“American Exceptionalism” means different things to different people.
Historically, the phrase was embraced by politicians pandering to voters’ belief in America’s superiority. We were the inventors of “freedom,” with a national “can do” spirit. “Exceptionalism” was a nicer word than “best,” a way to proclaim that we were Number One.
The dictionary definition of exceptional is neither positive nor negative: one can be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. It simply denotes something unusual or atypical. One way that America’s political structure is definitely atypical is our two-party system, and as a recent post to FiveThirtyEight makes clear, that bit of exceptionalism is a significant source of the country’s current dysfunction.
The post begins by reiterating what is obvious to anyone who follows American politics:
As the “Big Lie” of a stolen election continues to dominate the Republican Party, GOP-controlled states enact restrictive voting laws and pursue preposterous election audits, aspiring candidates embrace the fiction of a stolen 2020 election, and a majority of GOP voters still believe Trump is the “true president,” the obvious questions follow: Where is this all headed? And is there any way out?
In one telling, the Republican Party will eventually come back to its senses and move past former President Donald Trump and Trumpist grievance politics, especially if Republicans lose a few elections in a row and realize that it’s a losing strategy. But there’s another possible outcome: More contested elections, more violence and, ultimately, a collapse into competitive authoritarianism enabled by electoral advantages that tilt in one party’s favor.
The post, by political scientist Lee Drutman, refers to historical patterns of democratic decline , and attributes the “cracking of the foundation of American democracy” to hyper-polarization. That polarization has given us a political environment within which one party can break democratic norms with impunity– because, as he notes, winning in the short term has become more important than maintaining democracy for the long term.
Drutman says that the hyper-polarization that threatens us is–to a significant extent– a product of the two-party system.
There’s no shortage of plausible explanations for why U.S. politics has become so polarized, but many of these theories describe impossible-to-reverse trends that have played out across developed democracies, like the rise of social media and the increased political salience of globalization, immigration and urban-rural cultural divides. All of these trends are important contributors, for sure. But if they alone are driving illiberalism and hyper-partisanship in the U.S., then the problem should be consistent across all western democracies. But it isn’t.
Drutman points to four ways in which America’s polarization is different from–and arguably more dangerous than–that of other countries (I encourage you to click through and evaluate that analysis for yourselves) and notes that in other countries where two parties dominate its politics, populations also display more unfavorable feelings toward the political opposition than populations in multi-party democracies.
In fact, in a new book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” another team of scholars, Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne, shows that citizens in majoritarian democracies with less proportional representation dislike both their own parties and opposing parties more than citizens in multiparty democracies with more proportional representation.
This pattern may have something to do with the shifting politics of coalition formation in proportional democracies, where few political enemies are ever permanent (e.g., the unlikely new governing coalition in Israel). This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity. Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the U.S.
Even the urban-rural split, which can be seen globally, is substantially less binary in proportional systems, partly because multiple parties can still win seats in geographically unfriendly areas, resulting in coalition governments with both urban and rural representation.
But it’s not just the lack of a stark urban-rural divide. As Drutman points out, there isn’t a strategic benefit to demonizing the opposition in an election that has more than two parties.
In a multiparty election, taking down one party might not necessarily help you. After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash. And because parties can take stronger positions and appeal more directly to voters on policy, there’s less need to rally your supporters by talking about how terrible and dangerous the other party is. Moreover, in systems where parties form governing coalitions, demonizing a side you’ve recently been in a coalition with (or hope to be in the future) doesn’t ring quite as true.
Can the U.S. change its political system to be more proportional? Unlikely. After all, today’s Republicans aren’t even willing to support the right of their opponents to vote….