How the First Past the Post Electoral System is Polarizing the US

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James LeGallais, Queens University.


The United State’s current political climate is characterized by a polarization of the electorate and the political elites. This political divide, spanning across a wide range of issues from race and gender equality to immigration, has only grown from the 2016 Presidential race between Trump and Clinton to the current one between that of Trump and Biden (“Voters’ Attitudes About Race and Gender Are Even More Divided Than in 2016” n.d.). Although this divide and polarization is not new—the start of which can be traced back to the 1960s with the implementation of racial equality policies—it is of significance as it has been reinforced by the current First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system. By analyzing the ways the FPP system has contributed to the amplification of this divide, I will highlight the need to either change the electoral system the US uses or adapt it to address this issue before it becomes impossible to do so. First, this article will briefly outline the historical beginnings of the current polarization of the political system, highlighting how the First Past the Post System has perpetuated and amplified this effect in the political elites. Second, it will demonstrate how this has been reflected through the electorate. Lastly, this paper will outline the reason this system should be replaced or changed as a result, looking at Germany as a model for this.

History of Political Elite Polarization and Electorate

The history of polarization between political elites in the United States is most easily seen in the creation of racial equality policies in the 1960s. The creation of these racial policies began to divide the Republican and Democratic parties, as before the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Republican and Democrat parties were made up of a more diverse range of ideologies than they are now. For instance, “many northern Republicans [at the time had]… moderate-to-conservative views on economic policy [and] relatively progressive views on race”(Yglesias 2011) while the Democratic party at the time consisted of members with both left and right-wing economic views, although they typically held right-wing views on racial policies. Simply put this resulted in an ideological coalescence of the Republican and Democratic parties following the passing of the Voting Rights Act as Republicans with more racially progressive views defected to the Democratic party, while Democrats with racially and economically conservative views shifted to the Republican party (Jeremy 2018).

This polarization led to a shift in the way US political elites used the political system to their advantage so that they could pass more ideologically aligned legislation by remaining in control over the Senate and the House of Congress. A well-documented use of this is the redrawing of congressional and state voting districts meant to advantage the party in power by minimizing the seats which could be won by opponents, otherwise known as gerrymandering (to see a well-explained example of this see (Ingraham 2015). This issue has persisted despite efforts to stop this from occurring, such as through the use of an advisory commission or independent commission. One example of this issue being perpetuated is the creation of stricter voter regulation policies by Republicans which acted to disproportionately affect African Americans who are mainly Democratic (Panetta 2020).

The way in which the First Past the Post system has contributed to this polarization is through the creation of a two-party system that only elects the representative who received the most votes. The federal FPP system in the US leads to the amplification of this polarization as it assisted in the ideological coalescence of the two political parties. Only having two parties made it much easier for the political elites to converge on economic and political ideologies, as “Democrats and Republicans almost by definition stand in opposition to each other”(Iyengar and Westwood 2015, 704). Additionally, this system disincentives cooperation between the two parties. For instance, it allowed for Newt Gringrich to pursue a strategy of obstruction to stop Clinton from passing legislation, as it was found to be a more effective method for earning party seats than working to find common ground (Gross 2018). This when used by political elites to their advantage contributed to the polarization of the electorate as it led to public distrust of these institutions (Rainie and Perrin 2019).  

This polarization is evidently reflected in the electorate as out-group hostile sentiments, and discrimination based on political affiliation has been shown to affect judgments of US citizens even in non-political situations (Iyengar and Westwood 2015). Notably, Iyengar and Westwood found that the discriminatory sentiment was as strong as that of race. Additionally, th polarization of the electorate can be seen in the ways in which US citizens refuse to engage in political debates. Although there has been a rise in ‘fake news’ across the internet, it has increasingly attracted use as a term to deny the credibility of the evidence for counter-arguments. Most notably this was used by Donald Trump as it “signalled to the many people out there who were supporting Trump… that [Trump] was saying ‘OK, we’re going to take this term and make it ours”(Wendling 2018). Clare Wardle, who works for a non-profit at Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre, speaks to the effect this had to shut down all conversations, citing her own dislike of the “the phrase now [because]… it’s used as a term to describe everything… people just use it against any information they don’t like.”(Wendling 2018). As a result of conversations being shutting down between US citizens, the electorate is only likely to become more polarized as they choose to engage with only those who share their opinion. This serves to reinforce elites’ use of polarizing language and rhetoric as citizens desire more polarized representatives for their state, one possibility is that these representatives are seen as being better able to protect their constituents’ interests (Harbridge and Malhotra 2011, 183).

Moving Past the FPP System

The FPP system should be replaced. It not only creates a system in which political elites are incentivized to engage in partisan behaviour, but which has perpetuated this divide by reflecting this sentiment in the electorate. This creates a looping effect as representatives are then seen as better able to protect their partisan electorate’s positions by being more partisan themselves. This presents a dangerous situation, given the current socio-political divide in the US, and will only get worse with time. Thus, the US should begin to analyze and consider different electoral systems they can adopt to prevent this divide from worsening before they are unable to change the system.  

One such example is that of Germany’s First Past the Post system which incorporates a proportional representation party list. This has created a political system that mitigates the polarization of the elites and as a result the electorate. The German electoral system creates a willingness to compromise between elites as parties enter in negotiations with each other following each election cycle to see if coalitions are attainable so they can control the vote for the chancellery and maintain control over writing policies (Wettengel 2017). The current ruling coalition in Germany is made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU). Additionally, although Germany has a federal system, the German electoral districts are controlled by a separate 3rd party who determines the seat increases for each district and is in control of changing electoral boundaries (“Constituency Commission – The Federal Returning Officer” n.d.).



Gross, Terry. 2018. “‘Combative, Tribal, Angry’: Newt Gingrich Set The Stage For Trump, Journalist Says : NPR.” NPR. 2018.

Harbridge, Laurel, and Neil Malhotra. 2011. “Electoral Incentives and Partisan Conflict in Congress: Evidence from Survey Experiments.” American Journal of Political Science.

Ingraham, Christopher. 2015. “This Is the Best Explanation of Gerrymandering You Will Ever See – The Washington Post.” Washington Post, March 1, 2015.

Iyengar, Shanto, and Sean J. Westwood. 2015. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science.

Jeremy, Smith. 2018. “The Roots of Polarization: From the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to September 11, 2001 to Today.” Medium, September 11, 2018.

Panetta, Grace. 2020. “Why Black Americans Still Face Obstacles to Voting at Every Step – Business Insider.” Business Insider, September 18, 2020.

Rainie, Lee, and Andrew Perrin. 2019. “Americans’ Declining Trust in Government, Each Other: 8 Key Findings | Pew Research Center.” Pew Research Center, 2019.

“Voters’ Attitudes About Race and Gender Are Even More Divided Than in 2016.” n.d. Accessed October 9, 2020.

Wendling, Mike. 2018. “The (Almost) Complete History of ‘Fake News.’” BBC News, 2018.

Yglesias, Matthew. 2011. “Segregation and Polarization.” Think Progress, 2011.

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