Understanding Duopolies in Politics
We explain political duopolies by looking at the political duopoly in the United States of America and other historic duopolies.
What is a Duopoly? What is a Political Duopoly?
- A duopoly is when two entities dominate a market; it’s like a monopoly, but with two entities instead of one; a type of oligopoly.
- A political duopoly is when two parties dominate a political system.
Does the United States Have a Political Duopoly
In the United States two parties dominate politics. Thus, the United States has a political duopoly which we call in common terms “a two-party system.”
Why Does the United States have a Political Duopoly?
The United States electoral system requires majorities to win, and this system perpetuates a “two-party culture” even though America doesn’t have a “two-party system” technically speaking.
In the Presidential election, the winner-takes-all system in 48 states and D.C. helps to ensure that people will always band together into two big groups instead of focusing on third parties.
The same thing happens at the state and local level and is reinforced by culture, not just by the media, but through our citizens trying to reinforce a win or ensure against future losses.How Voters Decide: Crash Course Government and Politics #38. Political Campaigns: Crash Course Government and Politics #39. I won’t post all these videos, but this series’ section on political parties explains where the duopoly comes from.
FACT: There is nothing in the United States Constitution about political parties. Instead they naturally arise from the need to win by majority.
TIP: Third parties can win, especially at the state or local level. You can read about third parties here.
Tyranny of the Duopoly – Dividing the House and Keeping the Little Guy Down
The problem with political duopolies are their divisive “us versus them nature” and like a monopoly make it hard to compete without being part of “the establishment.” Thus the duopoly can hurt itself, it can hurt “the little guy” (in this case third parties), and it can lead to a lack of choice for citizens.
By creating a red team and blue team, and thus igniting a culture of “color politics,” we encourage the creation of enemies. Meanwhile, by limiting choices, we make it easier for important third party issues to go unaddressed.
Again, I recognize that this isn’t some singular visible hand creating a duopoly and that it is rather born from the necessity of a majority (thus guided by an invisible hand), but the effects are the same, and this is what we are discussing.
In America, when the Democratic-Republicans split apart due to the events surrounding John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay vs. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren it reignited a divisive two-party rivalry that had initially started between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Immediately a flame war began that descended into low-ball grey-area politics and propaganda, this essentially resulted in the spoils system and much of today’s “party politics.”
This us vs. them mentality is a slippery slope that can lead to what I would describe as “the tyranny of the duopoly.”
TIP: Below I’ll discuss what I call “the tyranny of the duopoly” (the cons of duopolies). However, from this same angle, I’d also say there is a benevolence of the duopoly (the benefits of duopolies). By having two very strong “established” factions we ideally avoid radical fringe factions and ensure both parties will support key facets of society like the military, our social security, or the banking sector. Third parties have to join one of the two big tents to have an impact on national politics. Extreme factions would struggle to dominate a party in the way the NAZI rose up through Germany’s young parliamentary system. Also, since people “by their constitutions naturally form two teams,” there is something healthy about being able to pit two positions against each other if we can see the tension as an intellectual debate rather than escalation to a physical resolution.
TIP: When a person becomes enthralled with a single team they run the risk of being a “useful idiot.” A person who sees red team as “the master team” and blue team as “sub-human,” and who perpetuates this stereotype, plays into the hand of those who want to divide the teams or who want one team to fail.
What is “the Tyranny of the Duopoly”? – Examples and Discussion
I am coining the term “tyranny of the duopoly” here to describe the ills of duopolies and thus am using it in the same way tyranny of the majority is used. My meaning is perhaps best illustrated in by few simple points:
- Brexiters and Remainers are divided in Britain in October of 2016, and the banks are preparing to leave over the squabbling. It has created a damaging and uncertain environment.
- The North and South in the events leading up to the Civil War felt so divided from each other that it nearly tore the Union apart.
- When the Axises and Allies divided into two groups, it became easy to demonize entire nations, groups, and races.
- Divisive marketing campaigns between Apple and Microsoft led to people declare loyalty to one brand and make fun of the other. Gates and Jobs later regretted their divisive marketing. Sony Playstation and X-Box have had the same issues in the past, as have other entities like the Cell Phone companies.
Those are only a few of many examples I could give.International Relations 101 (#7): The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The two sides of a duopoly tend to be backed so heavily and passionately by so many millions of people that propaganda and some grey-area tactics are likely to occur. For a duopoly in the private market, it can be price fixing, for a political duopoly, it can be gray area voter suppression and lobbyists who simply get both parties in their pocket, but this isn’t the real danger.
The real danger is the dehumanizing effect duopolies have. When we split apart, see each other as the enemy, and stop seeing the other team as human, it leaves us divided and hurts both teams.
It is easy to see a particularly demonized faction, like the NAZI Party, as evil, but when we see Red team or Blue team as less than human, and we phrase it like that, we might begin to isolate the problems.
The United States political duopoly that resulted in Trump Vs. Clinton has developed a toxic air. Voter fraud and hacking accusations have been rampant, and Trump stated he wouldn’t accept a defeat. Although this did not end up being an issue, divisiveness was unusually polarizing.
What started as a general debate over neoliberal globalization and progressivism and protectionist nativism and conservatism has been dipping its toes into Civil War era tension.
Using the United States as an example, this type of division runs the risk of it leaving the country weak and hampers our ability to progress.
In a worse case, our international opponents are sure to strike when we are divided. A house divided may still stand, but it is weak. If you want to damage a strong opponent, you are advised to divide their house and create weakness first. Of course, in America’s case, we needed no coaxing, even if we do consider sources like Wikileaks a little lopsided in their focus.
These points about division can be seen not only in Brexit or Trump Vs. Clinton, but in much of world history. For example, during WWII the United States sent forces the Europe and Japan hit fPearl Harbor when our guard was down. Likewise, Germany split its forces in a war of attrition with Russia. Japan itself split its forces to deal with the United States taking the focus of China.
In retrospect, it is hard to point to many cases where red-team / blue-team duopolies have done a union much good, but of course, the world is complex. We haven’t touched on the pros and cons of triopolies, quadropolies, etc. Is there a perfect number of factions or divisions in a certain type of system? Is it geometric and quantifiable? Does it differ by subject or nation?
Certainly, monopolies are problematic. I think we can look to the anti-trust debates for more insight, but we won’t do that here.
In conclusion, there are few things in life that are inherently bad, and that includes duopolies. However, we need to look at the events leading up to any division within a nation to see the very real dangers of duopolies when they begin to perpetuate a negative feedback loop of divisiveness and propaganda. We can see this in the American Civil War, Russian Reds and Whites, or Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. I’m not sure what the solution is, but remembering the importance of different perspectives to a union and remembering to lead with facts rather than rhetoric is a good first step.