When George Washington gave his farewell address to the nation in 1796 as he stepped down from the presidency, he warned against a political system with only two parties, noting that they would divide the nation. However, the politics of the 1790s were defined by two distinct parties, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Much like today, these two parties disagreed on fundamental issues such as foreign policy and federal power.
Today, the two-party system remains dominant in the United States. While many political activists have criticized this system as Washington did, the two-party approach remains the primary approach to American politics.
How Does the Two-Party System Shape American Politics?
A large number of voters register independent of a party because they disagree with partisan politics and do not want to be loyal to either the Democrats or the Republicans. However, the party system is entrenched in how American politics work. Parties select candidates for elected positions, and some people argue that voters would be overwhelmed by having to choose between several independent candidates without any party affiliations.
Party affiliations provide at least some insight into a candidate’s political approach—voters can deduce the candidate’s leanings simply by knowing the general platform of the party the candidate belongs to. Beyond political affiliation, the party system has several other points of impact on American politics.
The party system largely plays into the checks and balances of the overall American political system. Each major party can keep the other in check and prevent them from having complete control of the management of the country. Party leaders often publicly criticize actions and positions taken by the other, which creates partisan politics. Today, many people feel like partisanship has become a self-serving practice rather than a check on the other party.
At the same time, the disagreements between the parties bring major political issues to the center stage, and the resulting conversations help inform the public so individuals can make their own informed choices. Given how entrenched party affiliations are in Congress, it is difficult to imagine a system with more than two options.
Why Is a Two-Party System Dominant in the United States?
The majority of democratic nations outside of the United States have more than two parties in their political systems. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why the United States has adhered to two parties throughout history. In truth, third parties have appeared quite regularly throughout American history, but they tend to either die out or get absorbed by one of the majority parties.
For instance, the Green Party has earned a large number of followers with its message of ecological justice and social equality, but a Green Party candidate winning the presidency is not something that most people would consider a real possibility. Some other third parties in the United States, such as the Libertarian Party, also have political sway. Again, a Libertarian presidency is highly unlikely to ever happen.
The two-party system dates back to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists already mentioned. Two of George Washington’s cabinet members, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, disagreed on fundamental issues and created two factions that have largely developed into the Republicans and Democrats. However, the two-party divide started even before that with divisions over the Constitution.
You could say that the two-party system is truly American in the sense that it defines the earliest embodiments of the government. Also, the winner-take-all electoral system in the United States supports a two-party system. In American elections, the person who gets the most votes wins even if they do not have a majority. If a third-party candidate gets 15 percent of the vote for every contested seat, for example, they will still not get any seats without a majority. In most elections, one of the two major parties wins a plurality and the third parties get shut out of office.
Will a Two-Party System Continue to Exist in the United States?
The other thing to keep in mind is that Republicans and Democrats agree on many fundamental issues. While it is easy to get caught up in the bickering between the two parties, neither one is arguing to get rid of the Constitution. Both parties believe in liberty, individualism, and equality, even if they define those concepts differently. Also, both parties accept the overall election system, even if they advocate for some changes. Countries with multi-party systems often have much deeper divides than those that exist in the United States. In Russia, for example, major parties advocating for communism, socialism and/or capitalism, and ultra-nationalism all exist. These divides do not exist in the United States, at least not in a way that makes the idea politically powerful.
While it is impossible to say how American politics might change in the coming decades and centuries, getting rid of the two-party system would likely involve some fundamental changes to political systems. Most notably, giving power to third parties would necessitate giving proportional representation rather than having a winner-takes-all approach to elections. As it stands, these third parties still play a role in educating the public and putting pressure on the two major factions to reconsider their policies. While a lot of tension exists within the two-party model, it still helps inform the public and engage citizens in important debates whether they identify as independent or not.