Abandoning median voters dooms U.S. two-party system

Credit: Lisa Qian/ Credit: Lisa Qian/
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Editor’s note: this is part three of The Pragmatist’s Manifesto. This weekly column encourages civil discussion about politics in the U.S. Find previous installments @

Up to this point in my four-part defense of the two-party system, we have covered our modern media divide and a large piece of early American history. For those of you just tuning in, I will sum it up. Even though the Founding Fathers may have preferred to not have partisan divisions, the system they built in the Constitution lent itself to functioning best with two parties. Fast forward to the present day, and our access to a broad spectrum of media has entrenched people in their beliefs. This has hampered our society’s ability to compromise, a critical component of American governance in a two-party system.

For our entire lives, fellow students, we have only known one kind of politics: that of zero-sum. It is win or lose. Today, we are going to analyze how we have reached this unsustainable point in our political culture by looking back at the last 50 years of history and the factors that brought us to this election. This will include an exploration of a key principle for this argument: the Median Voter Theorem.

In the early part of the 20th century, it was the Republicans who had the support of black voters (you know, because of the whole ending slavery thing). Democrats kept those southern voters who helped elect Woodrow Wilson in 1912. After the Great Depression and WWII, however, the fight for civil rights came to the forefront with the election of 1948 and the emergence of the States’ Rights Democratic Party.
The 1948 Democratic convention saw northern Democrats fight to adopt a plank that endorsed Democratic President Truman’s pro-civil rights agenda. Several southern states’ delegations walked out of the convention to form their own third party (around this single issue), and ran Strom Thurmond for President. These Southern Democrats became known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or the “Dixiecrats.”

In the end, Truman won in a stunning upset over Republican Thomas Dewey. He did this even with Thurmond winning four southern states. But the Dixiecrats weren’t finished.

Through two Dwight Eisenhower routs of Democrat Adlai Stevenson and eight years of his Republican administration, the civil rights movement gained steam, especially with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Then came one of the most tense elections in our history: 1960.

Democrat John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Republican Richard Nixon while holding off another anti-civil rights insurrection from the Dixiecrats. Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat, received several electoral votes despite not actually running for President.

After Kennedy’s assassination and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Dixiecrats began to defect from the party. This is the beginning of the current divisions we know today. In the 1964 election, Johnson completely routed the GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater, who won only six states, five of which were in the deep south, traditionally Democratic states. Then the 1965 Voting Rights Act dismantled the Jim Crow laws of the south, causing even more Dixiecrats to defect to the Republican banner.

The 1968 election has incredible parallels to our current dilemma, which will be discussed at length next week. Nixon took up the cause of “Law and Order” (sound familiar?). Thus was born the “Southern Strategy” to attract southern whites to the GOP, and we have seen how this is a core platform of the Republican Party today.

Nixon also criticized the Johnson administration’s handling of the Vietnam War. It was the war that led Johnson to decide not to run for re-election. Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, who had been nominated after not running in the primaries. One can imagine why many on the left were not excited about Humphrey, who was associated with Johnson’s unpopular war. This election cycle saw the Dixiecrats rebel once again in the form of Mr. Segregation, George Wallace, and the “American Independent Party.”

Wallace used a law and order narrative similar to Nixon’s, except he did not expect to win the election. He used his third party to attempt to prevent either party from achieving a majority in the Electoral College, making him the kingmaker when the House of Representatives would vote for President. This strategy failed however, and Nixon won. Wallace’s voters would flock to Nixon for his landslide reelection in 1972. Those segregationists, some of whom are still alive, found their home in the Republican Party for good.

After the Watergate scandal and Republican President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, Democrat Jimmy Carter won the election in 1976. Republican Ronald Reagan ascended to the White House by winning the 1980 election. Reagan incorporated religious conservatives into his coalition. These religious conservatives still form a block of the current GOP. It should be noted that Reagan managed to make compromises with the minority Democrats to pass laws on immigration and gun reform. We will return to how this sense of pragmatism disappeared.

The next three elections saw Republican landslides. This can be attributed to not only poor campaigns from the Democrats who ran against Reagan and Bush, but also from the general shift of ideology of the American electorate. The 1960’s and 70’s saw a shift to the left in Johnson’s Great Society programs, but the counter-movement to this was a shift to conservatism in the 1980’s. This is all extremely simplified, but can be illustrated using the Median Voter Theorem.

For the record, I am not a math major; in this portion of defending the two-party system, I have tapped the wisdom of Carnegie Mellon Math professor Mary Radcliffe for an explanation. The Median Voter Theorem follows the logic that two main parties in a country will want to appease the most number of voters by appealing to a median voter. They don’t need to hit the precise middle of the political spectrum, but a point that covers a majority of the electorate.

The basic model of the theorem puts all voters only on one dimension; for all intents and purposes, we will imagine it in two. If you are given an xy axis, and set one axis as a personal freedom preference, and one as an economic freedom preference, you can put Liberal, Statist, Conservative, and Libertarian in four quadrants with a centrist section in the middle. By using data guaging opinions from major voter blocks, we can plot points of the preferences of large numbers of American voters. The Pew Research Survey, that analyzes where you stand on the political spectrum, breaks the population down into seven major groups: Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Young Outsiders, Hard-Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Solid Liberals.

Putting these voting groups’ preferences on a graph shows where candidates should stand on certain issues to have the support of the broadest coalition. Multiple parties would put smaller voter blocks in constant conflict as these narrower minded parties would have trouble forming effective coalitions. If a candidate in a two-party system can achieve a majority coalition, it ideally ensures that the party that wins the election represents the majority of the people. One can also plot candidates individually and find from where they form their coalitions and how far they are from the ideal position on the spectrum.

The preferences of major blocks can also change over periods of time, causing shifts in the entire electorate. Moving back toward our historical discussion, we can imagine that the median voter shifted from the left to the right from the 1960’s to the 80’s, causing the GOP to more easily garner a large coalition. In response, the Democrats rebranded many of their ideals toward the center, culminating in the election of the center-left Bill Clinton in 1992. The electorate had shifted back to the left.

Skipping forward, the election of 2000 may have been one of the most disruptive elections of our history. Another third party, led by Ralph Nader, disrupted the two-party balance and threw the election toward Republican George W. Bush, who won the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote after a month-long legal dispute about a Florida recount in the Supreme Court. Despite the shift to the left, we now had a Republican president.

Having reached the Bush era, we have now passed the point discussed last week when media sources started to arise that were further apart ideologically than ever before. Our politics started to enter an era of intense partisanship; compromise fell to the wayside in favor of obstructionism. This only intensified with the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

As we discussed in the beginning of this article, the current GOP coalition includes voters that supported segregation just a few decades prior. From their perspective, the election of the first black man signified that they had lost a long battle. Now I am not insinuating that the GOP is mainly made up of these voters, but sometimes they become the loudest voices in the room defining the image of a party. The GOP took up obstructionism with the sworn promise to make Obama a one-term president. It helped create the least productive Congresses ever, and by far. These policies of hindrance that both parties have taken part in rather than active governance have greatly intensified the partisan divide.

We are now at a breaking point. The Constitution designed by the founders favors two major parties; the government cannot adequately function if rivals don’t make compromises. Broad coalitions that appeal to the most voters can achieve progress, albeit at a measured pace. Our two-party system is the most effective way to continue that pace, yet it is faltering under the weight of obstructionism. In such a large country as ours, anything too extreme on either side may be harmful to our republic.