TCS Daily – Two Parties, Like it or Not

My latest for TCS Daily, “Two Parties, Like it or Not,” is up. The thesis:

It is no accident that our Republic has had a two party system in place in virtually every election cycle since the founding and that the Democrats and Republicans have taken turns governing since 1860. The Constitution all but assures that our politics will be dominated by exactly two parties and politics helps ensure that the current two parties will be the two parties of the future.

Much more at the link. Discuss there and/or here but, please, read it before so doing.

UPDATE: Steven Taylor and Matthew Shugart, political scientists who study elections for a living, have some interesting insights into the issue. Shugart notes that the institutional dynamics that I cite for the US have not held for other cases.

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, Published Elsewhere, US Constitution, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    “Obviating.” Nice to see I’m not the only one using that word.

    Dunne’s “The Dimmocratic Party isn’t on speakin’ terms wiv itself” remains perfectly applicable 100 years later, which I see as an important confirmation of JJ’s thesis.

  2. LJD says:

    It is truly telling of the two-party polarity, when you have to tell people to read the article (prejudgement?)…

    I agree that the system will always produce two parties, but not that the Democrats and Republicans will necessarily be the parties in power. Historically, they have not been, and there is always room for a power shift. It just takes money…

    It is interesting that you mention the two party system forcing the participants to the center. I think what we’re seeing these days is a majority voter base that is centrist, with the parties pulling outward. How many moderate candidates have been ousted because their position on an issue that ‘looks’ too much like the other side? Look at the hanging of Joe Lieberman for example.

    I am often frustrated by the two-party system because of this all-or-nothing approach. That, and the deadlocked legislature and the nasty mud-slinging campaign trail (that lately has become a 24/7/365/term battle to discredit the other guys). Highly counter-productive.

    But, change it will. I think everybody is sick of this. If you look at the inflammaotry issues that divide us, specifically the ones where there is no compromise, I think that you will find most Americans think they are in the middle.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Unfortunately, whenever I post an excerpt of something complex, people tend to comment without actually bothering to click through. That sends the debate off into needless tangents, something I’m trying to police a bit more effectively.

    People have been saying they’re tired of polarization for a couple decades now (recall Bush 41’s 1988 convention speech and inaugural address)but negative campaigning and polarization have been increasing, not tapering off.

    Because of gerrymandering, polarization works quite effectively in House races. In Senate and presidential races, effective candidates target their messages more carefully.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with you completely about the stability of the two party system here and the near-certainty of the present two major parties will hold on to their positions.

    However, is it really true that the intrinsic structure of our system guarantees that two and only two parties will contest for power here throughout eternity? It seems to me that while our system prevents challengers from gaining power that shouldn’t be construed as prohibiting a one party or no party system from evolving.

    IIRC in the beginning there were, effectively, no parties and that was stable for a while. Then wasn’t there a single party situation there for about 30 years in the 19th century?

    Because there is no prize for second place, as in the proportional representation system common in many parliamentary systems, our system encourages — indeed, essentially forces — candidates and parties to the political center in an attempt to get as close to a majority as possible or, in the case of multi-candidate elections, more than anyone else.

    Is that actually what’s happening right now? I see little evidence of it. Quite to the contrary I see both parties dashing away from the center as quickly as their little feet will carry them.

    I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not a possibility that political parties in the United States are beginning to lose coherence and relevance. A combination of the rise of the ultra-wealthy (compared to, say, a generation ago), the power of the conventional media, and the developing power of the Internet seem to me to reduce the economic motivation for a party system (not dissimilarly to the way that careers for women reduces the economic motivation for marriage). That would seem to create an opportunity for gaining power without the backing of a party.

  5. Dave,

    Political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic-Republcians — began to evolve almost as soon as George Washington became President. The elections of 1796 and 1800 made them a fact of life in electoral politics, but the divisions that brought them about were brewing (largely within Washington’s cabinet) from the beginning.

  6. Dave,

    One further thought:

    Yes, its true that the Democrats did dominate the White House during the first half of the 19th Century, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a two-party system. After the Federalists died out, the Whig Party challenged the Democrats quite effectively.

  7. I agree with much of your article, except I think you missed the importance of the third party. Not that a third party is likely to win any time soon, I agree with you on that. But if you look at the elections in the last 40 years, 1968, 1992, 1996 stand out for their high third party percentages. In addition, 1980 and 2000 had lower third party percentages, but they did seem to impact the vote in critical ways. In 1968, this helped the republicans because it siphoned support from the democrats. In 1992 and 1996, it helped the democrats. All three of those years saw less than a majority support the winner. In 1980, Regan got a majority, but there was still a strong third party vote percentage. 2000 again showed no candidate getting a majority, so while the third party vote totals were smaller than the other years, they were likely just enough.

    The thing is that to make an impact, the third party needs to be fairly closely aligned to one of the parties. The third party siphon works more to deny a party victory (because it pulls mostly from that party and all the events you talked about pushes victory to the other side), than to push the other party up.

    To imagine the impact of a third party, imagine Hillary, Gore, McCain and Rudy in 2008. If any three of those people run, then one of the parties will win, namely the party that doesn’t have two people from its party running.

    The other thing to recognize that absent some specific events, the natural majority goes to the republicans, reflecting the nations mid point being slightly right of center. If you look at the last 100 years, the democratic victories can be traced to

    1) third party candidate siphoning off votes from the republicans (1912, 1992),

    2) response to the great depression (1932),

    3) Incumbent winning reelection after case 1 or 2 (1936, 1940, 1944 and 1946, though you can also make the argument that 1996 is due to third party vote)

    4) response to scandal (1976)

    5) response to VP carrying on after president dies (1948, 1964).

    The only other election the democrats won is 1960, which was the closest election in the last 100 years. 112,827 votes separated the winner from the loser (0.16%). I’ll leave it to better students of history than myself as to whether any party machines helped to secure those extra 112K votes.

    For the last 40 years, the GOP advantage has been even more apparent. This certainly doesn’t mean that the GOP can’t lose. But absent scandal, economic disaster or a third party siphoning off votes, the GOP would seem to have the advantage.