The American two-party system goes back to the founding of the country. Many of the founders feared that organizing the new state politically would endanger the fledgling republic.
They feared ideological divisions would cause irreversible harm by splintering the unity that created the post-colonial regime. James Madison renounced “the violence of faction;” Alexander Hamilton called political parties a “most fatal disease;” and George Washington warned that an overly successful party would create “frightful despotism.” Ironically, the very founders of the republic who opposed factionalism created two parties. The Federalist Party arose to support a strong national government and oppose the Anti-Federalist Party, which favored a decentralized government.
The two-party system of the Democratic and the Republican Parties dominates politics in the U.S. Only George Washington’s two-term presidency had no party affiliation. Since 1796, every presidential administration had a party name using some version of Republican and Democratic. The familiar two-party system was clearly established by 1856.
When one of the two major parties hold majority status in one or both Houses of Congress, this gives that party legislative power to do a number of things. These include setting legislative priorities, making committee assignments, deciding session opening and closing times, and scheduling leadership sessions.
Conservatives, centrists and liberals inhabit the two major parties. A look at presidential elections also reveals an accompanying number of third parties. They include the Independent, People’s, Progressive, Green, Reform, Socialist and Libertarian parties. Third-party candidates can and do win elections. Such victories tend to occur at the local or state level. The victories, however, are usually short-lived.
Elected officials are accountable to the voters every two to four years. And the currently polarized parties have animated turnout among voters of all political stripes. Voter participation has also surged as advances in communication and technology have enhanced party organization. Having more than two viable parties seems highly unlikely. Even though voters are often frustrated by two-party candidates and issues, polling data reveal that they are conditioned by money, media and history/legacy to think primarily about the two major parties. Third party challenges have been limited and with little impact, usually driven by specific issues rather than more general concerns.
Most voters, then, seem to stick with the two traditional parties rather than embracing “risky” third parties. This perpetuates the political status quo, a known and comfortable place for two party advocates. Not wishing to “waste” their vote, they focus on their preferred Democratic or Republican “electable” candidates.
It has been argued that the two parties’ moderate political strife, keeping clashes within manageable boundaries. Another factor increasingly in play is the nation’s changing demography. The Democratic and Republican parties today are more cemented in their ideologies and more distinct than they were a generation ago. The parties, moreover, hold sharply contrasting views on important issues like criminal justice, women’s rights, health care, gender identity, civil rights, taxes, foreign policy and guns. The country still searches for ways to balance principles of majority rule with minority rights. The whole issue of money in politics also seems to confound solutions.
The two-party system will survive regardless of political turbulence reflected in polling data. The U.S. is the classic example of a nation with a two-party system. The two parties are dynamic. They will respond to new issues and continue to evolve. This deeply divided nation will also continue the struggle to become a place of healing and hope for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual identity, social class or religion/spirituality.