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The Two Party System in American Politics

Updated on December 14, 2014

Bush v Gore. (2000 Presidential Election)

One of the America's closest elections, and not without controversy.
One of the America's closest elections, and not without controversy. | Source

A Case of Hypocrisy

The global political landscape is becoming increasingly democratic. Gone are the days of monarchy, military rule and phony legislatures. The United States of America has frequently been at the forefront of advocating the democratic mandate onto the constitution of nation states around the world since the end of World War II and they, along with the former European powers have directed the world's governments to conform to their concept of good political practice. In many ways, America's will is a hypocrisy. The Cold War revealed the US would willingly support oppressive regimes despite portraying its sphere of influence as 'the free world'. The recent report into the CIA's interrogation misconduct has stained the international reputation of the country which stresses human rights. The championing of democracy, when relayed by the United States suggests that the only thing better than having one choice in who governs, is having two.

The Winner Takes It All

The United States is not the only democracy with two major political parties dominating the government, but it is perhaps one of the most rigid two party system in the contemporary environment. This rigidity is clearly conveyed to the electorate in the form of the electoral college voting system which completely disregards the votes of the minority whether they constitute 5% or 45% of the vote in any particular state, and the same is the case in an election nationwide whereby the executive or president is elected alongside the members of the House of Representatives. The electoral college votes (calculated on the basis of each state's population) are tallied and the candidate with the most votes overall wins whether they're running for Congress or the Presidency. Bush vs Gore in 2000 aptly sums up this fundamental flaw which could be rendered undemocratic. The contest was neck and neck and the outcome depended on the votes in Florida. Bush was declared winner by an infinitesimal margin and a recount was called for but overruled by the Supreme Court (5-4). Thus Bush took all the glory having won 5 more points in the electoral college than Gore. In terms of the overall voting figures, Bush was a minority president elect, having achieved approximately 500,000 fewer votes than Gore. 51 million Americans who had voted for Gore's voices were essentially unaccounted for in the executive branch or the government however they're votes did eventually transcend into 266 seats in the House of Representatives.

The legislative elections consistently produce only Democrats and Republicans as well as presidential elections. The population of many American states is as large as that of some countries in Europe and having a system which excludes up to half of the voters makes can lead to numerous instances of voter disenfranchisement and on a wider scale, in a worst case scenario, a population of over 200 million eligible voters can vote in a manner which sees up to 100 million people's choices ignored. Voter turnouts can consequentially suffer meaning that the results are not as accurate as the figures suggest and crucially the system seriously restricts the formation of a truly comprehensive multiparty system.

It Comes Down to These Two

Two logo's which developed soon  after their respective parties in the nineteenth century.
Two logo's which developed soon after their respective parties in the nineteenth century. | Source

The Donkey and the Elephant

Voter turnout at the majority of elections, big or small typically exceeds 50% but not by much. Each party has a firm stronghold of support in certain areas of the nation. The democrats reign supreme in the North East and California and the the Republicans do likewise in the Southeast, Texas and the majority of the mountain states.This firm support nationwide makes it almost impossible for any third party candidate to make an impact and win representation for their voters, and in cases of landslide victories, the graphical results can often give the impression that the US is a dominant party system just like in Tajikistan.

Unsurprisingly, there are enormous portions of the population which do not exercise the most sacred of rights by actually voting. Many citizens simply feel like their votes will not matter, that the two dominant parties are two sides of the same coin and that the electoral college system rejects any strong opposition movements. A recent Gallup poll revealed that over 40% of voters do not identify with either party, that is despite many of them actively voting republicans or democrats in elections. Sadly, these voters cast their ballots on the basis that a vote for a smaller, peripheral party will just be a wasted vote. Alabama governor George Wallace was the last third party candidate to make any impact on the House and the Senate in 1968, although to his shame, he was campaigning to reinstate racial segregation. Since then, the country has become more and more bipartisan. There are various established alternative parties such as the liberals and the greens but they struggle to galvanize much support in a political environment which does not reward anything for second place.

1984. One for the Republicans

The results do not suggest that Democrat's Presidential candidate Walter Mondale took 40.6% of the vote. He won one state and the District of Columbia.
The results do not suggest that Democrat's Presidential candidate Walter Mondale took 40.6% of the vote. He won one state and the District of Columbia. | Source

Average Party Identification Data (1988-2013)

Record numbers now consider themselves independent voters.
Record numbers now consider themselves independent voters. | Source

An Alternative Point of View

It's always good to examine an altogether opposing perspective. In this instance, there are some positives to the American system:

1) Extremist parties will have no impact on the political direction of the US because their niche support will never be enough for them to win representation on Capitol Hill.

2) The two main parties could be perceived as an agglomeration of all the centrist elements of contemporary politics in the US and consequentially the two party system is a lot more than just two different political discourses. You could have a democrat who's social values are as liberal as their views on management of the economy, despite economic liberalization being more of a republican virtue.

3) It could be that the two party system is testament to America's conviction in its government. It's unlikely, but the consistent success of both major parties could be indicative of their political merit.

The Agony of Choice

1912. A Multiparty Election

At the peak of the the progressive era in the early 20th Century, there was a rather unusual display of political diversity in the now 48 American states. The election of 1912 featured four presidential candidates and the end result was a victory for the democrats (the only one between 1896-1932) but Theodore Roosevelt's political clout had propelled him and his newly established 'Bull Moose Party' into second place ahead of the Republicans. He won six states, 88 electoral college votes and 27% of the vote. In addition to Roosevelt, there was the Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. Debs fiercely advocated fairer labor laws and the nationalization of banks and railroads, he helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World and the American Railways Union and he would run for president in 1920 for the last time, from a prison cell in Atlanta. Unfortunately for Debs and the socialists (and probably for the well-being of most Americans), he could not gather enough support to enter Congress.

The candidates of 1912 would have all found it very difficult to obtain any popularity in contemporary American political discourse, but this period did demonstrate that a muli-party election could be compatible with the electoral college system. The difficulty today lays in the inability to build a firm and solid support base from scratch.


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    • Daniel Bassilios profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Bassilios 

      4 years ago from Newcastle Upon Tyne

      We have similar limitations in the UK, but people are finally realising this. Much of the blame rests with First Past The Post.

    • NathaNater profile image


      4 years ago

      Good examination of the American electoral system. We are definitely limited in terms of choices here, in our electoral system.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Same could be said for China. You can always vote, but only for the communist party.

    • Daniel Bassilios profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Bassilios 

      4 years ago from Newcastle Upon Tyne

      Thank you Venus. I myself have only briefly examined American Politics but I fail to see how their system is what one might call democratic. That said, in an alternate reality where there are multi-party elections within the same system, I would be less critical.

      One political commentator went so far as to call US politics an 'elected dictatorship'.

    • Venus Rivera profile image

      Daisy Rivera 

      4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Great hub, Daniel. This article has a lot of good information that would be helpful for new voters.


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