The American Two-Party System
The United States has only two major political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. These parties have a duopoly, meaning that they share almost all the political power in the country.
The Electoral System
In the United States, a candidate wins the election by gaining a plurality, or more votes than any other candidate. This is a winner-take-all system because there is no reward for the party or candidate that finishes second. Parties aim to be as large as possible, smoothing over differences among candidates and voters. There is no incentive to form a party that consistently gets votes but cannot win an election. As a result, two political parties usually dominate plurality electoral systems to the disadvantage of smaller third parties, just as the Democrats and the Republicans dominate the American political system. No one person or organization prevents third parties from forming, but the plurality system itself usually hinders their efforts to win votes.
The United States also has mostly single-member districts, meaning that each legislative district sends only one member to the legislature. There is no benefit to finishing second. Some countries use multiple-member districts, which makes it easier for minor parties to succeed because there are more members winning seats in the legislature.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College exacerbates the winner-take-all system because in all but two states, whoever wins the most popular votes wins all of the state’s electoral votes in the presidential election. The electoral rules favor a two-party system, and minor parties have a very difficult time competing in such a system. Even successful third-party candidates often fail to get a single electoral vote.
Example: In the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate H. Ross Perot received nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, but he did not get a single electoral vote. Other recent third-party candidates—including John Anderson in 1980, Perot again in 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000—also failed to win electoral votes. The last third-party candidate to win any electoral votes was George Wallace in 1968’s tumultuous election.
Many other democratic legislatures use proportional representation instead of plurality to determine how seats are allocated to political parties. Parties win seats in the legislature in rough proportion to the percentage of the popular votes the party wins. A party that receives 30 percent of the votes, for example, will get roughly 30 percent of the seats in the legislature. In multiparty systems, parties can achieve electoral success without winning a majority, so there is less reason to form giant parties that strive for the majority.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are a few advantages of the American two-party system:
- Stability: Two-party systems are more stable than multiparty systems
- Moderation: The two parties must appeal to the middle to win elections, so the parties tend to be moderate.
- Ease: Voters have only to decide between two parties.
But there are also a few disadvantages to our system, including the following:
- Lack of choice: Both parties tend to be very similar, limiting voters’ options.
- Less democratic: A percentage of people will always feel marginalized by the system.
Scholars use the term realignment to describe a major shift in the political divisions within a country. Realignment marks a new change in direction for the party that redefines what it means to be a member of that party. It usually occurs when a new issue challenges the old party lines and splits its members. The issue is often crosscutting: Both major parties are split on a matter, and some Democrats find they agree with Republicans more than other Democrats. When the issue becomes critically important, the parties shift around the axis of the new issue, and a new party system emerges.
A critical election often indicates that a realignment has occurred. Critical elections do not cause realignments. A critical election is a sign, not a cause, of a realignment.
Until recently, political parties were able to indirectly provide large amounts of money to candidates. The campaign finance laws passed in the mid-1970s limited donations to campaigns: Each person could only donate $1,000 to a campaign for the general election. Individual donors, however, could give unlimited amounts of money to parties and some political groups. Political scientists call this type of unregulated donation soft money. Although the parties could not use soft money to help candidates directly (by donating it to a campaign, for example), the parties could spend it in ways that helped their candidates. Parties use soft money to sponsor the following:
- Voter registration and GOTV drives: The party can selectively register voters who are likely to support the party. During get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, parties wage campaigns to encourage voting and target people likely to vote for the party.
- Issue ads: The Supreme Court ruled that as long as an ad does not explicitly say “vote for candidate X” or “vote against candidate Y,” the ad is not considered a campaign ad. Therefore, parties can run ads attacking the opponent and saying good things about their nominee.
In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, popularly known as the McCain-Feingold bill, which banned soft money. Parties could no longer raise unlimited amounts of unregulated money. However, parties have responded by delegating some of their duties to 527 groups (named after section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code). These private organizations are not officially affiliated with the parties and can therefore raise and spend money in much the same way that parties could before the reform law. For this reason, some critics allege that campaign finance reform did nothing but weaken the parties.
Most Americans look favorably on the two-party system because it has dominated much of American politics from the very beginning. The Republican and Democratic parties have existed for more than 150 years, and that history gives them a legitimacy that third parties do not have. The two-party system is also self-perpetuating. Children grow up identifying with one of the two major parties instead of a third party because children tend to share their parents’ political views.
The Early Republic: Federalists Versus Antifederalists (1792–1800)
The first political issue that divided American statesmen was the ratification of the Constitution. On one side were the Federalists, who wanted to ratify the Constitution in order to create a stronger national government; the Antifederalists, on the other side, feared that the Constitution would strip people of the liberties they had just won in the Revolutionary War. Although the Constitution was ratified, this early political division extended into the first decades of the republic. The Federalists allied themselves to Alexander Hamilton and President John Adams, while Thomas Jefferson rallied the Antifederalists, who had begun calling themselves the Democratic Republicans. Neither faction was a true party in the modern sense, though, because both lacked strong cohesion.
The “Era of Good Feeling” (1800–1824)
Following Jefferson’s victory in the presidential election of 1800, the Federalists faded away as a serious political threat, so that by the time of James Monroe’s presidency (1817 to 1825), almost all Americans identified with the Democratic Republicans. Because of the absence of party competition, this period has been dubbed the “Era of Good Feeling.” The public still debated and fought over issues but not within the context of distinct political factions.
The Jacksonian Era: Democrats Versus Whigs (1824–1850)
The first modern political party was the Democratic Party, which formed in the wake of the highly contested presidential election of 1824, when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but did not win a majority of electoral votes. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be the next president. In response, Jackson’s supporters organized the Democratic Party to oppose the Adams Administration. The
Democrats rebounded in four years and elected Jackson to replace Adams in 1828. The Democrats were also the first major grassroots party, building support from the ground up. Those disparate politicians who opposed Jackson’s policies formed a temporary coalition known as the Whig Party.
The Antebellum Period: Democrats Versus Republicans (1850–1860)
Over the next few decades, slavery emerged as a hugely divisive issue, as pro-slavery forces fought abolitionists with increasing intensity. Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats could respond adequately to the new issue. As a result, both parties split in two along sectional lines.
The Republican Party formed in the late 1840s and early 1850s out of abolitionist Democrats and northern Whigs. The Democrats, on the other hand, now consisted primarily of Southerners and rural Westerners. In 1860, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, whereas Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge. Lincoln narrowly won the race with promises of maintaining the Union, but his election nevertheless prompted South Carolina and several other Southern states to secede.
The Reconstruction Era (1868–1896)
The northern Republicans and southern Democrats continued to vie for power in the decades after the Civil War. Blacks were able to vote for a brief period after the war, and they mostly voted Republican, in part because they associated the Democrats with slavery and the Republicans with emancipation. Democratic efforts to dissuade blacks from voting also encouraged many blacks to vote Republican.
The Gilded Age (1880–1896)
The next great issue to divide America was industrialization, as massive corporations began hording capital and dominating the unregulated marketplace. To challenge the big-business trusts, poor western farmers united to form a powerful third party, the People’s Party, or Populists. The Democratic Party incorporated much of the Populist platform into its own platform in the election of 1896, which inadvertently killed the Populists as a potent third party. Republican William McKinley defeated the Democratic Populist challenger William Jennings Bryan and established a new era of Republican dominance. Except for the election of 1912, the Republicans won every presidential election between 1896 and 1932.
Another social movement, called Progressivism, swept through the nation in the first two decades of the 1900s. Like the Populists, Progressives fought for government regulation of big business and more political power for the average American. Progressivism was bipartisan, which meant that Progressive politicians could be found in both the Republican and Democratic political parties. For example, both Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson were Progressives. A feud between President William Howard Taft—a traditional conservative Republican—and the Progressive Roosevelt split the party and prompted Roosevelt to found the Progressive Party. Roosevelt won a surprising number of popular and electoral votes in the three-way election of 1912 but divided Republican voters so deeply that the more organized Democrats managed to elect Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s battle to convince the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I all but killed the Progressive movement, and voters elected conservative Republican presidents until the election of 1932.
The Depression and the New Deal (1929–1941)
Republican dominance ended with the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929. Frustrated with Republican president Herbert Hoover, many voters turned to the Democrats. The Democratic nominee in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposed to revive the economy with a legislative package of relief and reform known as the New Deal. Roosevelt won and successfully put America on the road to recovery.
The New Deal Coalition (1936–1968)
The New Deal coalition formed the backbone of Democratic success in the mid-twentieth century. This coalition consisted of groups who supported the New Deal, including workers, labor unions, Catholics, Jews, and racial minorities. The South continued to be overwhelmingly Democratic, and after 1932, African American voters moved in large numbers to the Democratic Party. For the next three decades, the Democratic Party dominated American politics.
In the 1950s, a committee of respected political scientists called for responsible parties, parties that were strong enough not only to propose specific and substantive policies but also to carry them out if elected. In general, American parties are not very responsible because they cannot force members to follow the platform, unlike their counterparts in other countries. Because parties no longer have much control over their candidates, the vision of responsible party government is unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon.
The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam (1960s)
The New Deal coalition splintered in the 1960s because of the civil rights movement and American involvement in Vietnam. The Democratic Party included nearly all white southerners, who still saw the Republicans as the party that invaded their homeland during the Civil War. At the same time, most African Americans were now Democrats. The tension between these groups caused the New Deal coalition to split in the late 1960s, and large numbers of southern whites switched to the Republican Party. By the 1980s, much of the South was solidly Republican.
The critical election came in 1968. The Vietnam War, along with civil rights, caused stark divisions. George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, broke away from the Democrats and ran as a third-party candidate, which greatly hurt the Democrats. Republican Richard Nixon consequently eked out a narrow and bitterly fought victory. The chaotic election of 1968 also marked a decline in American political parties.
Following the election, the Democrats worked to change the way their party operated, focusing heavily on the process of choosing nominees. Political scientists call the process of opening party leadership to new people party reform. The Democrats aimed at making convention delegates look more like party voters by including more women and minorities. The easiest way to achieve this goal was to hold primary elections, which allow voters to directly participate in the party nomination process. Beginning in 1972, the Democrats made increasing use of the primary election, taking great power away from party leaders. Republicans followed suit, in part because Democratic-controlled state governments forced them to do so.
The Contemporary Party System (1968–Present)
Republicans have fared very successfully since the election of 1968, particularly in presidential races; since 1968, only two Democrats have been elected president, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Some scholars believe that the breakdown of the New Deal coalition produced a realignment that allowed the Republicans to dominate. Others, however, argue that instead of realignment, the United States is experiencing dealignment, the loosening of party ties. Since the 1970s, more voters have identified themselves as independents, not belonging to either party. More people seem willing to cross party lines and vote for the other party. More voters are also engaging in split-ticket voting, voting for both Republicans and Democrats for different offices in the same election. Split-ticket voting has produced a number of divided governments in which one party controls the presidency while the other controls at least one house of Congress.
Political parties today no longer have the ability to dictate nominees or control massive patronage. Candidates function independently from the party leaders, charting their own strategies and ignoring or dismissing the party platform.
Example: In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole told reporters that he had not even read his party’s platform.
As the importance of parties has decreased, there has been a rise in candidate-centered politics, in which people tend to focus on the candidates instead of party labels when voting, particularly when electing presidents. Today, parties primarily provide services such as money, expertise, lists of donors, and name recognition to candidates and campaigns. Although candidates do not have to do everything party leaders say, they often work closely with their party leadership in order to win favors and party support. Some races are still party-centered, especially when voters know little about the candidates.