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.