Why a Two-Party System?

The two-party system distinguishes American government from most other democracies. Most Western democracies, particularly those in Europe, have multiparty elections and parliaments, but the American government traditionally has had a two-party system, and since the Civil War the two parties have been the Republicans and Democrats. Although the issues, coalitions, and constituencies have evolved over time, the two-party system has remained intact.

From time to time, third parties have gained traction with the electorate, most recently the Reform Party, led by Ross Perot, and the Green Party. However, few third-party candidates hold elected office at the state and national level.

Winner Takes All

Our electoral system is commonly referred to as “winner-takes-all,” meaning that the candidate who receives the most votes is the one who takes office. If there are five candidates running for a Congressional seat, and candidate Jane Smith receives the highest vote total with 30 percent, she wins the election. The other finishers receive nothing.

In a winner-takes-all system, there is a strong tendency toward two parties because voters act strategically, preferring to vote for legitimate contenders than cast a “spoiler” vote for a third-party candidate. As a consequence, most voters eventually gravitate toward either the Republican or Democratic candidate.

Parliamentary systems, which are common in Europe, do not employ winner-takes-all elections. Instead, they use “proportional representation,” meaning that a political party receives legislative representation (seats in parliament) proportionate to the percentage of the vote it receives during the election.

If a third party garners 5 percent of the vote, it receives 5 percent of the seats in parliament. As a result, many European countries have upward of a dozen parties represented in parliament!

What does the term GOP mean?

GOP is an abbreviation for Grand Old Party, and is another name for the Republican Party. The nickname is a bit of a misnomer in that the Democratic Party actually predates the Republican Party by three decades.

Duality of Political Issues

Another reason the two-party system thrives in American government is the duality of political issues. For the most part, there are only two sides to a given conflict. From the time of our founding (Federalism versus anti-federalism), to the present (pro-choice versus pro-life), most of our political debates have been two-sided affairs. It's difficult for a third point of view — and consequently a third party — to gain political traction in a two-sided debate.

That's not to say it has never occurred. At times, third parties have articulated positions and issues that have resonated with the public. What has often been the case, however, is that one of the two parties has then “co-opted” or adopted that issue as their own in an attempt to poach the third party's constituency.

In the 1968 presidential election, Alabama governor George Wallace won five southern states by appealing to “white resentment” of minorities. Four years later, President Richard Nixon incorporated much of Wallace's message as part of his “southern strategy,” and won all five states. In the midterm elections of 1994, Republican challengers successfully exploited popular Reform Party issues like term limits, a balanced budget, and government accountability to end the Democrats' forty-year dominance in Congress.

In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot received 19 percent of the presidential vote, one of the highest third-party tallies in history. In the following election he received 8 percent, another solid third-party showing. Both times, however, he received no electoral votes, even though in several states he defeated one of the major party candidates.

Third Parties Today

Even though third-party members hold very few elected offices, they still play an important role in the electoral process. Voters disenchanted with the Republicans and Democrats can opt for one of several alternative parties.

Green Party

The central tenet of the Green Party is that corporations and other moneyed interests exploit average Americans for their own narrow interests, and that citizen-activists need to participate in the political process. “Greens” believe in radical social and economic reform, and are considered splinters of the far left wing of the Democratic Party. In the 2000 presidential election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader garnered 2.7 percent of the national vote — the most of any third-party candidate that election — and is widely believed to have tipped the election for George W. Bush in Florida, where Nader pulled crucial votes from Al Gore.

Reform Party

Founded by billionaire H. Ross Perot, the Reform Party was established in the mid-1990s to facilitate Perot's presidential ambition. At one point, the party made a serious bid to become a viable alternative to the two major parties. Since Perot's second presidential campaign, however, the Reform Party has lacked a coherent vision.

In 2000, it nominated right-wing political pundit Pat Buchanan as its presidential candidate. Buchanan's poor showing (he finished behind Ralph Nader in most states) combined with intra-party squabbles have greatly diminished the party's stature.

The only Reform Party candidate to hold statewide office was former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who served one term as Minnesota's governor. Ventura pulled off one of the biggest upsets in political history, defeating two well-known major-party candidates. Midway through his term, Ventura quit the Reform Party and declared himself an independent.

Libertarian Party

Which two animals represent the Democrats and the Republicans?

The elephant represents Republicans, and a donkey represents the Democrats. The animal mascots first appeared in an 1874 Harper's Weekly cartoon.

The smallest of the three “major” third parties, Libertarians believe in radically limited government. Their organizing principle is that government should perform only two functions: protect our borders and keep civil order. Libertarian candidates tend to draw votes from disenchanted Republican voters, much the same way that Green candidates appeal to Democratic constituencies.

Although it has been around the longest, the Libertarian Party is not as well organized or funded as the other third parties. At this point, it represents a philosophical movement more than a political party.

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