks. It is unlikely that this system will change in the near future. However, regardless of whether a country supports a one-party, two-party, or multi-party system, the end goal ought to be the creation of a healthy, functioning government that represents the needs of all of its citizens equally.


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