The US two party system

People in the USA have strong opinions about everything– exactly like the rest of the world. And there are many parties in the U.S. that do reflect the wide range of political, cultural, and societal opinions of the American people. But because of the American electoral system, only two parties have to represent them all. It is hard for third parties to push their candidates onto the ballots.

Two party system definition

When a country’s politics is dominated by two major parties, one party usually holds the majority in government. Like in the U.S., the party that holds the majority keeps changing over the years. The two-party system is supposed to grant more stability because the winning party can have the majority in the parliament and govern without forming coalitions as in multi-party systems.

How did the two-party-system start?

Originally, when the American Constitution was written, there was no intent to have parties at all. Actually, some of the Founding Fathers were even against the thought of political parties. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were convinced that political factions would be a danger for the young country and the first president of the United States, George Washington, hoped that political parties would never be formed.

But although Hamilton and Madison originally were against a party system, they apparently changed their minds later and became the core leaders and opponents in the first two parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. 

PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES:

No.

Name

Term

Party

1

George Washington

1789-1797

None

2

John Adams

1797-1801

Federalist

3

Thomas Jefferson

1801-1809

Democratic-Republican

4

James Madison

1809-1817

Democratic-Republican

5

James Monroe

1817-1825

Democratic-Republican

6

John Quincy Adams

1825-1829

National-Republican

7

Andrew Jackson

1829-1837

Democrat

8

Martin Van Buren

1837-1841

Democrat

9

William H. Harrison

1841 (a)

Whig

10

John Tyler

1841-1845

Whig

11

James K. Polk

1845-1849

Democrat

12

Zachary Taylor

1849-1850 (a)

Whig

13

Millard Fillmore

1850-1853

Whig

14

Franklin Pierce

1853-1857

Democrat

15

James Buchanan

1857-1861

Democrat

16

Abraham Lincoln

1861-1865 (a)

National Union (Republican)

17

Andrew Johnson

1865-1869

National Union (Democrat)

18

Ulysses S. Grant

1869-1877

Republican

19

Rutherford B. Hayes

1877-1881

Republican

20

James A. Garfield

1881 (a)

Republican

21

Chester A. Arthur

1881-1885

Republican

22

Grover Cleveland

1885-1889

Democrat

23

Benjamin Harrison

1889-1893

Republican

24

Grover Cleveland

1893-1897

Democrat

25

William McKinley

1897-1901 (a)

Republican

26

Theodore Roosevelt

1901-1909

Republican

27

William Howard Taft

1909-1913

Republican

28

Woodrow Wilson

1913-1921

Democrat

29

Warren G. Harding

1921-1923 (a)

Republican

30

Calvin Coolidge

1923-1929

Republican

31

Herbert Hoover

1929-1933

Republican

32

Franklin D. Roosevelt

1933-1945 (a)

Democrat

33

Harry S. Truman

1945-1953

Democrat

34

Dwight D. Eisenhower

1953-1961

Republican

35

John F. Kennedy

1961-1963 (a)

Democrat

36

Lyndon B. Johnson

1963-1969

Democrat

37

Richard M. Nixon

1969-1974 (b)

Republican

38

Gerald R. Ford

1974-1977

Republican

39

James Earl Carter

1977-1981

Democrat

40

Ronald Reagan

1981-1989

Republican

41

George H.W. Bush

1989-1993

Republican

42

William J. Clinton

1993-2001

Democrat

43

George W. Bush

2001-2009

Republican

44

Barack H. Obama

2009-2017

Democrat

45

Donald J. Trump

2017-

Republican

(a) Died in Office
(b) Resigned from the Presidency

For some reasons the United States has been mainly be ruled by two parties ever since. Political scientists have been discussing this phenomenon, trying to explain why a country with free elections won’t have more than two parties. The leading theory is called Duverger’s law that states that two parties are the natural result of a winner-takes-all voting system. And that is the system that most of the U.S. states use in their elections.

But minor parties have played a role in U.S. politics, nonetheless and there were and still are many of them at the federal and state level. They represent specific themes as, for example; the National Woman’s Party (fighting for women’s suffrage and equal rights in the early 1900s), the Libertarian Party (promotes individual liberty and minimal government) and the Green Party (stands for green politics, progressivism, and anti-war), or the Veteran’s Party, the Communist Party USA, the Prohibition Party (the oldest existing third party in the U.S.) and many more. 

What is the winner takes all system?

Most U.S states follow a plurality voting system (except for Maine and Nebraska) when they vote for a president. That means that after a party determines its presidential candidate, each party nominates a list of potential electors in every U.S. state. Although the process is different in every state, eventually the Democrats have a list of electors for their candidate, as well as the Republicans.

How to become president in the U.S.

Graphic with courtesy of usa.gov

When voters vote for a presidential candidate, they actually vote for either of one of these elector lists in their state. After all votes are counted after election day, only the electoral list of the presidential candidate who got the most votes will be appointed as the state’s electors – except in Nebraska and Maine. There the system allows the electors to be awarded to more than one candidate.

All these electors elect the president. There is no law that tells them  which candidate they are supposed to vote for, although they originally were on their state’s list for a specific presidential candidate. 20 states still do not require their members of the Electoral College to vote for their party's designated candidate, and the remaining 30 states that do require faithfulness rarely enforce punishment for faithless electors.  Although the role of the electors was more prominent earlier in U.S. history, the actual vote by electors is now more of a formality that receives little fanfare in the media.

Electors have changed their minds and voted for a different candidate. But usually they don’t, since the parties carefully chose only very loyal and/or high ranking political members of their party to be an elector.

How can a third party win?

Historically third parties often have influenced the agenda of one of the main parties, but they were never able to get a presidential candidate elected as president because of the

  • ballot-access – criteria that determine if a candidate is eligible to appear on a voter’s ballot
  • debate rules – being able to get into a debate with other presidential candidates that is widely broadcasted is a major component for getting the public engaged and interested in a candidate
  • winner-takes-all system – only the candidate with the most votes gets all the electors of a state
  • lack of money
  • lack of personnel

 So, how could a third party win?

  • First: a third party has to have a lot of money - enough money to compete with the resources of the Democratic and the Republican Party. And that is hard. The major parties have the money not only to pay millions of dollars for advertisements in print and online media and in TV, but also to pay the often huge fees to get on a voter’s ballot in a state. TV ads are one of the most important and expensive tools to get the voter’s attention.
  • Second: in addition to the money needed to pay for all the ads it also is very expensive to get on fifty ballots of fifty states. The fees are high. But in some states a third party also has to prove that it is supported by a certain number of voters in order to get on a ballot.
  • Third: a third party would also need to have thousands of volunteers nationwide, willing to knock on doors, making phone calls to voters, create, print, and distribute posters, and do a lot more that is necessary to bring a candidate to the people’s attention.
  • Fourth: the third party has to meet all criteria to be able to appear in the presidential debates that are streamed nationwide and have an influence on public opinion. But since the presidential debates are organized by the Commission of Presidential Debates (CDP), an organization founded by the Democrats and the Republicans, this organization’s debate access rules make it very hard for third party candidates to appear on these major public events.
  • Fifth: the third party has to have enough popularity to gain the most votes in most of the U.S. states in order to win the presidential election. 

The two Political Parties in the USA

Democratic Party

  • Promotes a social liberal, social democratic and progressive platform
  • Supports diplomacy over military action
  • Wants universal health care
  • Wants stricter gun control
  • Fights for environmental protection laws
  • Believes that the government should be responsible for fighting poverty and social injustice
  • Also unifies a faction of conservative Democrats that sympathizes with some of the Republican’s Party agenda
  • The most common mascot symbol for the party is the donkey (but the party has not yet officially adopted this symbol)
  • The color blue has become the identified color of the Democratic Party

The two parties of the USA: Democrats and Republicans

 

Republican Party

  • Reflects American social conservatism in the U.S. political spectrum
  • Preemptive war foreign policy in order to defeat terrorism and promote global democracy
  • Believes in a more powerful executive branch
  • Supports gun ownership
  • Stands for governmental deregulation
  • Is critical of the so-called welfare state
  • Promotes a free market
  • Also called the Grand old Party or GOP
  • The traditional mascot of the party is the elephant
  • The color red became associated with the GOP

Third parties in the U.S.

The list of third parties is long – even if we only look at the present – and changes. But there are three parties that should be recognized.

The Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party is the only third party that has ballot access in all 50 states. They have won hundreds of elections to state and municipal seats. According to their website, 165 Libertarians are currently serving around the country.

This party was founded in 1971 and got a lot of attention in 1972 when a Republican elector did the unthinkable: he was on Richard Nixon’s electoral list but changed his mind when he was supposed to vote for his party’s candidate. He changed his vote to the Libertarian Party ticket.

In 2009 they gained a lot of support for their cause when they started working with the Tea Party movement to oppose President Obama and the Democrats.

The Libertarians fight for as as much minimal government control as possible. They don’t want any government involvement or influence in all personal matters unless it is absolutely necessary. 

The Green Party US

This Green Party US started in the 1980’s strongly influenced by the eco-socialist West German Die Grünen Party.

This is a far left-wing party with all the usual topics for this kind of a party: environmentalism, social justice, anti- violence, and a social approach to democracy and economics. Although they never won a single federal election, this party has been quite influential.

The Green Party might have stolen enough liberal votes away from Al Gore in 2000 to cost him the election. They have had only a few successes at the state level, but had some success at the municipal level. They have won mayorships and city council seats. 

The Constitution Party

The Constitution Party started 1991 and is very conservative. They support the typical hard-right conservative issues like ending illegal immigration; they oppose abortion and gay marriage and support the death penalty; they don’t want the U.S. to be involved in any free trade deals or treaties and believe it should quit its memberships in the UN and in all other global agencies.

Although they haven’t been very successful in national or state elections, they seem to be able to attract big-name candidates on the state level.

Difference between two party system and multi-party system

Political systems that elect their representatives by proportional representation reflect the range of a country’s political opinions organized in many small parties.

Small parties have a chance to be represented in the legislature if they manage to attract enough voters and are therefore much more motivated to get started in the first place. This way, minorities also have a chance of being represented in the government. But usually coalitions of two, three, or more parties are necessary in order to govern a country.

The electoral process, called the plurality system, operates best under a two-party system. Here, the candidate or party that gets more votes than any other candidate is elected.  This is also called the winner-takes-all system.

In two-party systems, each party has to cover a broad range of political opinions in order to unify at least half of a country’s population under its political program. That is why it might appear as if the difference between the priorities of the two parties is not that big. Although there are other parties that do appear, they usually don’t have a chance to get represented in the government.

Two-party systems are very rare among democratic countries. Most democratic countries decided to go with proportional representation and therefore have coalition governments. 

Other countries with two party system

There are only a few democratic countries, besides the U.S., where two major parties dominate the legislature – for example:

  • United Kingdom – Conservative Party vs. Labour Party
  • Australia – Liberal Party of Australia vs. Australian Labor Party (ALP)
  • Malta - Nationalist Party vs. Labour Party
  • Certain provinces in Canada

 

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