In recent years I’ve talked to many Americans who blame some of their politics’ flaws on the two-party system. They believe a third party or multiple new parties would lead to better representation, more compromise, and a healthier political system. In this post I will discuss why it is unlikely that the two-party system will fracture, and also present evidence that the American two-party system is actually better than a multi-party system.
Why is the two-party system here to stay?
- Citizens of the United States elect most of their representatives using a majoritarian election system. In this system all 435 members of the US House of Representatives are elected by single-member districts. The candidate who wins a plurality of the vote in a district wins the seat and gets to represent all constituents in the district. This is also called the first-past-the-post system or FPTP. In the US Senate each state is represented by two senators. Since the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators are elected by direct popular vote. Each state elects its two US Senators in independent elections, so if we consider how the Senate works, we can also detect a majoritarian rule, where states count as districts. Whether we take a congressional district with a few hundred thousand residents, or a state (senate district) with tens of millions of voters, the candidate who wins a plurality gets to represent the whole district, denying representation to the minority. Presidential elections follow a similar logic due to the Electoral College. Each state and Washington D.C. function as if they were districts. Whichever candidate in a state receives the plurality of votes – due to the winner-take-all system which is used in all but two states (Nebraska and Maine), they get all the electors from that state. The only feature of the Electoral College that gives some sort of power to the minority is that if no candidate manages to win 50% + 1 electoral votes, the US House of Representatives gets to pick the new President.
State and local governments also use majoritarian systems to elect their legislatures. On the state level however, there is no electoral college to elect executive officers, (governor, attorney general etc.) as they are elected by direct popular vote.
Heavy political polarization feeds the two-party system. In multi-party democracies with majoritarian elections, parties who share similar values and ideology or simply pursue the same goal – e.g. to unseat the incumbent or defeat a radical candidate, are forced to cooperate. A good example is Hungary, where several parties are gradually uniting into one single party to rally against Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In election systems where there is only one round, parties have to cooperate before the election. In systems where a majority is needed for victory, and a runoff is held if no candidate gets 50% +1 one vote, parties need to cooperate between the 1st round and the runoff. In practice, this cooperation means that these parties support one party’s candidate among themselves in order to win. Once parties withdraw their candidates to rally behind one candidate, they create a quasi-two-party system atmosphere. In the hypothetical scenario that America has a multi-party system, and most congressional districts, senate seats, and winners of the Electoral College votes on the state level are decided by FPTP, parties would have to cooperate before the election. Seats in the US House of Representatives are up for reelection every two years. Therefore, parties would have to cooperate constantly. And cooperation would have to be carried out in several districts across the country. This would encourage parties to form an alliance. If this alliance runs against another party, or another alliance of parties, it is a quasi-two-party system. Gradually, the alliance might evolve into one single party, and we would get a true two-party system. If the Electoral College were to be abolished, and the president were elected by a direct national popular vote, the system would not lose its two-party attribute either. If a candidate receiving a plurality of votes is the victor, parties/candidates would have to coordinate before the election. In the more likely scenario of a runoff requirement if no candidate gets a majority, parties/candidates would cooperate before the runoff. No matter what system we examine, elections would come down to two options in a divided political climate.
In order to make a multi-party system endure, the majoritarian election system has to be changed to a proportional system, which is not likely to happen given the more than 200 years-old tradition of American elections and the fact that neither of the two parties would benefit from such change.
- The weakness of US political parties, paradoxically, is also their strength. The two most common ways of party formation are either when senior politicians break away from an existing party or when a new party is started from scratch. New parties emerge by pursuing a new movement or ideology or advocating an existing one. In many cases, they seek support from voters of a crumbling party. The last time a newly founded party could break through in American politics was in the middle of the 19th century. The Republican Party was founded in 1854, and their candidate Abraham Lincoln got elected president in 1860. The rapid success of the GOP would not have been possible without the collapse of the Whig Party. Founders of the Republican party were abolitionist Whigs who carried over their anti-slavery ideology into their new party. The collapse of today’s Democratic and Republican party is very unlikely, simply because they are too weak.
Parties had a different role in American politics before the mid-1900s than they have now. Parties used to be strong organizations led by powerful party bosses who had an important role in selecting candidates and mobilizing voters. Today, parties in the United States are relatively weak, mainly because the laws and rules under which they operate have taken away these powers. Their vote getting powers have diminished and most importantly they don’t get to nominate politicians – voters do by participating in caucuses and primaries. The power of party bosses has long gone too, especially on the national level. Who would argue that the Chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees are the leaders of the two parties? They only have administrative powers, while in other countries party leaders have real political power. Sometimes parties collapse after big political failures. Either senior politicians quit or voters flee the party, or both. In the US, much of the blame is on voters after a disappointing election or a losing streak, since they select which platform they prefer, and who they want to run on that platform. The primary system also gives parties the opportunity to quickly reinvent themselves. Even a couple of years after a big election defeat voters can completely change the course of a party by selecting different candidates in primaries. This flexible operating structure helps the two-party system survive.
Sometimes parties split. In modern American history there have been a few occasions when one of the parties broke into two. In most cases, these breakaway parties were short-lived and were created by politicians who were running for president, but launched their own party after they didn’t get their party’s nomination. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to incumbent president William Howard Taft. Then, Roosevelt launched the Progressive Party (Bull Moose Party), but his presidential run split the Republican vote and handed victory over to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1967, former Democratic Governor of Alabama, George Wallace founded the American Independent Party. In the 1968 presidential election he ran on a segregationist platform and split the Democratic vote, thus enabling Richard Nixon to win. In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as an independent for president. He received 19% of the popular vote, which is the strongest showing of a third-party candidate since 1912. Perot’s policies appealed to both Democrats and Republicans, and there is consensus that had he not run, George H. W. Bush would have won a second term. In 2016, billionaire Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president. His rise in the GOP as an outsider spurred the Never Trump Movement in the party. Some conservative politicians were considering a third-party bid, but eventually they either rallied behind Trump or endorsed Hillary Clinton. The two-party logic has prevented many to launch third-parties as past examples show that a party split automatically favors the opposition party.
- It is not in the interest of either party to move away from the two-party system. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party dominate American politics. The emergence of new parties would reduce their power so neither party is likely to pursue any form of election reform that would lead to the evolution of a multi-party system. Parties are not likely to do much to dismantle the two-party system, but do voters have any way to do it? The Election Clause in the US Constitution directs and empowers states to determine the “Times, Places, and Manner” of congressional elections, subject to Congress’s authority to “make or alter” state regulations. Thus, the federal government has ultimate power over federal elections. Yet voters can still make minor but important changes to how they elect politicians. Ballot measures can change how primary elections are conducted and they can replace FPTP with ranked-choice voting, in which instead of voting for a single favorite candidate, people will order the candidates from most to least preferred. The losing candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed among other candidates. Results of recent ballot initiatives regarding changing election laws show there is no overwhelming support to overhaul the American election system. Recent international examples also show when voters had the opportunity to change the national election system to be more proportional, they voted for the status quo. In 2011, the United Kingdom held a referendum to replace FPTP with ranked-choice, which could have put an end to the Conservative and Labor parties’ dominance. Sixty-eight percent voted against the change.
Why is the two-party system better than a multi-party system?
- It is not better, but America doesn’t have a real two-party system. As I mentioned before I do not consider the two major US parties conventional political parties. Over the last few decades, they lost most characteristics typical political parties have. Even before the primary system emerged, American parties were somewhat a coalition of several platforms rather than organizations to represent one single ideology. The United States is a large country with massive regional differences, so naturally parties who want to be competitive on the national level need to integrate many views and ideas. The Democratic Party of the 1960s simultaneously had room for both Robert F. Kennedy, a champion of civil rights, and George Wallace, a staunch segregationist. Although deep ideological divisions within each of the two parties have gone away, they still demonstrate remarkable ideological heterogeneity. Today moderate Senator Susan Collins of Maine calls herself a Republican just as conservative Senator Ted Cruz of Texas does. Progressive California Governor Gavin Newsom and conservative Governor of Louisiana John Bel Edwards are both Democrats. If there were multiple parties in America these politicians would definitely not be members of the same party. But in America the two major parties integrate politicians of different views and policies. Both the Democrats and the GOP are coalitions of different platforms.
- Multi-party systems are failing. There are many discouraging international examples of how multi-party systems work. Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a proportional election system. As of 2021 there are more than 25 parties in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. Between the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2021 Israel held 4 legislative elections, because no party could secure a majority or agree on a coalition with other parties to form a government. Italy also has a multi-party system. Since the monarchy was abolished in 1946, Italy has had 30 Prime Ministers, many of whom served several non-consecutive terms. In comparison the United Kingdom and the United States – both countries with a majoritarian election system and two dominant parties – had 15 Prime Ministers and 14 Presidents respectively since the end of WWII. This doesn’t mean that a multi-party system in America would bring such a high level of political instability and inability to govern like in Israel or in Italy. The United States has a presidential system, not parliamentarism, thus the President has a four-year mandate to govern regardless of which party has a majority in Congress. But multi-party democracies have recently shifted from consensus and cooperation to instability and incapacity. Recently in the US there have been many calls to abolish the filibuster and let a simple majority pass most legislation in the Senate in order to make Congress more effective.. If there were multiple parties, getting legislation through Congress would be at least as difficult as it is now with the minority obstructing the process.
- Multi-party systems are unfair too. Opponents of the two-party system argue that it is unfair. They say other parties don’t have any chance to represent their agenda and their voters in this system. But as I wrote earlier America’s two-party system is unique because of the universal primary system. In another country, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would have launched their own party. Their party might have stolen a chunk of supporters from other parties and they might have had some form of influence on governing, possibly in the form of coalition partners in government. But in America outsiders can take over relatively easily either party by running in the primaries. Thus, new ideas and outsider politicians have the chance to integrate themselves into the two-party system. The logos of both Republicans and Democrats have been the same for a long time, but who would argue that Donald Trump’s Republican Party is the same as George H. W. Bush’s? American parties change. The names of the parties are constant, but their politics change over time. Critics of the two-party system forget to mention the disadvantages of having multiple-parties. One of the main problems with multi-party democracies is the opportunity for party leaders to bypass voters and make backdoor deals. In two-party systems one party is the majority, the other party is the minority in the legislature. In democracies where there are more than two parties, there is a chance no party has a majority. Thus, two or more parties need to cooperate in order to support a government (in parliamentary systems) and/or to pass legislation (in presidential systems). Sometimes parties only begin to cooperate after the election and they make a deal with a party which they ran against before the election. In the United Kingdom – which historically had two dominant parties – a third-party, the Liberal Democrats had grown the size of their caucus in parliament by the 2000s so after the 2010 general election neither the Labor Party nor the Conservative Party had a majority to form a government. The “hung parliament” situation resulted in a coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Many argue that the Lib Dems sold their soul with this decision. In the next election they lost 49 seats with the worst showing in their history. Similar examples in other multi-party democracies – like Italy and Israel, point out the enormous power party leaders have to engage in post-election political deals for power and money.
America’s unique two-party system is likely to stay. As it is not to blame for the current divided political atmosphere, moving away from it would not lessen problems. Americans have all the political tools they need to heal their democracy within the current two-party framework.