Why the US two party system is so entrenched

The other day, I came across this Big Think explanation by historian Sean Wilentz on why the US always seems to gravitate to a two party system.

Unfortunately, while I think Wilentz touches on the main points, his explanation doesn’t seem as clear as it could be.

To start off, he refers to the US electoral practice of first past the post voting, or plurality voting, which is a fancy name for only having one winner of an election that goes to the candidate with the most votes.  It’s in contrast to a system that awards proportional representation to all parties that manage to get at least some defined minimal proportion of votes.

Most of the political systems that do some form of plurality voting, tend to have two major parties.  The systems that do proportional systems tend to have several parties.  The tendency of plurality voting systems to gravitate toward two parties is known in political science as Duverger’s law.

Although a more accurate name might have been “Duverger’s trend”, because while most political systems that do plurality voting have two party systems, it’s still possible for an occasional third party (or fourth) to get significant representation in them.  The UK has a plurality system, yet a few years ago it had a viable third party, the Liberal Democrats, who had enough representation to control the balance of power in Parliament.

But in the US system, third parties virtually never get much of a footing.  Occasionally a charismatic presidential candidate manages to get to get enough votes to sway the outcome of an election, but one has never actually won.

Perhaps the most successful third party presidential candidate in American history was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  Roosevelt was a popular ex-president who had only been out of office for four years.  (This was before the lifetime two term limit was in place.)  If there was ever a time when a third party candidate should have claimed victory, it would have been that year.  Yet, despite doing better than the Republican candidate, he only managed to split the Republican vote and throw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

With the exception of a couple of brief periods, the US has been a two party system for our entire history.  Initially the two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.  But this first two-party system had ended by 1820, after the collapse of the Federalists under allegations of treason during the War of 1812.

But by the 1830s, a new two party system had emerged: the Democrats and the Whigs.  The Whigs would later collapse in the 1850s, ripped apart by the slavery issue.  There were multiple parties 1850s and 1860s, mainly because of the convulsions the country was going through in the lead up to and carrying out of the American Civil War.

But within a few years after the Civil War, the two party system was back, now with Democrats and Republicans.  Those parties have remained ever since, although their stances and constituencies have varied tremendously over the decades.  In the 19th century, the Republicans tended to be the progressives and Democrats the conservatives, although the detailed issues were very different.

So, why does the US system so consistently gravitate back to two parties?  Part of it is Duverger’s law, but the utter absence of viable third parties in the US system is striking.  I think Wilentz had the right idea that it is embedded in the US constitution, although not just in the plurality voting aspects.

As all Americans learn in school, the US federal government has three separate branches: the executive (President), the legislative (Congress), and the judiciary.  The Constitution was designed to separate powers between the branches in such a way as to minimize the possibility of a tyranny developing.  This arrangement seems to have worked pretty well, so well in fact that it has generally been copied by the individual states.

However, as Richard Neustadt pointed out in his classic ‘Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents‘, executives and legislators in the US don’t so much have separate powers as shared powers.

What’s the difference between “separate” and “shared”?  In my home state of Louisiana, we have a number of statewide elected officials (treasurer, secretary of state, etc) who operate more or less independently of the state governor.  They’re able to (mostly) stay out of each other’s way.  Their powers are separate.  But that isn’t true between Presidents and Congress or most governors and their state legislators.  To accomplish substantive things, they must work together.  In other words, their powers are mostly shared.

Of course, as anyone paying attention can attest, working together often doesn’t happen.  But the highest probability of it happening is when allies control the different branches.  Without allies in Congress, a President can’t do much more than fairly narrow executive actions, and without an ally in the Presidency, Congress’s ability to pass laws is severely constrained, and both branches can have their initiatives killed by an unfriendly Supreme Court.

For this to work, the alliance needs to be a broad coalition, otherwise it won’t be strong enough or enduring enough.  Our bifurcated system of government requires the coordination from these alliances to function.  But any such successful coalition is going to make decisions that a lot of people don’t like.  The best chance the various opposing constituencies have of fighting the governing coalition is to form their own opposition coalition.

This is pretty clear if you look at the history of how the Democrats and Whigs developed.  President Andrew Jackson was the dominating political presence of his day.  He got things done with his allies in Congress, who eventually became the Democrats.  But a lot of people were passionately opposed to Jackson’s policies, and they eventually coalesced into the Whigs.

Our system of government rewards the largest coalitions, and it is to the advantage of each separate interest group to be in the largest coalition, or if that isn’t possible, to be in the second largest.  In other words, to be part of the two party system.

In our system, the coalitions are formed outside of government and change fairly slowly.  While this can be very stable, it can also lead to entrenched divided government, as it is right now.  It is an arrangement that, while unintentional, is a direct side effect of the way our government and constitution are structured.

Wilentz is right that the only real way to change this situation is to amend the constitution, perhaps radically, introducing proportional representation in Congress or collapsing the executive and legislative branches together.  This would take a two thirds vote of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of three quarters of the states.  In other words, don’t expect movement on this anytime soon.

But the two party system has collapsed twice in American history.  How do we know we’re not in that situation this year?  That one of the third parties isn’t perhaps ascendant?  When asking that question, consider that parties have never won the Presidency until they had a significant representation in Congress and in state legislatures.  Ask yourself how much representation the third party you’re considering has at those levels.  If the answer is minuscule or zilch, then this probably isn’t the year that party will come into power.

One popular reason to vote for a third party candidate is to make a protest vote.  Maybe the major party closest to your views isn’t addressing one or more issues that you care deeply about, and you want to send a message to them.  Protest voting can get the attention of the major parties and convince them to incorporate its views into their plank, but usually only after they have lost an election.  In other words, protest voters should be prepared to watch the candidate on the other end of the political spectrum go into power.


20 thoughts on “Why the US two party system is so entrenched

  1. Many thanks Mike, this is just what I needed. What caught my eye, and which I’d previously been wondering about, was this: “Without allies in Congress, a President can’t do much more than fairly narrow executive actions”. That being the case, then why are so many so fearful of a Trump Presidency, and which could yet happen with (amongst other less likely things) an email bombshell hitting Hillary in October?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Hariod.

      I suspect the damage that Trump could do would be mitigated by his incompetence in working with people with their own power bases, but he wouldn’t be without allies. If he won, Congressional Republicans would do their best to be those allies.

      Personally, I see a significant portion of their caucus as dangerously ignorant and irresponsible, and a danger to the country. I wouldn’t even consider voting for McCain or Romney, despite considering both of them to be decent men, because it would have given that faction much more influence in policy. I certainly won’t vote for Trump since he’s one upped their irresponsibility.

      And while the presidency’s long term policy power is limited, we ceded a great deal of short term military discretion to the presidency during the cold war. Trump would be the commander-in-chief and able to bomb anyone he chooses, start a war if he chooses, or destroy long term alliances if he chose. The remedies would only be after the fact and might come after a lot of people had been harmed.

      Of course, all of that assumes that Trump would pay any attention to the legal constraints on the presidency. I can’t say I have much faith that he would. The result could either be impeachment, or an authoritarian regime of the type he seems to admire so much.

      So don’t kid yourself. His winning would put our country and the world in danger, at least more danger than it’s in now.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. So, are you saying an American President can, in theory, unilaterally decide to launch a few cruise missiles at, say, Pyongyang, unintentionally provoking a regional or global war with China? There’s no War Office or no need to consult and acquire joint assent with who I think you term the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yep. The idea is that the President should be free to respond in a military emergency. But if Trump woke up one day, after reading about an insult from Kim Jong-un, and rashly decided the little snot needed to be taught a lesson, there would be no one to stop him.

          Interestingly, the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff are NOT in the immediate military action chain of command. For decisions directly related to military action, the regional commanders report directly to the President. The President could call up the US Pacific Command and order an immediate action. The personnel there would have to assume that their commander in chief knew what the hell he was doing.

          The President would later have to account for his actions to Congress, the courts, and the American people, but that might be after a crisis of world proportions had been triggered.

          And let’s not even discuss the nuclear codes.

          Scary, isn’t it?

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Scary indeed. I tend to think Trump would listen to whoever stroked his ego last, changing with the tides as often as he does. He lies so blatantly you have to wonder if this type of lying needs a new word to describe it. There’s really no telling what he thinks or if he thinks, but it’s become obvious over the course of time that he’s worse than an egomaniac. That said, there are limitations to what he can do, as you said, but I wonder how much his wealth could influence his power if he were to get elected.

            And North Korea? Good lord. That’s enough of a reason to vote for Hilary.

            Scary times. If he gets elected, we also have to consider what that says about Americans. It sends a terrible message to the world even if he doesn’t end up pulling the trigger.

            I just watched a film called “Look Who’s Back” (Hitler) on Netflix the other night that I thought was extraordinary. I won’t tell you much about it because the format of the movie evolves in a close connection to the content (which is the main reason I found it so well done). Don’t read the article below until you’ve seen the movie (unless you don’t plan to watch the movie)…I don’t want to ruin it for you.


            Liked by 1 person

          2. I have to admit that Trump’s current chances of winning are shaking my confidence in our electorate. It seems like there might be just enough of a combination of alt-righters and desperate social conservatives, along with enough people clueless about Johnson’s actual policy stances, to possibly throw this election to Trump.

            At times like this, it’s hard to remember Churchill’s statement that democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else that’s ever been tried.

            Thanks for the movie recommendation. It sounds pretty disturbing. Not sure if I’ll be in any frame of mind to watch something like that until after the election.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Johnson, oh lordy. Now is definitely not the time for such shenanigans.

            The movie is fairly disturbing, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. It’s labeled a comedy, believe it or not. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it. I guess it’s best to play it safe and watch it later…especially since you’re already on the right side. But if you have any friends who might be voting for Trump, you might want to invite them over for some educational entertainment. 😉

            Honestly, I don’t usually like to talk about politics in this way, and I don’t usually express a strong opinion since the truth is we have so little knowledge of what’s going on or what the candidates will actually do. But this year feels so different. I’ve never been so adamantly opposed to any candidate. Not even George Bush.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Unfortunately, I do know quite a few people who are voting for Trump, but they’re all of the type that getting them to watch a foreign film is a non-starter. I would have to sneak it into their Fox News, ESPN, or talk radio feed or something :/

            My opinion of Bush is pretty low, but he’s a statesman compared to Trump. About the only good thing I can say about Trump is that his incompetence might limit the amount of damage he could inflict, but even with that he could still do irreparable harm to our republic. Let’s hope people come to their senses.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. In the UK, the 19th century was dominated by the Conservative and Liberal Parties, with the Labour Party appearing in the 20th century and replacing the Liberal Party. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has recently replaced Labour. So these transitions can occur without civil wars taking place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. From what I understand though, the UK’s current system is effectively (if not officially) more unitary, with the head of government elected through and by Parliament, and therefore alliances can be more fluid. Not as fluid as, say, Israel’s with their proportional system, but more fluid than ours.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Prime Minister is the leader of the winning party. Voting for a political party is therefore indirectly a vote to make a particular party leader the Prime Minster. We don’t have your split between executive and legislative.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks Steve. And as I understand it, all of Parliament is elected at the same time. So the members of the ruling party and the PM are tightly bound by common interests. If that alignment gets out of wack, the members of the ruling party can join a no-confidence vote and cause new elections.

          Something I should have mentioned in the post: Here in the US, representatives in the House are elected every 2 years, Senators every 6 years, and Presidents every 4 years. All of these people are elected in their own right and so have their own power bases, and they’re all coming and going at different intervals. Complicating everything is the fact that federal judges are appointed for life and can often render laws unconstitutional. The only way anything gets done and stays done in this system is with long term enduring alliances made outside of the government.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. “Voting for a political party is therefore indirectly a vote to make a particular party leader the Prime Minster.” – True Steve, but only applicable at the point of election, thereafter the PM being undemocratically replaceable by the residing party of power, such as happened with Brown succeeding Blair and now May, Cameron. One can envisage seeing popular figures being put forward as leaders purely as an expedient to electoral success, but then soon thereafter being ousted internally for another. One thinks of Boris Johnson, or even indeed a demagogue such as Donald Trump. Celebrity power on the rise?


          1. Yes, that’s a feature of our system, but of course one’s vote is only to elect an MP. Strictly speaking, nothing further is promised. The MP you voted for may even switch parties after being elected.

            No political system seems to be perfect. In fact, I remember reading about a theorem that purportedly proves that perfection in voting systems is a mathematical impossibility!

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s a good chance you’ll be right. The Republican party seems like it will be different whether they win or lose. And since the two parties are always reacting against each other, this can’t help but affect the Democrats.

      I’ve seen some predictions that the Republicans will become the working class party and the Democrats the urban professional party. Possibly so, for whites. But it’s hard to see black and Hispanic working class voters being attracted to the modern GOP. That would effectively make the Republicans the white nationalism party, chasing away business interests, although it’s not clear whether businesses will find much of a home in a Democratic party moving toward Sanders and Warren.

      All in all, who knows how these convulsions are going to shake out?

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I think that’s part of it. But the US President is limited on what he/she can achieve on a permanent basis without allies in Congress. And since they’re all independently elected with varying terms (2 years for representatives, 6 years for senators, 4 for president), only long term alliances produce enduring results. Our constitution bifurcated the government in the name of checks and balances, which ensured that separate institutions (stable political parties) were necessary for functioning government.

      Parliamentary governments do sometimes have their own problems, particularly the proportional representation ones; sometimes they have trouble forming a government. (Granted, that’s balanced against the gridlock that the US systems spends a lot of time in.) And I’m not sure how democratic I think the PM selection process is in a lot of countries.


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