Home > Politics (general) > The three party system (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The three party system (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

March 3rd, 2016

Warning: Amateur political analysis ahead. I posted this on Crooked Timber a few days ago. It isn’t as applicable to Australia. In part, I think, this is because Rudd (along with Henry and Swan) saved us from the GFC with Keynesian policies, but then failed to defend them, leaving the advocates of market liberal reform largely unchallenged.

Looking at the way politics has evolved over the past 25 years or so, in the English-speaking world and beyond, I have developed an analysis which is certainly not original, but which I haven’t seen set down in exactly the way I would like. Here’s the shorter version:

There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.

Now the longer version

First some definitions. Taking the three groups in reverse order, I’m using leftism as broadly as possible to encompass greens, feminist, social democrats, old-style US liberals, as well as those who would consciously embrace the label “Left”. Broadly speaking, this encompasses anyone critical of the current economic and social order on the grounds that is unfair, unequal and environmentally destructive.

Neoliberalism is mostly used to mean one thing in the US (former liberals who have embraced some version of Third Way politics, most notably Bill Clinton) and something related, but different, everywhere else (market liberals dedicated to dismantling the social democratic welfare state, most notably Margaret Thatcher). Here I’m using it to cover both versions, which I’ll call soft and hard. The central theme is the inevitability and desirability of a globalised capitalism, dominated by the financial sector. The difference between the two versions turns essentially on whether this requires destruction of the welfare state or merely “reform”, along the lines undertaken by the Clinton Administration.

Finally, tribalism is politics based on affirmation of some group identity against others. While there are as many tribalisms as there are tribes, the most politically potent form, and the relevant one here is that of a formerly unchallenged dominant group facing the real or perceived prospect of becoming a politically weak minority, as with white Christians in the US.

Roughly speaking, until the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberalism was the only force that mattered. The typical setup in English-speaking countries was alternation between two neoliberal parties corresponding to the two versions of neoliberalism I mentioned above. The hard neoliberal (in the US, the Republicans) relied on the votes of (white Christian) tribalists and made symbolic gestures in their direction, but largely ignored them, particularly if their interests came into conflict with those of big business. The soft neoliberals (in the US, the New Democrats) relied on the willingness of leftists to support them as “the lesser evil”.

The GFC discredited neoliberalism in both its forms, but still left neoliberals holding all the positions of power in the political and economic system. But the erosion of support for both hard and soft neoliberalism has made the maintenance of the neoliberal duopoly more difficult. On the right, Trump has shown that the tribalist vote can be mobilised more successfully if it is unmoored from the Wall Street agenda of orthodox rightwing Republicans like Cruz. On the left, Sanders has not done quite so well, but has certainly forced Hillary Clinton to distance herself from her Wall Street backers.

Internationally, tribalism has gained ground nearly everywhere, mostly at the expense of the soft neoliberalism represented most notably by Blair. Soft neoliberals have also lost ground to the left, most obviously with the election of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and the rise of left parties like Syriza and Podemos at the expense of PASOK and PSOE.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear. In part this reflects the Condorcet problem: with three alternatives, that can’t be neatly arrayed on a right-left spectrum, there is no stable outcome.

But the more fundamental problem is that none of the competing forces has an obviously compelling solution to the problems we face. Neoliberalism has manifestly failed to deliver the prosperity promised by triumphalists like Thomas Friedman in the 1990s. Tribalism is already a lost cause, given the massive migrations that have already taken place, and can at most be slowed in the future. The left needs to rebuild institutions and policies that have been in retreat for decades.

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  1. Geoff Edwards
    March 3rd, 2016 at 06:57 | #1

    Good Prof John. A few qualifications.

    1. “…neoliberalism was the only force that mattered.” In Australia, this arguably would be only from the 1980s onwards, not before Hawke and Keating. An optional date could be even be assigned to it: the date in 1983 when the senior executive service was established in Canberra with new managerialist selection criteria; or alternatively Bastille Day in 1987 when the federal departments were restructured by Hawke and Keating so that the central agencies dominated the line agencies and economic rationalist thinking dominated the senior ranks of the public service.

    2. Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctine is a good exponent of the observation that hard neoliberalism is based upon destruction of civic institutions.

    3. The public in Australia at least has never been convinced of the merits of the neoliberal project. The project has been introduced through capture of positions of influence. This is the colossal failure of the Left and the environmental movement since the mid 1980s, that they have argued causes instead of ensuring their representation in the corridors of power.

    4. “…none … has an obviously compelling solution to the problems we face”. On the one hand, no, the sustainability literature, both scholarly and popular, is replete with solutions and initiatives that would lead us to a more human-friendly society. However, on the other hand I agree that this literature is inadequate for transitioning from the present situation to a more benign future without colossal unemployment and disruption. Partly this is because this literature is weak in (heterodox) economics.

    5. For this reason, the best way forward is probably an incremental one. Despite the capture of both major parties by neoliberal thinking, in Australia at least the ingredients of a more leftist administration are still lying around. Thirty years of free trade policies that have wound down self-sufficiency will make a transition difficult.

    6. In the USA, it is more difficult to make this argument and it seems as though their society is on the cusp of pulling itself to pieces . Not because of the recent tribalism on display, but because of long-standing inability of their system of government to govern in the public interest or even to portray a credible picture of what that might mean. Empires fall from time to time.

  2. Geoff Edwards
    March 3rd, 2016 at 07:03 | #2

    I should add that the environmental crisis (of which climate change is just one manifestation) will impose its own context for reform. Although I have argued above for an incremental change, that argument is grounded in our current institutional framework. The breakdown of natural ecological systems is accelerating and will overtake cautious reform. There isn’t a time for a gentle transition but we don’t have a roadmap for an urgent one, so the environmental changes will overtake events.

  3. Ikonoclast
    March 3rd, 2016 at 08:08 | #3

    What we are seeing is the failure of representative democracy. It is failing because it is not nearly democratic enough. Representative democracy is a very limited form of democracy and it is exceedingly corruptible, being open to improper influence and bribery from the plutocratic class. Our current historical pass seems to me as significant as that time when power began to pass from monarchs to parliaments. Now, power is passing from parliaments to corporations and plutocrats… unless we change that trend.

    The only way forward and to avoid the fate of corporatocracy and plutocracy is to complete the democratic revolution. It is bizarre that we call ourselves democratic when we have one election every three or four years for “representatives”; for those people who get bought off by corporate and plutocratic money and who do not act for ordinary people. Every day when people go to work, they live and work under autocratic power in the workplace. Corporations, companies, businesses and government departments are all autocracies. People spend a large and important part of their life at work and there they under autocratic power. No such society can call itself democratic in any true sense.

    Outside of workplaces, people are under a form of plutocratic power. Their lives and choices are dictated by their possession or lack thereof of money. What might be regarded as the free sphere of life (private life) is not free at all because it is everywhere and always under the rule of money. Every decision, every option or lack of options is conditioned by possession or lack of money. Our society is neither democratic nor free.

    The only way forward is to initiate full workplace democracy. Workers must own and manage their workplaces. Workers must vote on all overall decisions in their workplaces, retaining administrators (who after all are workers) but removing managers. Worker cooperatives or collectives do work. There are working examples in many countries including even the USA. The general experience is that worker wages are double or treble the wages in a capitalist enterprise and these collectives do compete successfully. The workers also successfully manage these enterprises without non-working owners. What is holding us back are mental and institutional barriers. The latter, very importantly, privilege the current system of ownership and especially corporate monopoly and make it very difficult for genuine cooperative forms to arise.

    We will never have democracy until we have democracy in the workplace. I could lay out how this would work, by repeating the ideas of others, and enumerate the very real difficulties it still would face, as the world will never be a utopia, but this thread is not the place. It might be worth people having a read of “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism” – Richard D. Wolff.

  4. Alan Grieve
    March 3rd, 2016 at 08:12 | #4

    I would add that majoritarian electoral systems are peculiarly vulnerable to neoliberal capture. Neoliberalism (governments of both sides that campaigned left and then governed right) is a large part of the reason that NZ changed to PR. Governments based in our majoritarian house of representatives generally become mildly hysterical dealing with our PR senate. The US and UK, neoliberalism’s Vaticans, are both dominated by single member winner take all politics grounded in FPTP.

  5. Garry Claridge
    March 3rd, 2016 at 08:21 | #5

    I like your definition explanation: “… this encompasses anyone critical of the current economic and social order on the grounds that is unfair, unequal and environmentally destructive.”

    Mind if I reuse it? 🙂

  6. Jim Birch
    March 3rd, 2016 at 09:33 | #6

    That’s a recipe for disaster. Government decisions need to be taken on the best information, a long term view, while avoiding emotional reactions and the latest fashionable memes. That’s not how people work. Choosing and executing state policy is a highly technical activity which is largely opaque to the average voter. Government of large sophisticated states is actually a highly unnatural activity for great apes, as is democracy. We have not evolved to do it well. We don’t do it well. It relies on training, habituating and enforcing people to think and cooperate, against their natural proclivities. And it relies on experts making decisions that people can’t, won’t or don’t have the time to understand.

    If democracy was going to work like your Manichean fairy tale it would have already done so. Sadly, there is nothing preventing voters from electing good quality politicians except themselves. (In Australia at least) populist politicians with bad policies don’t elect themselves, voters do.

  7. Ivor
    March 3rd, 2016 at 09:34 | #7

    Three parties are only a problem if you have a weak electoral system.

    With a proper system of preferential voting a stable outcome will always emerge. If it dosen’t with three or more – then it would not have emerged if there were only two.

    The Robsen rotation eliminates the donkey vote.

    The problem for neoliberals is not the elctoral system or their neoliberalism – but the reality of their capitalism and some dozen past decades of voodoo economics.

  8. Ivor
    March 3rd, 2016 at 09:39 | #8

    @Jim Birch

    You have not thought through these issues properly.

  9. alexw
    March 3rd, 2016 at 11:14 | #9

    @ikonoclast i 100% agree and would only add, that technology has now made possible what was previously impossible, that is detailed involvement of all citizens in decision making. The sort of brainpower that is needed to make good decisions quickly can be really helped with social technology, something to realise a new kind of massive group mind. I mean it already does happen in a fragmentary way online – ideas are worked up in places like this blog – but it’s not connected directly into the rooms where power is held. Making that connection would change everything. Could unleash some crazy stuff though, the internet is full of shouty people, would have to have safeguards of some kind, maybe work towards AI moderation..?

  10. alexw
    March 3rd, 2016 at 11:16 | #10

    One question – of the three groups – which one is the more rational?

  11. Newtownian
    March 3rd, 2016 at 11:37 | #11

    The left needs to rebuild institutions and policies that have been in retreat for decades.


    The only way forward is to initiate full workplace democracy. Workers must own and manage their workplaces. Workers must vote on all overall decisions in their workplaces, retaining administrators (who after all are workers) but removing managers.


    Agreed a new agenda is needed.

    But I have to say regarding these two alternatives……return to the past…..or return to past dreams…..I am a tad underwhelmed, not by the intent as by the realities needing to be addressed.

    On the first proposal the fact is the rich are now ensconced, they wont give up power because they believe their own mythology pathetic as Ayn Rand was, and they dont give a stuff about the rest of us as evidenced by

    this piece and this piece from the Independent.

    Put simply the rich will oppose with all their might, power and influence any movement toward redistribution needed to rebuild the Keynesian dreamtime. And for the time being most of them remember the 1945 to 1975 and they arent about to change their mind on that.

    Perhaps their greed/delusion is self defeating as Robert Reich suggests but their priorization says it all to me noting the environment which they depend on is barely supported in their priority list and world peace and elimination of poverty dont even rate. We are dealing with control freaks and narcissists who are not open to reason.

    Separately there is another problem with returning to the past. The world has changed and the interconnectedness makes such things as Keynesian social democratic Fortress Australia even less realistic than it was in the past when Jack Lang tried to separate us from a previous generation of bloodsuckers.

    But what about uniting the workers in coops etc. Three observations here:
    1. You need to start with the material/human resource you find. Unfortunately we arguably have created a society of narcissists the exact opposite to what is needed… see here for example. How we are to change the hearts and minds beats me.

    2. The cooperative approach has been tried in the past and it can work and spirit of the collective is indeed a remarkable thing to behold or be part of. However for all those examples thrown up like the early Kibbutzes there are many more disasters or failures to follow through.

    3. Probably the most successful sustainable collectives have been those based on religion/hierarchy like Stalinist Russia or the Scientologists. Maybe 50 Socialist theory based nations emerged during the 20th Century but not one of them evolved into a democratic collective that I am aware of.

    Thus to date I dont see a sustainable model for reliably creating democratic collectives as envisaged.

    Conversely like many I can remember back to the simplest of collective systems with potential for being democratic …… the share house. Sometimes it worked and was great. But this required avoidance of members without the same perspective and invariably those houses degenerated too.

    Fascinatingly the last 20 years has seen neoliberal cynics exploit the messiness of collectives through the vehicle of reality TV shows. Now there is of course a degree of manipulation by the producers but that is precisely the point. They seem to show people are neither automatically good or bad and unless a new system for sustaining a socially (and ecologically) sustainable social dynamic is found things wont change much.

    Next beyond the workers collective is the problem of scale. How are small collectives to interact and compete for resources on scales going from suburb to region to state to nation to regional to global. Anarchosyndalist collectives may work where small is beautiful but how to humans interact on all these other scales? We are back to the same problems of destructive competition.

    A final nail in the collectivist dream coffin is the model offered by non human ecology as seen on David Attenborough. Evolution/change (to miquote Heraclitus) is the only constant. Everything else is up for grab/change and any system can evolve with the possible exception of a democratic collective which doesnt seem to occur in the animal world. The rule seems to be hierarchy maintained by a pheromones.

    I reiteracte I am supportive of and have seen the remarkable efficiency of collectives and their ability to support all members. But moving beyond dreams and motherhood aspirations is another matter.

  12. Moz of Yarramulla
    March 3rd, 2016 at 12:41 | #12

    If we had some kind of efficient voting system so that everyone could vote on every government decision that would only be the first, easiest step.

    Jim Birch :
    Choosing and executing state policy is a highly technical activity which is largely opaque to the average voter.

    This I agree with. How is government the one thing in society where expertise is irrelevant? I want to be governed by people who have time to think about issues, and are advised by people chosen specifically to advise them. When some idiot suggested I get involved with politics I just said “when? When do I fit that into my already-full life?”

    Expecting every citizen to sit down at some point in the week and devote even four hours to the business of governing is unrealistic – most of them struggle to find four hours every year to vote in an election. But four hours is not even enough time to understand a single, simple issue. “Should parliament use single ply or double ply toilet tissue?”. Great, a couple of hundred words should be enough to summarise the issues and a couple of minutes thought will allow people to decide.

    Now think about a more complex decision. “Should Australia sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership?” To start with, here’s 10,000 pages of briefing notes, drafts of various parts, and a rough description of who is involved in the treaty. Now add the explanatory notes, briefings on the various participants, a description of what’s been agreed so far, some historical analysis of why that’s been agreed, and some preparatory notes on what’s likely to happen for various decisions each voter could support. Call that another 20,000 pages. Don’t forget to add all the forecasts of consequences, analysis of those forecasts, claims and counter-claims about the forecasts and popular dissections of the claims. Easily 10,000 pages. Now, I read fast, and I already understand much of the context, so at ~100 pages an hour that 40k pages is 400 hours just to read. The average reader is lucky to be half that fast.

    Ten weeks full time reading. Plus time to think, digest and discuss. For *one* decision.

    If everyone in Australia did that we’d lose a year of everything while half the population worked to support the other half while they did that, then everyone swapped roles.

  13. Moz of Yarramulla
    March 3rd, 2016 at 12:54 | #13

    the Condorcet problem: with three alternatives, that can’t be neatly arrayed on a right-left spectrum, there is no stable outcome.

    Doesn’t Australia have four formal “sides”: the agrarian socialists, the hard-neoliberal/christian/business alliance, the unions, and the greens? That doesn’t make things more stable, but it does perhaps suggest better tools to analyse the situation. I’m quite fond of the “political compass” idea, with three axes: left-right, anarchist-authoritarian, green-brown, although in Australia assuming most politicians are central on the authoritarian scale is normally reasonable so you could use social/neolib to focus on that aspect.

    That way you can drop Ferguson and Bullock into the left/neolib/brown side, Abbott somewhere off the edge of the right/neolib/brown fringe, Plibersek and Albanese into the left/social/brown side up against Jim Casey in the left/social/green corner.

    It means you’re considering more factors when you “balance” things, but it also helps explain the “shifting alliances” when groups find ways to work together, rather than getting stuck in tribalist babble when the Liberals decide to support the Greens on senate reform.

  14. Tom Davies
    March 3rd, 2016 at 13:55 | #14

    @alexw The politicians representing those groups are more rational than their members, and the detailed involvement of citizens in (national) decision making would get us worse decisions. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/03/myth_of_the_rat_9.html

  15. Bob
    March 3rd, 2016 at 14:40 | #15

    Brilliant post! Questions based on my own confusion: 1) Not sure I can exactly state the difference between “soft neoliberal” and what one might call “soft left” (Bernie Sanders, perhaps?) – is there a clear line or is this a gray area, as it seems at first glance?; 2) I just read Amanda Taub’s brilliant Vox.com piece on the “authoritarian” personality in American politics; she explains why it is closely tied to what you call nationalism, partly in a causal way, not just as a correlation. http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism – and given that MZ twins have a .7 R on authoritarianism, I’d guess that this research has relevance outside US (although I don’t recall Taub discussing – but would be eager to hear your take).

  16. Port Moresby Pete
    March 3rd, 2016 at 17:59 | #16

    Interesting discussion.

    Here’s a slight different analysis that focuses on the US context, and the rise of Trump in particular. The key term is ‘authoritarianism”. The term is familiar and has long been considered discredited. It seems to have undergone a recent academic resurgence.


    To me, the analysis in part looks related to the work of George Lakoff on the cultural-cognitive frames underlying US political culture, juxtaposing the ‘nurturing parent’ (Democrats) with the ‘stern father’ (Republicans. (see http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo3637798.html)

    Interesting to consider whether either of these models apply elsewhere in the English speaking world, and how they relate to Prof Q’s categories of tribalism, neo-liberalism and leftism. The latter are more clearly ideologically/interest base; the others I have mentioned are more psychological/cognitive.

  17. sunshine
    March 3rd, 2016 at 18:09 | #17

    Prof Q ; I think yours is a very good explanation of events . Leftists would go along with it . Neolib and tribal explanations make entertaining reading.

    Bob – Bernie would take a sword to the bloated financial sector and tax the pants off the 1%ers. They must be worried about him and his millions of young supporters.

  18. Bob
    March 4th, 2016 at 01:57 | #18

    Still, it seems to me that almost any “soft neoliberal” would – in 2016 – favor, say, stricter regulation of the financial sector (e.g., higher capital requirements, risk taxes, fiduciary responsibility requirements), and higher taxes on the top 1% (Obama has effectively raised their taxes a lot). And Bernie would NOT replace private ownership of the means of production with state ownership. So where exactly does “soft neoliberal” demarcate from “soft left”? Obviously, it’s radically different from ‘hard left” in the form of outright Marxist approaches; but that’s not what confuses me. My confusion is at the point where the two orientations shade into each other. Clarification sought..

  19. John Goss
    March 4th, 2016 at 06:57 | #19

    Its actually a good thing that there is no clear boundary between the soft left and the soft neo-liberals, as it is at the fuzzy boundaries there is prospect for change. So the Labor policy on negative gearing and capital gains tax discount is a soft left policy which the ALP neo-liberals (the ALP right) have adopted. The ALP neo-liberals have adopted it for various reasons – not the least of them being the net political advantage they see from the policy, but also because some of them overlap with the soft left, so some of them see the real merits of the policy for ordinary Australians. (Whether the ALP actually implement their policy if they get into power is another question, but we in the soft left need to keep pushing so there is more chance of that happening).

  20. Ikonoclast
    March 4th, 2016 at 10:18 | #20

    Representative democracy is a system designed to prevent democracy not to deliver it. It prevents democracy precisely in order to enable capitalism. We have seen this underlying dynamic play out in the neoliberal era. To deny this is to deny the empirical evidence of the system. If we support capitalism, even the regulated capitalism of the mixed economy, our beliefs, instincts and modus operandi are anti-democratic. We do not really believe in democracy. We do not really believe in equality. We believe in selfish privilege and exploitation.

    As Chomsky says, “The System We Have Now Is Radically Anti-Democratic”.


  21. Donald Oats
    March 4th, 2016 at 17:54 | #21

    For decades now, the print media, and televised media, have been used to portray political beliefs/desires as lying along a line, a single dimensional construct. Parties have seldom mapped that way, and yet that is how it is portrayed. Questions of politic are reduced to being a dichotomy, either yes or no, black or white, left or right. When the lens itself is a false observer, how are the observees to respond to that?

    Take the ALP as an example. When examining the range of political ideas and principles that are held by its representatives, the party has a range of what are characterised as left wing beliefs/ideas/principles, but it also has a range of what are quite apparently right wing ideas too, extending beyond simple market-based capitalism and going into very religious conservative territory. Some of the most identifiably neo-liberal ideas have been enacted and cemented into place by the ALP of the 1980’s: user-pays higher education, for a start. Floating the dollar. Flogging the CBA. Ideas of ditching Telecom Australia by selling it off. Selling off public infrastructure like electricity and water distribution networks, and power generation. In reality, the ALP is neither single dimensional nor left wing: it is many things, depending upon choice of filter applied. I’d say some of the most (self-identified) right wing in the ALP would be holders of more “right wing” ideals than a big chunk of the Liberal Party.

    The Greens are not left wing in the commies under the beds sense, but because they campaign strongly on environment and social issues, that is how they are portrayed. Some of them are very comfortable with capitalist systems, but recognise the damage we cause (the environment) even as we improve the lives and wealth of people.

    The Nationals? What a mixed bag that lot are, and yet they traditionally side with the Liberal Party.

    Personally, I suspect the fallout from WW II and the beginning of the Cold War is what locked us into this two-arsed analogy of left wing through to right wing lying along a line. The most extreme left winger, when in power, is virtually indistinguishable from the most extreme right winger in power.

  22. J-D
    March 4th, 2016 at 18:02 | #22

    The United States has alternated between Democratic administrations and Republican administrations since the Republican Party was founded in 1854. The UK has alternated between Conservative-led governments and Labour-led governments since 1922. Canada has always alternated between Liberal-led and Conservative-led governments. Australia has alternated between Coalition and Labor governments since 1934. New Zealand has alternated between National-led and Labour-led governments since 1935. Ireland has alternated between Fianna-Fail-led governments and Fine-Gael-led governments since 1932.

    In some of those countries the party systems in which those patterns of binary alternation take place emerged when earlier party systems broke down. For example, the Republican Party in the United States emerged when the Whig Party disintegrated; before that, the United States alternated between Democratic administrations and Whig adminstrations. In the UK, Conservative-Labour alternation emerged as the successor to Conservative-Liberal alternation as the Liberal Party declined and the Labour Party grew.

    In none of those countries are there strong indications right now that the existing party system is about to break down in that kind of way. In the UK the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015 might have presaged something of the sort, but then Liberal Democrat support collapsed in the 2015 election. In Canada the replacement of the Liberals by the New Democratic Party as the official opposition in 2011 might have presaged something of the sort, but then the Liberals returned to government (with the Conservatives as the official opposition) in 2015.

    There’s no sense in talking about two-party systems in English-speaking countries and their possible breakdown without reference to those facts.

    There’s also no sense in talking about party systems in non-English-speaking countries and their possible breakdown without reference to the same kinds of facts. There are a number of examples in non-English-speaking countries of binary alternation similar to that just described for English-speaking countries. Germany has alternated between CDU-led governments and SPD-led governments since 1949. France has alternated between Gaullist-led governments and Socialist-led governments since 1981. Spain has alternated between PSOE governments and PP governments since 1982. Portugal has alternated between PS-led governments and PSD-led governments since 1981.

    In contrast to those patterns of binary alternation, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland have all gone through extended periods where three major parties were the keys to forming governments, with each government including two of the three while the third formed the main opposition. Italy had a long period where the same party was always the largest party and the largest party in the government, with various smaller parties going in and out of government as its allies, while the second largest party remained in opposition; but that party system broke down (and most of the parties that were part of it disintegrated or dwindled away), and there hasn’t been an equally easily described pattern in the period that has followed.

    When I talk about party systems, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: systems within which parties interact and the patterns of their interaction within that system.

    You seem to be discussing something else, something that’s not a system of parties, and calling it a ‘party system’. I find that confusing and unhelpful. To me it’s just strange to say that the party system reflects three things, two of which are not actually represented by any actual parties. The ideas of tribalism, neoliberalism, and leftism may be useful for explaining some things — maybe they’re useful for explaining lots of things — maybe they’re useful for explaining things that are more important than party systems — but I know party systems, and I don’t see how tribalism, neoliberalism, and leftism provide a useful model for explaining them.

  23. James
    March 4th, 2016 at 20:09 | #23

    I think the listing of environmentalists in the soft left grouping can be ambiguous. This comment from Foppe, Naked Capitalism: Water Cooler, 02/03/2016 sums up the Green Party pretty well:

    If the (US) Greens are anything like EU green parties, we’re talking about a party that basically only exists in parliament, with a relatively highly educated, affluent base which interacts with lower-SES folks just about never, and which is de facto neoliberal (they might protest that suggestion, but they haven’t the intellectual background to realise how/why they should and can object to neoliberal policy-making; nor does the party spend any meaningful time trying to educate/empower their base).

    One of the reasons the Greens, and they are going down this route in Australia, are destined to stay a fringe party.

  24. John Quiggin
    March 5th, 2016 at 01:42 | #24


    You seem to be discussing something else, something that’s not a system of parties, and calling it a ‘party system’.

    I think you are over-reacting to the title of the post. I had a similar comment on Twitter from a political scientist specialising in electoral politics. If you read the article rather than the post, it ought to be obvious that I’m not using the term “three party” literally.

    It’s also true that, if the system is set up in such a way as to make two-party competition the only possibility, you’ll usually get two parties with a long continuous history. But what those parties stand for can change radically, and is doing so now.

  25. Ikonoclast
    March 5th, 2016 at 07:24 | #25

    JQ, there is no electoral system analysis in your original post. You talk about ideology and tribalism and this is important of course. All of your analysis remains within the frame of “capitalist democracy”, which is a direct contradiction in terms. Leaving that aside for a moment, you don’t talk about the system which props up the two party or three party system. I will quote from Dr Klaas Woldring at the Independent Australia site.

    “The single-member electoral district system governs the election of all Australian lower houses, with the exception of Tasmania’s. It grossly favours the major parties, in that it makes it virtually impossible for smaller parties and Independents to get a foothold in these legislatures. At the Federal level, the Commonwealth Electoral Acts of 1918 (preferential voting) and 1924 (compulsory voting) cemented this system in place.”

    I don’t agree with some of Woldring’s analysis in that article but in the above, at least, he is correct. The two major parties have hijacked power in Australia. With the aid of corporate donations they distort and game the current, very flawed electoral system. We certainly can’t reform our way out of trouble until we break this rigged power duopoly.

    As Woldring says, “the electoral system … shapes the party system.” We can’t rid ourselves of this rigged power duopoly without electoral system reforms. To name two items, we need proportional representation and the banning of all company and corporate donations to politics. It must only be legal for individuals to donate to candidates and parties and donations ought to be limited to $100 per person. One person, one vote. One person, one donation.

    The above would be the merest beginning of course. A sortition system to rid us of professional politicians is another advance which would need consideration in the longer term. Then there is the need for workplace democracy so that our society is democratic all the time, in detail and in extension and not just nominally democratic once every three years with a pencil squiggle in a cardboard booth.

  26. Ikonoclast
    March 5th, 2016 at 08:14 | #26

    Chomsky making complete sense as usual.

  27. Alan Grieve
    March 5th, 2016 at 08:39 | #27


    If we were really running wild we would elect the house of representatives by income deciles, so that that the top 10% of the population by income could not vote for or hold hold more than 10% of the seats and so on down the other 9 income deciles. Many classical and medieval republics limited the access of the elite (Machiavelli’s ‘grandi’) to office. Ig Machiavelli’s Florence had made such a rule they might not have declined into a hereditary dictatorship by the CEO of the Medici bank.

  28. Ikonoclast
    March 5th, 2016 at 10:44 | #28

    @Alan Grieve

    Absolutely, I agree. There are many more laws of this kind which need to be made under capitalism. They might or might not be needed under other systems but they are certainly needed under capitalism.

    We need stringent wealth laws which would prevent any individual or family possessing undue wealth. A very reasonable limit beyond which wealth is deemed “undue wealth” would be 10 times average wealth. Similarly, a reasonable limit on personal income would be 10 times average income. There is no economic reason and no moral justification, within a polity, for anyone to receive more.

    Going by world figures (I don’t have Australian figues), the ranks of politicians are dominated by the following professional backgrounds;

    Law 19%
    Business 17%
    Diplomacy 12%
    Military 11%
    Journalism 8%
    Economics 8%

    Australia might vary a bit but this is a very unhealthy and unrepresentative mix compared to society as a whole. It is very clear that most of this bunch are the uncaring and manipulative elitists of our society or in some cases (like journalism and business economics) the lackeys for hire by the capitalist system.

  29. Ivor
    March 5th, 2016 at 16:46 | #29

    @Alan Grieve

    Instead of trying to adjust politicians to incomes – wouldn’t it be easier to adjust incomes to politicians.

    ie tackle inequality and executive largesse.

  30. Alan Grieve
    March 5th, 2016 at 23:43 | #30


    No. First, I don’t accept that inequality of income among politicians is a product of executive largesse. Second, applying sumptuary laws to representation is a way to avoid or reduce elite capture of assemblies not to try and restrain income inequality within assemblies.

  31. Collin Street
    March 6th, 2016 at 07:49 | #31

    > JQ, there is no electoral system analysis in your original post.

    No detailed statement of the macro-scale behaviour of complex self-organised carbon-based molecule agglomerates, and how the vertically-oriented ones agglomerate in larger groups than the horizontals. Nor does it start with, “a thing we can call the ‘universe’ can be regarded as existing”.

    Sometimes it’s OK to assume knowledge.

  32. Ivor
    March 6th, 2016 at 09:25 | #32

    @Alan Grieve

    Yes I also don’t accept that inequality of income among politicians is a product of executive largesse.

    Executive largesse is a product of inequality.

    We have to deal with this inequality in its own terms and not adjust politicians to it.

  33. Alan Grieve
    March 6th, 2016 at 09:48 | #33

    You are again missing my point. The issue is elite capture of assemblies, not adjusting politicians.

  34. Ivor
    March 6th, 2016 at 13:01 | #34

    Alan Grieve :
    You are again missing my point. The issue is elite capture of assemblies, not adjusting politicians.

    But thisdoes propose “adjusting politicians” based on inequality?

    …we would elect the house of representatives by income deciles, so that that the top 10% of the population by income could not vote for or hold hold more than 10% of the seats and so on down the other 9 income deciles.

  35. Ron E Joggles
    March 6th, 2016 at 14:32 | #35

    Geoff Edwards :
    I should add that the environmental crisis (of which climate change is just one manifestation) will impose its own context for reform… The breakdown of natural ecological systems is accelerating and will overtake cautious reform. There isn’t a time for a gentle transition but we don’t have a roadmap for an urgent one, so the environmental changes will overtake events.

    If Geoff Edwards is correct, and I think he probably is, discussions about political reform seem somewhat irrelevant.

  36. March 7th, 2016 at 21:13 | #36

    Rudd & Swan and Keynesian policies didn’t save Australia from the GFC. There were three key policy reasons why Australia got through the GFC:

    1) Henry’s idea of the $900 payment to everyone. This was behavioural economic genius. Short-circuited fear cascades with ‘free’ cash and kept retailers afloat in the two weeks of real liquidity chaos in the markets. The neoliberals see it as waste but it turned out much more effective than the trickle down approach other countries took.

    2) Hawke/Keating reform of superannuation. The move from defined benefit to defined contributions removed the endogeneity between over/under funding of pension plans due to market fluctuations. As an accountant working in international banking this was a huge problem for US & UK companies. The company I was with in London had a GBP100million pension plan deficit for a company with only 1,000 staff. The reason why the US needed a bubble leading up to 2007-9 was generate capital gains to cover the gap. To give an indication of the magnitude General Motors pension plan had 3x more members than active employees – it was doomed to fail.

    3) The RBA had a tighter reign on the Australian banks than the US Fed and UK BoE. Stevens & co deserve a lot of credit for this.

    The Rudd/Swan approach was panicked & wasteful with the pink bats & BER etc.

    And to be very clear: what we have is deflation due to changes in demographics – an ageing population which has higher consumption expectations than US, UK, Japan, European, Australian economies can afford. Keynesian solutions can’t solve demographic problems – pumping money into the system doesn’t improve birth-rates or productivity. What we have is fewer workers funding more retirees and more inequity which amplifies the impact.

  37. John Quiggin
    March 7th, 2016 at 23:49 | #37


    You contradict yourself in your first two paragraphs

    (1) The $800 payment was Keynesian, indeed the obvious suggestion from a Keynesian perspective. Behavioral economics had nothing to do with it.

    (2) Henry was the Treasury Secretary and had no independent power to do anything. He proposed the policy and Rudd and Swan implemented it.

  38. March 8th, 2016 at 06:48 | #38

    @John Quiggin
    1) Yes the $800 is Keynesian – I was trying to make the point that it was in fact a combination of Keynesian & behavioural economics – a combination that was very effective – and distinct from the Keynesian approaches elsewhere in other countries.

    I think there is a lot of behavioural economics in Keynes’ writings but is missing from the classical economics interpretation.

    2) We should give credit to the policy advisors who propose ideas that work.

  39. John Quiggin
    March 8th, 2016 at 09:01 | #39

    “We should give credit to the policy advisors who propose ideas that work.”

    As I did in the OP. Equally, again as in the OP, we should give credit to politicians who listen and follow good advice.

  40. paul walter
    March 8th, 2016 at 23:17 | #40

    Gee, it’s a summary that is worrisome. There seems no way out of the conundrum. Must people would have voted Labor once in the expectation that the worst facets of musc
    ular market economics would be tempered by common sense. Instead we got some thing epitomised by NSW Labor.

    The government of alleged centrist Turnbull has continued Abbott’s scorched earth policy re social infrastructure and you wonder whether anything will be left to be saved, before folk wake up.

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