Two Party System the Two-Party System in

Two Party System

The Two-Party System in American Politics

A two-party system is one in which two political parties have a clear electoral advantage. Other political parties may exist, but in two-party systems the vast majority of elected office positions are held by members of only those two parties. Mutli-party systems also exist throughout the world; in those systems, coalition governments are quite common, while in two-party systems they are very rare. Single-party systems also exist, but these systems tend not to be democratic in a substantive sense, as elections exist only to re-elect the ruling party. China is perhaps the most prominent example of a single-party system.

The United States is a highly visible example of a politically stable country with a two-party system. Proponents of the system argue that it is more stable and more nourishing of democracy than the alternatives. Opponents argue that the entrenched interests of the Democratic and Republican parties do not allow for new ideas to gain traction. While it may be true that the two-party system in the United States creates stable political conditions, the evidence overwhelmingly favors the argument against such a system.

The Two-Party System

Origins in the U.S.

When the United States was still an infant, George Washington, who was not affiliated with any political party, warned his countrymen against amassing too many political parties. He feared that the electoral fractures wouldn't be sustained well by a nation that had just begun to unite. In the years following Washington's inaugural presidency, a two-party system was initiated with John Adams' Federalists opposing Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. The Whigs came next, followed by the now-familiar Democrats and Republicans, but there were never more than two dominant parties in this country at any one time. Our current configuration of Democrats and Republicans has been in place since the 1860s.


Chief among the most commonly cited arguments for the two party system is its stability. Since fringe ideologies are unable to gain enough traction to create political waves, policies are not likely to change in response to short-term demands. Most scholars agree that the U.S. is a fundamentally conservative country, and this kind of built-in stability is therefore appropriate.

Alternatives to a two-party system in a democracy are few. A single-party system is (arguably) undemocratic since only one set of views can be advanced. There are few if any examples of single-party democratic states and indeed, this seems essentially un-American. A multi-party system, on the other hand, is considered by many to be unbalanced and can lead to chaos. Italy is one oft-cited example of a multi-party democracy that has splintered and then suffered incoherent election outcomes (Donnheisser, 2003). The result is a governing coalition that may, yes, represent everyone's particular viewpoint but fails to contain the building blocks for successful governing.

When there are only two parties, the elected officials are forced to develop centrist solutions in order to gain support. Scholars argue that the so-called "median" voter is in fact very common in the U.S. And this kind of pull to the center will satisfy many constituents. Evidence for this argument comes from voter rolls. Only 9% of Americans identify themselves as true Independents; that is, although the number of registered Independents is much higher, the majority of those do in fact consistently lean toward one of the two parties. If only 9% of voters do not find themselves suitably represented by the existing two parties, then we must conclude that "the scope of the ideas of the two parties is broad enough to represent the will of the majority," (Arjmand, 2010).

A two-party system may also be less vulnerable to corruption. Multi-party systems, for example, tend to rely on "government by undemocratic coalitions assembled after the fact, often behind closed doors," (Dannheisser, 2008). In this way, a two-party system encourages transparency in government and allows voters to have a better understanding of who -- or what -- they are voting for when election day arrives. Once their leaders have assumed power, they are more easily tracked through party structures and well-publicized platforms.

Global evidence suggests that the stability of two-party systems is even more profound than is reflected in the electoral or domestic policy arena. Two party states are less likely to experience revolutions, coups, or civil wars (Spiritus-Temporis). Recent research approaches this question somewhat differently, asking whether the number of parties is really the most important variable; instead, Dalton (2008) concludes that the polarization of the parties is more important for explaining electoral outcomes.


New ideas and fledgling groups do not stand a chance in a two-party system. That is, ideas that fit within one or both of the existing parties may find their way to prominence, but single-issue or radical groups will have a very difficult time gaining any electoral traction. Many of those ideas that begin as radical or fringe ultimately become mainstream, but the two-party system slows down that process dramatically. Thus, progression away from long-held conservative principles, even if those principles are out-dated, becomes an uphill battle. People who support innovative thinking and don't believe that conservative principles are right simply for their durability tend to find this delay in policy-making to be unacceptable.

Opponents of the two-party system thus question the value of stability. If the status quo is characterized by high poverty, high dissatisfaction with government, and long-standing social ills, then perhaps stability as a goal in itself is misguided. Democracy is more important than stability, and democracy demands equal access to decision-making. In a true democracy, opponents of the two-party system argue, all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas deserve representation. The two-party system is likely to represent only the majority ethnic and racial groups, and support policies that better the position of those majority groups. Minorities, lower-income groups, and those who favor dramatic shifts in the priorities of government, are probably under-represented in any two-party system. As a result, many of those already marginalized groups become even less involved in politics. Increased disenchantment with the political process can't be a good thing for the U.S.

The two-party system also has some other unattractive and indirect effects, starting with campaigns. Candidates are inspired to run negative campaigns because their driving principle is to beat that "other guy." Rather than take dramatic or risky positions on policy issues, candidates must gravitate toward the center or risk losing their base. Thus, if we assume that the goal of any political party is to win the election and we assume that both parties are courting the same set of voters, then in a two-party system "full convergence of policies results from electoral competition," (Alesina, 1988: 796). The differences between the parties shrinks, and once again voters find themselves faced with a set of bad choices. Voters may choose under-qualified or unappealing candidates simply on the basis of their party affiliation; perhaps more disturbingly, voters may be unable to differentiate between the candidates if both parties shift to a common centrist position.

Once elected, a two-party system creates a legislature geared for opposition. The party that isn't in power is likely to simply oppose policy ideas of the governing party on principle. Debate becomes protracted and adversarial. With a mutli-party system and a coalition government, these tendencies would be softened. Candidates would be more likely to run for office by promoting the policies they support, and then once in office would work to build coalitions to carry their ideas. In other words, a multi-party system re-orients the politics of governing away from "winning" and toward "success."

Those who oppose the two-party system find it easy to identify examples of successful and stable democracies with a multi-party system. Germany and Canada are two of the most frequently cited examples of states with thriving coalition governments and growing economies. Neither state is unstable or dangerous, and both are known for their progressive social policies.

The Future for the Two-Party System in the U.S.

Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the U.S. two-party system, most analysts agree that the Democratic and Republican parties are not likely to give way to a multi-party system. While there have been moments in time when a third party appeared and presented a real threat to the grip of the two major parties -- Ross Perot in 1992, for example -- none of those candidates has been elected as President. E.J. Dionne, a columnist with The Washington Post and a frequent political commentator argues that the existing system in the U.S. is "so durable it takes an economic crisis to break it up," (Dannheisser, 2008). Even the economic recession of 2009 did little to dent the two-party hold.


Every election season, complaints about the iron grip of the two-party system resonate with dis-affected voters. Many feel that both major political parties have come to stand for the same basic things, and that neither is willing to move beyond the current mold to introduce new approaches to long-standing problems. When a candidate emerges from…