Why Does The United States Have a Two Party System?

October 4, 2010

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English: Breakdown of political party represen...

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Have you ever wondered why only two political parties are dominating the American political scene? In every other democratic nation of the world, there are multiple parties requiring coalitions to govern. Not so in the United states, where the only time cooperation is necessary is when the legislative and executive branches of the government are in separate hands.

There are several institutional reasons for the two party system in America. First of all, the United States is not a democracy, it is a democratic republic. This is important in that in a true democracy, the people are continuously involved in the governing process, such as in Switzerland where there are elections almost every week. Second, our elections are fixed by the calendar, not by events. In the socialist democratic nations such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, any vote of confidence lost by the ruling party or coalition will result in a new election. Third, we have separation of our legislative and executive branches. In most democracies of the world, the legislature elects a prime minister who is the defacto executive of the country. Sure, the United Kingdom has the Queen and many nations have presidents, but these people are there to be the consistency rather than the power.

All of this still does not add up to a two party system. I believe that the United States falls into this habit (yes habit) based on our innate love of a stand up fight. We want just two people in the ring beating the snot out of each other. Everything we do for entertainment or even business is a one on one match. From sporting events like the BCS championship to the burger wars, we only concentrate on the top two. There are others out there, but all of the publicity goes to the top two with a slight mention of the also rans.

When this country was in its infancy, we had two parties; the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalist. After a few years, the Federalists dropped out and the Whigs came along. Just before the Civil ware, the Whigs collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans split into the Democrats and the Republicans. Most of the Federalists became Whigs when they lost several presidential elections in a row and were in a feeble minority in both houses. The same thing happened when most of the Whigs became Republicans.

The talking heads have always pointed out that a vote for a third party is a throw away vote. When you are talking pure ability to get elected, that may be true in the short run. A grass roots effort to fundamentally change an existing party can be devastating to that party’s power such as is predicted for the Republican party with the Tea party movement. But if neither major party supports even some of your basic values, then voting for the least bad is still a bad decision. It re-enforces the existing power.

It took 24 years for the Whigs to gain even a moniker of power after the Federalist collapse. It took 16 years of the Democratic-Republicans to recover from the Jackson Democrat revolt, which also resulted in the current parties.

There are plenty of options for you if you want to vote your platform, there are only two if you are voting for power.

Here are just a few of the ones I looked up, there are plenty more.

Modern Whig – http://www.modernwhig.org/
Green – http://www.gp.org/index.php
Constitution – http://www.constitutionparty.com/
Socialist – http://www.sp-usa.org/
Conservative – http://www.conservativepartyusa.com/
Libertarian – http://www.lp.org/
Communist – http://www.cpusa.org/

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kosmo
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 16:34:22

    I’m also not a fan of the two party system, preferring something that would entail cooperation. Also, the existence of more parties might allow me to find one that better aligns with my beliefs. I doubt that I side with either party more than maybe 60% of the time.

    Sometimes I also question the validity of geographical representation. Let’s say candidates for party X get 91% of the vote in half the elections and 49% in the other half (let’s assume 2 candidates per race and an equal number of voters). That means that the slate of candidates for party X got 70% of the vote … but will have just 50% representation of the legislature. On the other hand, if we were to vote on a national slate of candidates (every voter in the country gets the same, huge ballot), party X would win a decisive majority.

    Would this give the voters in large states a lot of power? Sure. But why not – they have the most citizens.

    On the national stage, pundits would like you to believe that the electoral college forces presidential candidates to pay attention to ALL states, and not just the largest ones. That’s far from true, of course. The candidates will focus on battleground states, large or small. If Sarah Palin runs in 2012, I doubt the Democratic candidate will spend much time in Alaska (a “small” state in terms of population). What’s the point? Even if the candidate moves to needle to 40%, there’s no reward.


  2. Martin Kelly
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 17:24:55


    Although I like your analysis of the percentages, I have to disagree on the conclusion that the larger states should be able to have even more power than they do have just because they have more population. The system we have now already sways to the large state with 4 of the 5 largest (not Texas) get more than $1 for each $1 they contribute in taxes. The same is true for the smallest 5 by population (excluding Alaska) who pay more than $1 for each $1 that comes back to their state. Whenever you let a group decide who is getting a portion of a money hand out, the result is usually a rather large bias towards that group (there are some exceptions where you have truely honest people, I know). And for congressional elections, why would I want someone from say Maine representing me if I am from Arizona. That person would be interested in Cranberry production while I am worried about drinking water.

    You are right about the electoral college. You only need to win in 10 states to win the whole thing, campaign hard in the top 17 and you are almost gauranteed a win. The good thing about the electoral college is that it allows the winner to claim a mandate. The vote has been roughly 45-50 with 5% for everyone else in the popular vote for most elections. The exceptions with 61% for the winner were Harding-Cox (1920), Roosevelt-Landon (1936), Johnson-Goldwater (1964) and Nixon-McGovern (1972). The popular vote would only have changed the election four time; Jackons-Adams (1824), Tilden-Hayes (1876), Cleveland-Harrison (1888) and Gore-Bush (2000). Tilden was the only real winner with 51% of the vote, the rest all got less than 50% which in theory (Roberts Rules of Order require a majority, not a plurality) would have resulted in a run off between the top two candidates and would not have gauranteed a win in either direction. There have been 13 other elections where no one got 50% of the vote, the biggest being Lincoln with only 40%, but supprizingly, Clinton and Nixon only got 43% the first time each one ran. All of these short comings were due to strong third party candidates.

    There was a time when if a candidate won NY and CA, there would be enough side support to win the whole thing. Al Gore was the first to break that mold. I wish I could figure out a way to force the candidate to consider every state, but then I would be practicing exactly what I have complained about in other article. I do not want anyone to be forced to do things that should be voluntary.


  3. kosmo
    Oct 04, 2010 @ 20:59:40

    “I have to disagree on the conclusion that the larger states should be able to have even more power than they do have just because they have more population.”

    What is the goal of the government? To have equal representation for each state, or equal representation for each citizen?

    Why shouldn’t the larger states have more power? They represent more citizens.

    “And for congressional elections, why would I want someone from say Maine representing me if I am from Arizona.”

    Because that person might have the same views as me on immigration, domestic policy, gay marriage, taxes, space exploration, environtal issues, etc.

    “The popular vote would only have changed the election four time;”

    I’m supposed to be happy with this success rate?

    “The good thing about the electoral college is that it allows the winner to claim a mandate.”

    Eh? Let’s run some more numbers. Let’s say a candidate wins the election by losing the top 10 states (the top 10 are actually not quite enough to win) and winning the other 40 + DC. That’s good for 282/538 electoral votes – 52.4%.

    Let’s further assume that every resident of those 51 locales – 307,006,500 – voted. (Yes, I realize that not all of these people would be registered voters). How many votes would the candidate need to get to secure a victory?

    Less than 70,473,000. In other words, less than 23% of the votes cast (since those states represent less than 46% of the population). This is a system that would always allow a candidate to claim a mandate? More so than a popular vote system that would force them to get 153,500,000 votes?


  4. Tiberius Kane
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 08:30:24

    To answer your question Kosmo, Article IV Section 4 of the US Constitution says ‘…a republican form of government shall be provided to the many states’. The federal government was created by the states for the states. The states elect the president through an electoral college. The states make the laws through the US Congress.


  5. kosmo
    Oct 05, 2010 @ 08:54:11

    @ Tiberius – Well, apparently that’s where the constitution and I disagree 🙂 I’d much prefer a federal government that is for the citizens rather than one that is for the states. Prick a citizen and he (or she) bleeds … not so with a state.

    I certainly don’t intend to argue that the electoral college is unconstitutional – I simply dislike it on a personal level.


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