Very Short Introductions: American Political Parties and Elections
By Kirsty OUP-UK
It’s time for the second of OUP blog’s new monthly Very Short Introductions columns. This month I spoke to L. Sandy Maisel, author of American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction. Professor Maisel teaches at Colby College, Maine, and has written extensively on the American political system.
OUP: The US has a strictly two party system, in contrast to many European countries, which generally have multi-party systems. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this, and could America ever have a multi-party system?
L. Sandy Maisel: The easier question to answer is the second. It would be very difficult for the U.S. to have a multi-party system; many basic laws would require changing. For instance, most American elections are run in single-member districts, with only one winner. This system encourages two parties; systems in which more than one representative is elected at the same time, often by proportional representation, encourage multi-party systems. Similarly, our system with separation of powers and a single executive, a President chosen independently, encourages a two-party system. There is one big prize to shoot for, nor compromising with positions in the cabinets to those who contribute to winning coalitions. Changing either of these basic aspects of our institutional framework would be very different.
How one catalogues the advantages and disadvantages of a two-party system compared to a multi-party system depends on one’s values. Let me give some examples. A two-party system creates umbrella parties, in which party members are trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of the population, but most citizens like some of what one party stands for and some of the other. A multi-party system makes it more likely that citizens will find a party that is “right” for them—but then governing involves compromising among factions in a legislature. Some would see each of those variations as advantageous, others disadvantageous. In a two-party system, compromising is often done within one party; in a multi-party system, it is often done between or among parties. Which is better depends on an individual’s point of view.
OUP: Why is it that participation in elections in the US is much lower than in many mature democracies?
MAISEL: Participation in the U.S. is indeed lower than in most other mature democracies—and most Americans decry this fact. In part it is because we have too much democracy. Americans are expected to go to the polls to vote—and vote for more offices when they do so—than is generally the case elsewhere in the world. If all Americans elections were held on one day, more people would turn out to vote. But such a reform also has negative consequences. If all elections were held on one day, few people would pay attention to elections lower down on the ballot. Local concerns would be less well represented.
In many countries Election Day is a holiday; it is not in the United States. Declaring Election Day as a holiday—or voting on Sunday as is done in some nations—might well increase turnout. However, others argue that turnout would not go up, because citizens would go away from home and not bother to vote. I believe a reform like this would increase turnout; it would cost businesses some money—paying overtime to those who work on a holiday—but I think that is a small price to pay for democracy.
In many states, citizens must register to vote at a different time and in a different place than where they actually cast their ballots. Without question, this kind of requirement suppresses turnout. I favour reforms that make it easier to vote—same day registration in the same spot, easy access to polling places over an extended period of time, early voting, eased absentee voting, even voting by mail. Each of these is used in some locales and in some states, but election laws in the United States are set by state and local government—as specified in the Constitution—so far-reaching change is difficult to achieve.
OUP: You say in your book that the American election process disproportionately favours incumbents. Can you briefly explain the reasons for this?
MAISEL: Incumbents have a number of advantages that challengers find difficult to overcome. First, and this seems obvious but is more important than many realize, they are good politicians who have built campaign organizations that have proven they can win. So, you start with a good candidate. Then the incumbent has had at least one full term—and often many more—to build name recognition in his or her district and to do good things for his or her constituents. When an officeholder is responsible for a project in a district or for an important bill being passed, he or she claims credit for it. The result is not just name recognition, but positive name recognition. Incumbents communicate with their constituents in a variety of ways—newsletters, television interviews, town meetings, speeches in the district, a government-sponsored website. All of these communications reinforce the positive image. Challengers must find a way to dent that. Third, incumbents have a much easier time raising campaign funds than do challengers—because they know how to do it, because they have a base of supporters, and because potential contributors think they will win and will be able to deliver on their promises. Again, challengers have to overcome this disadvantage. And finally, because of all of these and other reasons, incumbents often face weak challengers—because strong candidates think they will lose and choose not to run. Put this all together and—barring a personal scandal or a major partisan swing because of a highly salient issue that divides the parties—most incumbents gain re-election.
OUP: How has the 2000 election controversy impacted on elections and the political system?
MAISEL: Two ways stand out. First, people realize that individual votes might really count. This has led more people to come to the polls, and, I believe, has demonstrated for many citizens that voting for a third party candidate can lead to the election of the person one actually favours least. Second, the Congress and various groups have looked into reforming the actual election process—what the ballots look like, how they are counted, etc. While this has not gone as far as many people think it should go, progress has been made on providing simple, non-confusing ballots with a clear paper trail. More remains to be done.
OUP: Once people have read your American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction, which five books would you recommend for further reading?
MAISEL: Too hard to say. There is another great new book in the VSI series on the American Presidency by Charles O. Jones. Those who want to know about the United States government should certainly look at that. I would also recommend one of the books on a particular American election. If one is interested in history, I would go to Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1968. Beyond that, the choices are too hard. I think my next recommendation would be Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future—not politics but fascinating reading.