CNN’s Fareed Zakaria importantly talks about the problem with our two-party system but he overlooks the bigger reason the United States has been stuck with only two parties for so long. Very restrictive ballot access laws are only a minor hurdle to viable third parties. The much bigger problem is our first-past-the-post election system. From Zakaria:

One of you asked me: Why there aren’t more serious third party candidates in the United States?

One very simple reason is the two parties have effectively created a duopoly. It is very, very difficult to get on the ballot in any state. There’s a group called Americans Elect 2012 that has been trying to create a third party platform just to get on the ballot. And it takes hundreds of thousands of signatures – over a million in California – to do it. It’s a scandal, really, because democracy should be about giving people alternatives and allowing peoples’ voices to be heard. But the two parties collude to make sure that you don’t get a third party.

The second piece of it is America just does not have a very broad ideological spectrum. If you look at America’s two parties, they’re actually very close together in terms of their ideological differences. Both American parties –  the Democrats and the Republicans – would fit comfortably as center-right parties in Europe. You have no real social democratic party. You have no real hyper-nationalist parties. If you look at the width of the European political spectrum, the United States occupies a kind of narrow position on it. So it makes sense that we don’t have ten competitive parties.

I most disagree with Zakaria that we, as a country, lack the political spectrum of Europe. I believe he is falsely assuming the effect is the cause. The election laws are what reduce the number of viable political parties, not the narrowness of actual American opinions.

There are many Americans with highly divergent political views. The problem is that our election system makes it impossible for smaller parties to win any power.

Ron Paul is a good example. His relatively strong showing in the GOP primary shows that there is roughly 10 percent of the country that agrees with him. If we used proportional representation, like most European countries, Ron Paul would likely be the head of his own party. They would win 10 percent of the vote and as a result get roughly 10 percent of the seats in Congress. His party would be a minor but consistently important force in politics. They would often shape legislation.

Under our system, though, if Paul created his own party and it got 10% of the vote, it would lose the presidency and likely not win a single seat in Congress. Worse, by serving as a “spoiler” it would likely throw power to the other party the members least agree with. Since we use the first-past-the-post system, their running and doing relatively well would perversely serve to hinder their actual legislative objectives.

It is neither the lack of desire for more parties or the lack of ideological diversity that explains the limited numbers of political parties in the United States. The reason there are only two parties is that they’ve written all our election laws to make it nearly impossible for there ever to be more than two viable parties.