British protest for proportional representation in 2010. (photo: lewishamdreamer)

If you look at the current government in the UK, you will see an almost unprecedented level of bipartisanship in the recent history of the country. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have been working together extremely closely.

What is the cause of this outbreak of bipartisanship? The answer is simple, the UK has three big political parties and two of them were needed to form a coalition with a governing majority. This gave the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition a huge incentive to embrace their bipartisan relationship and do everything they could to make bipartisan compromise work.

If their bipartisan relationship produces good results, both parties would likely be rewarded with electoral gains, mainly at the expense of the Labour Party. If they fail to work together to produce good results, both stand to lose seats, mainly to Labour.

In fact, this basic reward/punishment system makes high levels of bipartisan, tri-partisan, or even quadru-partisan compromise (i.e. coalition governments) the norm in countries with more than two political parties.

The reason you see little sustained, genuine bipartisanship in America, despite most beltway pundits acting like the mere hint of it sends them into ecstasy, is that there is no incentive for doing it.

Let’s say a Republican Congress and a Democratic President came up with a fantastic bipartisan bill that made the economy much better–which party should win the next election? Because, with only two parties, one must improve at the expense of the other. Who should get the reward for this shared success, the party that controls the White House or Congress?

As long as blame/credit is shared equally, regardless of whether the two parties reach a great bipartisan deal, a disastrous bad deal, or no deal at all, the electoral impact will be the same. And if the credit isn’t shared equally–say the party that holds the presidency gets most of the credit for success–you have even worse problems. If the party that controlled Congress works to reach an agreement for a new program that makes things much better, they would actually be punished for their good deeds in the next election as the president’s party gains seats.

If you really want more bipartisanship, the only real solution is to promote more viable political parties.

To have more viable parties requires systematic changes to our political system. You need to switch to a voting system like proportional representation and, to a lesser degree, instant runoff voting that promotes more than just two parties.

If there were one or two additional parties that could make electoral gains if the Republicans and Democrats failed to pass positive bipartisan agreements, then they would have a real incentive to work together when they shared power.

Of course, many who demand more grand bargain bipartisan compromises are pundits who actually want a system that allows our leaders to take actions directly in defiance of the will of the electorate to protect the leaders from democratic accountability. What they really want isn’t bipartisanship, but to have elitism that has no need to listen to the voters.

This provides us with a simple test. If a person bemoans the lack of bipartisanship and promotes systematic electoral reform that allows for more parties, it is a good chance they actually want a democracy where people with a diversity of views are forced to find the best compromise in order to govern. On the other hand, if they demand everything be bipartisan and only support having a two-party system, it is likely deep down what they really want is our government leaders to be able to freely get away with policies opposed by regular voters.