Political parties are the American Constitution’s unwanted offspring. The framers warned against the danger of factions but although they are not mentioned in the document, the constitution created powerful incentives for undertaking the activities that created and sustained parties. Because in any system in which collective choices are made by voting, organization pays. Parties are used to build stable legislative and electoral alliances, to mobilize voters, to develop new electoral techniques, and to enforce collective responsibility. In the United States, a two-party competition has endured because of the basic features of the American electoral system. Due to the majoritarian system, the development of professional politicians, the expenses of campaigns, and envelopment of third parties, two parties have been able to dominate campaign process.
Role of the Electoral Process in Maintaining the Two-Party System
The two-party competition has been attributed to a concept known as Duverger’s Law. The principle states that the electoral process reduces the competition to two parties because people tend to vote strategically. In other words, people vote when they believe their vote will matter. Because elections in the United States are majoritarian, winner-take-all affairs, there is little incentive to preserve smaller parties. As a result, generally, “unaffiliated candidates or differently affiliated candidates receive less attention and achieve much less success” (Sides et al., 2011). Thus, third party candidates are not likely to capture the vote of voters who believe that these candidates cannot win, even if their preferences more closely line up with these less familiar individuals. In response, it encourages convergence to minimize the number of competitors because “the brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated” (Duverger, 1972).
Moreover, the American plurality system has led to the development of professional politicians. In time, political power flowed into the hands of people with the skills to build networks of party workers, manage alliance of local leaders, and mobilize voters (Kernell et al., 2013). In addition, the variety and frequency of elections generated by the multi-layered federal system made party management a full-time job (Kernell et al., 2013). Campaigning cannot be simply and half-heartedly done. Campaigns are now handled by people whose careers are dedicated to organizing such efforts.
Third Parties at the Presidential Level
Campaigns are designed to mobilize and persuade and the logistics and technology of modern campaigns are expensive. Media advertising and other get-out-the-vote efforts are costly, more so for presidential elections. Generally, only established political parties have the necessary manpower and the resources to finance these expenditures and make a difference on the national electoral stage.
Therefore, “while the names of an array of third party candidates appear on ballots across the nations, it has been two decades since anyone not wedded to the Republican or Democratic parties has made anything more than a symbolic run for the White House or drawn more than fraction of the vote” (Taylor, 2012). However, these candidates can be influential. Billionaire Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the popular vote as an independent in 1992, attracted potential voters from the two main ticket candidates.
Moreover, third parties in the United States are swallowed by the larger parties. The two parties take their ideas, and co-opt their candidates and platform. For example, the regulatory innovations sought by the Populist Party became party of the New Deal. However, when the extension of slavery became the dominant national issue, a third party emerged to supplant one of the two dominant parties. The Republican Party organized as a coalition of anti-slavery forces.
Evidence indicates a revival of partisanship among voters over the last two decades. Elected officials, candidates, and voters still find them indispensable. Large majorities still admit to a party preference and use parties to guide their voting decision (Kernell, Jacobson, Kousser, and Vavreck). Party labels still carry valuable about candidates, and parties provide the cheap, shorthand cue useful to rationally ignorant voters. Thus, the nature of the campaign process has ensured the viability of not only two-party system, but also of political parties overall.
Ideological Differences Between American Two Major Parties
Party identification has proven to be a strong predictor of the vote in any election in which candidates run under party labels. In the United States, the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, encompass liberal and conservative ideologies, respectively. Liberals advocate using government to reduce economic inequalities and believe in a smaller defense establishment. They are more inclined the regulate business on behalf of consumers and the environment. Democrats are more supportive of programs designed to improve domestic welfare and are concerned with issues of fairness and equality. On the other hand, conservatives distrust the government but believe in using it to enforce traditional moral standards. In general, Republicans favor a smaller, cheaper federal government. They have greater faith in private enterprise and free markets. And unlike the Democrats, they favor a larger military and support lower spending on social welfare. Republicans are only more generous to the Department of Defense. The two parties also differ on several social issues, including reproductive rights and social prayer.
Thus, because of the characteristics of the American electoral system, two parties have been able to dominate throughout the campaign process. This is due to the majoritarian system, the development of professional politicians, the expenses of campaigns, and envelopment of third parties. As long as the current system persists, campaigns will be framed to accommodate the limitation of two political parties. And with the increasing polarization of Republicans and Democrats, there may be dire consequences as a standstill government could be the status quo more often than not. The Founding Fathers never condoned such electioneering, and perhaps in this America, in which disagreements abound, something must be done to eliminate such a wide disparity to accommodate other possible ideologies. Otherwise, change may become unattainable.
- Duverger, M. (1972). Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System. Party Politics and Pressure Groups. New York: Thomas Crowell.
- Kernell, S., Jacobson, G., Kousser, T., & Vavreck, L. (2013). The Logic of American Politics (Sixth Ed.). Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
- Sides, J., Shaw, D., & Grossman, M. (2012). Campaigns & Elections: Rules, Reality, Strategy, Choice. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
- Taylor, G. (2012, November 6). Third-party Candidacies: Rarely Successful, Often Influential. Washington Times. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/6/third-party-candidacies-rarely-successful-often-in/?page=all