The American political system was not necessarily intended to be only a two party political system. As explained in "The Origins and Functions of Political Parties", George Washington warned against the faction system. Thomas Jefferson was even quoted in 1789 as saying, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Yet, time and time again the two parties, conservative and liberal, appear dominant. The reasons for this have been an increasing topic of conversation as this year’s presidential election draws ever closer. Concerns as to whether the two party system is a good approach to politics or not has been brought up. Opinions discussing whether this two party system is crippling America or helping it have also began circulating.
One reason this two party system has been a growing concern is that the two majority parties are becoming increasingly distrustful of one another. Pew Research survey proves this trend between the two parties. This is the first time in surveys dating back to 1992 that the majority in both parties have felt an intense animosity and unfavorable views towards each other. These factors are contributing to the gridlock in Washington. The average public have began to realize the gridlock's extent and have been discussing how to fix it.
The American public has also been increasingly distanced from the two major parties. According to statistics presented in a U.S. News article titled “Frozen Out”, 43% of Americans identify as politically independent, a number that is higher than it has ever been before. Young voters, in particular, have become more detached from the two major parties than past generations, while 76% of Americans believe it is important to elect independents to break the partisan gridlock in Washington.
The media is certainly an instigator in the promotion of the two party system. It appears incapable of addressing any issue outside of the Democrat versus Republican spectrum. New stations do this by framing complex and important issues as only a simple debate between the Democratic and Republican positions. This misleads the public and suggests that there are only two solutions to an issue that may have several.
But why do we have this two party system to begin with if America is not technically set up to have only two parties? There is nothing in the Constitution that requires there to only be two parties. Even the founding fathers didn’t like the party system and were fairly distrusting of it. Yet it was they who eventually did instigate the different political parties. Since the establishment of the American parties, there have been two main parties.
America also used to have viable third parties though. Third parties such as the Whigs and Republicans eventually became majority parties. Other third parties brought new ideas to the political debates and provided discussions that changed the course of history. For example, the Abolitionists argued for the immediate emancipation and end of racial discrimination which distinguished them from the more moderate anti-slavery advocates as they only wanted a gradual emancipation. The actions that were taken by the Abolitionists to promote their cause such as publications and preachings through religious institutions (this was effective because this was during the Second Great Awakening), all led to widespread hostile responses from the North and South. This allowed their views to enter into the political scene.
What allowed such third parties to take root though and make their way into the governmental positions such as congress? One of the answer is multi-seat congressional districting. Multi-seat districting allowed for multiple candidates to be elected for congress per electoral district. An electoral district is simply an area drawn that allows voters within the district to vote for who they want in the legislative body. Most elections in the U.S. are run by the plurality voting system, where each voter gets to vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes (plurality) is elected. Multi-seat congressional districts allowed candidates with as little as 10% of the vote to be elected.
With Congress’ passing of the Uniform Congressional District Act in 1967, the use of multi-seat congressional districting was replaced with single-seat congressional districting. Single-seat districting allows only one representative to be elected to congress. The use of single-member districts is a disadvantage for any parties without a strong geographic concentration base of support. As with most third parties, they tend to be more geographically diffuse and it makes it harder for the party to gather enough supporters in the area to overrule either of the two major parties’ votes.
Another factor that impairs third parties from gathering support is the Australian Ballot. The Australian Ballot is the ballot system that allows the government to distribute and print uniform ballots that voters then have to use in order to vote. This is currently what is in place but it wasn’t introduced until 1856. Prior to that, state and local governments didn’t print an official electoral ballot; instead voters received ballots directly from the parties themselves. Using this, third parties could easily and inexpensively gain voters. Obviously, there were concerns with voter fraud in the previous system, which is why the Australian Ballet was mandated. However, once the government was given the ability to print ballots, the two major parties started making it hard for other parties to get their names on the ballot. They do this through expensive filing fees, signature requirements or they ban them altogether.
Ultimately, America's plurality-based single member district elections hinder third parties from running as competitive candidates. This system is known to tend towards a two party system, as stated by Duverger's Law. The fact that voters can only cast one vote while there is only one winner for every position, promotes voters to engage in strategic voting and avoid voting for parties they know don't have a lot of popular support. This way they don't "waste their vote". If they were to vote for a less popular party, then they could also risk "splitting the vote" which could allow the opponents to have more votes than either of the other two parties. This doesn't mean third party candidates can't succeed in or contribute to America's political system though.A revision in the electoral prospects for the third parties in the United States is unlikely to happen in the near future. This is because such rule changes would weaken the current two party monopoly that is in power over the electoral system. And such reform would have to be voted by the two parties themselves who are going to be very unlikely to give up power.