Talking Points

A 5-party thought experiment

Electoral systems matter. But how much?

That question comes to mind in reviewing the fascinating results of a new poll by Echelon Insights that examines the American electorate in the wake of the 2020 election. It hits with special force in the poll's experiment with gauging support for a larger number of parties. (See question 18 here.)

The pollsters offered respondents five parties to choose from:

  • An economically liberal labor party, which was chosen by 26 percent
  • A nationalist "America First" party, which was chosen by 24 percent
  • A Reaganite conservative party, which was chosen by 19 percent
  • A socially and economically libertarian party, which was chosen by 10 percent
  • A more radically left-leaning green party, which was chosen by 9 percent

(A total of 12 percent were unsure where to place themselves in any of the parties.)

On one level, it's easy to see how this could indicate that electoral systems matter very little. The current GOP is a combination of the nationalist and Reaganite parties with 43 percent, while the Democrats are a combination of the other three with 45 percent. If we imagine those parties gravitating to one another in governing coalitions under a proportional system of government, very little would change from the status quo — though divvying up Cabinet positions among the parties in the respective coalitions could certainly lead to ... interesting results. (Imagine Health and Human Services led by a member of the conservative party, or the Labor Department headed up by a member of the green party.)

But who's to say those partisan configurations would cohere as they do today? In the rank ordering revealed by the poll, the parties to earn the most "votes" were the Biden-like labor party and the Trumpian nationalist party. Is it conceivable that such a combination could form a governing coalition, leaving out the Reaganite conservatives, the consistent libertarians, and the environmentally focused leftists? If not, might either labor or the nationalists be able to work together with two or more of the other parties in an ideological and policy blend unthinkable in our current two-party, first-past-the-post electoral system?

We'll probably never get a chance to test it in the real world. But running that thought experiment in our heads sure can be fruitful and fun.