"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
- George Washington, "Farewell Address", 17 September 1796
Shortly after Washington spoke these words, they were forgotten. The United States has been fraught with tension between two opposing ideas since the beginning of the nation. Even during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress was divided between those who wanted full separation from Great Britain and those who wanted to remain as what would be the modern-day equivalent of a Commonwealth country. Many years of evolution of the political parties have brought us to the current descriptors: Republican and Democrat. This binary system has served as the foundation for elections and the structure in Congress as well as a jumping point for sweeping, often derogatory, generalisations about both parties. Sometimes, as Washington warned about the two-party system, it can lead to gridlock as politicians refuse to cross the aisle to work with members of the other party. Recently, there has been a move, in both parties, towards extremism. Modern America has become the divided landscape that worried the Founding Fathers and political analysts blame the two-party system. This article will explore why there is a two-party system, whether the system is collapsing and whether it should be scrapped altogether.
The two-party system was born out of the "winner takes all" approach, in which the US political system operates. This means that nothing is to be gained from winning only part of the vote as the Electoral College in 48 out of 50 states gives all electoral votes to the person with the most popular votes. French sociologist Maurice Duverger said that this approach is why any third-party candidate will be unsuccessful - people place their votes for the candidate they believe is likely to win. Thus, the two-party system prevails. The system is not inherently wrong but it is too rigid to allow for the dynamic range of the political spectrum. From Communism to Fascism, there are multiple subtitles that can define someone under the labels of Democrat and Republican. However, these subtitles are ignored on the grand stage and candidates tend to toe the current party line whether or not they completely agree with it.
For example, the Democratic party is host to Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, and Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat from New York. Despite not falling on the same part of the political spectrum and not agreeing much, they are both in the same party. Looking at the Republicans, Senator Mitt Romney, a moderate Republican from Utah, and former US President Donald Trump are members of the same party but disagreed on many policies. The two-party system does not account for these differences and was there to be more than two, one could speculate that these four politicians would all belong to different parties.
Recently, political analysts have been exploring the two-party system in depth and looking at why it is destructive and whether there is an impending collapse. This system is destructive not by nature, but by how it is weaponised by the media. No source is without its bias, but the media is seemingly unable to escape the Democrat versus Republican paradigm. This "simplistic duality" does not represent the vast differences in approaches or theory to a position. Instead it implies that there are only two possible courses of action for any situation. For the system to collapse, there would have to be a complete overhaul of the election process and a massive structural shift in the Legislative and Executive branches of government. Duverger’s theory is correct in that this is not something that can change in a simple process.
It is difficult to predict what would happen if the two-party system were to collapse, given that it has never happened before. Having multiple parties could ease political gridlock as well as present new approaches towards situations. It would also end party infighting, factionalism and the shift towards extremism witnessed in the last few years. American people are very ideologically diverse and a multi-party system would better represent that heterogyeneity.
However, for a government to function, there needs to be a powerful institutional framework that comes from having organised, strong political parties - one which is dominant and another which makes up the minority. Also, a true multi-party system is something that would work in theory but has not worked in practice. In the US election of 1860, there was a multi-party system made up of Republicans, Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Constitutional Union Party. The winner of this election, Abraham Lincoln, won only 40 percent of the vote. So, despite having the highest percentage of votes, 60 percent of voting Americans did not want him as President. In states that present themselves as having multi-party systems, such as the United Kingdom, there are times when parties form coalitions with other parties. Since they no longer are distinct and separate parties, it is not a multi-party system.
At this point in US politics, it is unlikely that any movement to shift towards a multi-party system will be successful. The two-party system is entrenched in the framework that makes up the American government and to upset that balance would cause massive, irreparable upheaval.