Since the administration of George Washington, two political parties have dominated the United States political system. The American two party system is unique from other two party systems. The system allows the two major political parties to face off against one another in the operations of the government. This system is the result of a representative democracy.
The Democrats and Republicans have dominated the political scene since our countries origin. The two party system has both advantages and disadvantages. Many Americans have called for party reform that would change the current two party system, with the recent events of the Presidential Election.
The United States has always had a two-party system political system. From our countries beginning, the political parties were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, theses political parties became known as Republicans and Democrats. There have been frequent third party movements in the history of our country, but they have never elected a President. Presidential elections play an important role in the formation of the two-party system. The method of a national election in such an immense country has necessitated large political organizations and simplified choices for the voter.
Therefore, the two party system has become an ideal method for voters to support their candidate, regardless of the party they support. There are aspects of both political parties that are most relevant to the public. Political parties are the most important reference group with which voters can identify and develop a loyalty.
In addition to this bond, political parties as organizations and in government, express principles and advocate policies that establish the agenda for the current political dialogue. As parties are more unified, they work as teams of office seekers that present beliefs that provide useful information to the public. All of these take on greater relevance as the political parties address the major concerns of the electorate.
Even more importantly, as political parties are more unified, they can be more effective in using their offices for passing legislation and taking other action on public concerns. The parties as organizations have long served as the point of contact between voters and elected government, such as registration and turnout drives, persuading the uncertain to support them and generating greater enthusiasm among party loyalists1.
The growth of independence and the weakening of party loyalties suggest that the major political parties have become less relevant as reference groups. Candidate centered campaigns have presented the parties, as such, to the public less often, to be replaced by the presentation of individual candidates running for office. Although the vast majority of successful candidates are party nominees, they are less likely to emphasize their partisan ties. This fragmentation by candidate and office hardly presents the party as a unified team. As seen in past elections it takes a unified party to win the election and unite the country.
Both parties have a decentralized structure, marked by the absence of discipline and chain of command. Organization at the local level may be strong, but control is weaker at the state level and is absent on the national level. It is true that each party develops a level of unity for the presidential election. This unity in turn, helps carry them to the Presidency. The leadership of the president within the party gives the victorious party some unanimity. Once a party’s candidate is elected, the support will continue to provide the leadership required to govern the country.
In voting, Republicans and Democrats are usually found on both sides of a specific issue or belief. An alliance between liberal Republicans and Democrats against conservative Republicans and Democrats tends to develop1. However, both alliances are not constant, and the alignment varies on the issues from one vote to another.
Consequently, despite the existence of a two-party system, a stable majority is impossible for the President to achieve. For the President to have the budget adopted and legislation passed, they must gather the necessary votes on every issue, which requires alliances between party lines. Both parties provide a loose framework within, which shifting coalitions are formed.
The two party electoral competition stands out as one of the systems most prominent and enduring features. The Republicans and Democrats have always dominated electoral politics. This record of the same two parties dominating the nation’s electoral politics shows the aspects of the political system as well as the special features of the political parties.
The standard arrangement for electing national and state legislators in this country is the single-member district system; whichever candidate receives a majority of the vote is elected to office. Unlike proportional systems, the single-member district arrangement permits only one party to win in any district. The single-member system creates incentives to form two broadly based parties that are capable of winning legislative districts.
Another advantage for having two major parties is the Electoral College system. Election as president requires an absolute majority of the 50 states’ 538 total electoral votes, which requires 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. This requirement makes it extremely difficult for a third party to win the presidency without combining with a major party. The individual states’ electoral votes are allocated under a winner-take-all arrangement. All that is required to capture a state’s electoral votes is to win the popular vote within each state.
The Electoral College works to the disadvantage of third parties, which have little chance of winning any state’s electoral votes, let alone carrying enough states to elect a president. The Green Party in the current election, led by Ralph Nader, was able to receive significant support, however not enough to attain federal matching funds for the next Presidential election.
The electoral system provides only the most distorted reflection of the feelings and opinions of the broad masses, because of the monopoly enjoyed by the two major political parties, the influence of corporate money, and the powerful role of the mass media, whose combined effect is to bar any discussion of programs and policies which might threaten the interests of the capitalist class. This winner-take all system makes victory too important to take risks. Groups of voters, organized interests, and individuals are better off supporting a candidate that can help achieve the ultimate goal, which is an electoral victory to win the presidency.
In the United States, third parties have a hard time overcoming the advantages enjoyed by the two major political parties. A voter is more then likely to not leave a party that wins often, to join a group that has never won an election. Though in the current election we have seen the Green party, led by Ralph Nader able to sway enough voters in Florida and other key states to more then likely prevent Vice President Al Gore from winning the presidency.
The Republicans and Democrats control the majority of government operations2. They have created electoral rules that work to their advantage. It can be difficult to add a candidates name on a ballot in a state. An example of the difficulty occurs in states such as Pennsylvania. Ballot access laws require a new party to obtain 99,000 registrants in order to have its candidates’ names on the ballot. Another advantage of the two party system is the Federal Election Campaign Act gives benefits to the major parties. These benefits include the public funding of presidential campaigns, the public financing of national conventions, and matching funds to candidates for winning their parties presidential nomination.
America’s distinctive nominating process is an additional barrier to third parties. Among the world’s democracies, the United States is unique in its reliance upon primary elections to nominate candidates for state and congressional offices. It also uses the state level presidential primaries in the selection of presidential nominees.
In most nations, nominations are controlled by the party organizations. In the United States, it is the voters who make the ultimate determination of who the Republican and Democratic nominees will be. This system, of course, contributes to the fact that the United States has weaker formal party organizations than most other democracies.
This participatory nominating process has also contributed to the Republican and Democratic domination of electoral politics for over 140 years. By winning party nominations through primary elections, voters can gain access to the general election ballot and thereby enhance their chances of election victories without having to organize third parties. Thus, the primary-nomination process tends to channel dissent into the two major parties and makes it unnecessary for dissidents to engage in the difficult business of forming a third party.
Once on the ballot these third party candidates face another hurdle. They are routinely and arbitrarily barred from public debates. Usually the stated reason is that they don’t have “a reasonable chance of winning the election,” as the Commission on Presidential Debates told Ross Perot. This nonpartisan governing body, which includes former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties, excluded Perot from the 1996 presidential debates even though he had pulled nearly 20 million votes in the previous election. Ralph Nader was also barred from the presidential debates in this election, even though he did end up receiving a large amount of support.
Many of the problems of the two party system today were predicted by a group of scholars a few years ago. In its report titled, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” the committee on political parties of the American Political Science Association said that there were four dangers to our democracy that warrant special emphasis. Dangers that they predicted would become more heightened unless the weakening of our party system was addressed.
The first danger, the report said, “is that the inadequacy of the party system in sustaining well-considered programs and providing broad public support for them may lead to grave consequences in an explosive era.” The weakness of our party system has made it difficult to establish support for long-term enterprises that need to be accomplished at home and abroad. The task of supporting international economic development, of constructing a stable world peace, of building a strong domestic economy and equitably distributing its products and wealth, of reforming our governmental structures and finding adequate resources for our urgent national needs cannot be accomplished by a single Congress or a single President.
The country has paid a high price for the volatility and limitations of our governing coalitions. Countless programs have been launched, but funds to finance them have been withheld. Commitments made by Congress have been vetoed or impounded by a President. No party has been able to move ahead on its own agenda for very long, and the result has seen years of government by fits and starts, with a mounting backlog of unkept promises and unmet needs.
The second danger, the APSA committee said, “is that the American people may go too far for the safety of constitutional government in compensating for this inadequacy by shifting excessive responsibility to the President.” The weakness and frustration of responsible party government at the state and local level are more serious than at the national level. This has caused most of our major issues to go to Washington for rulings.
In Washington, power has increasingly been stripped from Congress and the departments and been centralized in the White House. The sustained support that a responsible party system could provide for passage and implementation of a long-term program, however each of the last four Presidents have been forced to manage their governmental policies and strategy on a day-to-day basis. Hoping that some temporary alliance would permit them to overcome the innate stillness of the vast governmental system.
As the APSA committee predicted, this situation has produced the type of ”president who exploits skillfully the arts of demagoguery, who uses the whole country as his political backyard, and who does not mind turning into the embodiment of personal government” But even the highly personalized presidency of our era has not managed to cope successfully with the problems challenging America. We have seen with the current election that neither candidate was able to sway enough votes from rival party lines to claim the presidency. The two party system makes it difficult to gain votes from across party lines, therefore requiring a unified party and high voter turnout to win the presidency.
The third danger, the APSA committee said, “is that with growing public cynicism and continuing proof of the ineffectiveness of the party system, the nation may eventually witness the disintegration of the two major parties.” The dissatisfaction, which exists in the two party system, is apparent in many ways.
The decline in voting, the rise in the number of voters who refuse to identify themselves with either party, the increase in ticket splitting, a device for denying either party responsibility for government, and the increased use of third parties or informal political coalitions to pressure for change. Ralph Nader was able to capture the dissatisfaction that many voters had with the two major candidates and take away votes that could have gone to either Gore or Bush.
The fourth danger, the APSA committee said, “is that the incapacity of the two parties for consistent action based on meaningful programs may rally support for extremist parties, poles apart, each fanatically bent on imposing on the country its particular panacea.” Unfortunately, we have seen altogether this type of political polarization. This has been an era of confrontation politics. The concerns for us now are the rising level of public frustration with government and politics. Today, it is not just a few students who believe the political system is not working. There are many Americans who recognize that government is not dealing with the problems that are common in their lives. These issues include crime, drugs, war, taxes, employment and social security.
Another problem of the two party system is the many instances where voters stray from voting for one candidate1. Instead of voting for a candidate, they may be voting simply against another candidate. They are choosing the lesser of the candidates, by choosing the one that offends them the least, not judging on the qualifications of the two. However, the argument that may have the most stature lies in the fact that nowhere in the constitution are political parties mentioned. This argument should take a major role in the determination to rid government of political parties.
The reformation of the two party system has been debated for a long time. It has been suggested that the entire system be abolished, where the country has no political parties. The Democrats and Republicans will continue to thrive in this country. As long as the media continues to devote a majority of their airtime to the major parties, the issue of reforming the system will never become a major topic of concern. Until a third party candidate can gain the necessary support to receive federal matching funds the major parties will continue to win all the major elections.
In past elections, candidates like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have been unable to gain the necessary percentage of the vote to receive the federal matching funds. Another option is to disallow all federal matching funds for candidates. This idea would not work because of the large amount of donors that both parties have. The past election has seen both major candidates raise unprecedented amounts of money. In a sense the candidates who wins the presidency can be classified as buying the presidency, not winning it based on their own political strengths.
Overall, the two party system will continue to be plagued by problems in this country. The current system will continue to be used until a third party can attain the necessary prominence to compete with the Republicans and the Democrats. For a better government for future generations, one without the constant battles for political offices and without separation from the people, the country must look closely at what can be done to change the two party system.
- Ruth K. Scott, Parties in Crisis: Party Politics in America (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984).
- Byron E. Shafer, The Two Majorities: The issue of Context of Modern American Politics (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995).
- Frank J. Sorauf, Political Parties In the American System (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964).
- Martin P. Wattenberg, The Decline of American Political Parties (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).