Is It Time to Terminate the Two-Party System?

Isabel Simon (PO ’18)

The two-party system has been a hallmark of the US government since its inception. But it has not always been Republican vs. Democrat; at one time the Whig Party dueled it out with the Democratic Party, and before that, it was some variation of the Republican-Democratic Party against the Federalist Party. Third parties frequently show up on (presidential, but rarely congressional) ballots, but it is not often that they pose a formidable threat to the classic two-party battle. French sociologist Maurice Duverger, the creator of “Duverger’s Law,” posited that in a “winner-take-all” election system – like that in the United States – third parties simply cannot compete. There is no incentive for third parties to run since no prize is awarded to the party that wins even 15 percent of the vote (and often, third parties win far fewer percentages). When the main party in a two-party system begins splintering in some way, the party usually does everything in its power to salvage the pieces, tape them all together, and reinstate some semblance of a uniform party again. In a two-party system, each party’s survival depends on its strength as, for all intents and purposes, half of the ballot.  

The two-party system might look nice on paper: opposing ideological camps, selected in numbers proportional to the majority’s choice, compromise on policy. However, for anyone who has either been living at the whim of the US government or has been observing from afar, the system actually falls somewhere between slow and stagnant. Some see politics as a fight between partisans, where they refuse to find common ground, blocking action from one side simply because it comes from the wrong side. Some politicians outright refuse to work with Congress members from the other side of the aisle. The result is paralysis. And while the government moves at a snail’s pace, domestic and international issues continue along. The US’ most vulnerable residents have been hurting for a long time, and they perceive Capitol Hill as proving its inability to provide a remedy.

This is not a new story. The bipartisan gridlock has existed, hurting mostly black and brown people, for a long time. But for much of America, the most recent presidential election has been a wake-up call, providing compelling evidence for the argument that our two-party system needs reform. Not only has bipartisan government hindered meaningful action, but the parties that comprise this system stand on shaky ground. Republicans find themselves scrambling to remain loyal to party lines, no matter how far astray President Trump veers from the Republican ideology. The conflict within the DNC in the past year has forced Democrats to confront major fissures (the center-leftists versus the socialists) in their party. These intra-party controversies, and the inter-party obstinance seem to benefit no one.  

Changing the status quo requires a lot of energy, time, and resources. What would a new system look like? Some suggest a multi-party, coalition system, like that in parts of Europe. These systems promote reaching across the aisle to form alliances that make compromise more feasible. Additionally, the ability to compromise enables the parties to cover a larger interest pool, which helps to guard against extreme polarization and gridlock we see in two-party systems. However, transitioning the US into a multi-party coalition system would require an overhaul of the electoral system. Who would implement this, though, and how?

To many, it may seem easiest to keep things as they are. A stagnant government is inconvenient but bearable. For others, however, the incapacity of the government to do its job is more than an inconvenience. It threatens livelihoods; it adds more barriers to already-burdensome realities. While making a full transition to a multi-party system would be infeasible in the near future, our government could begin the process by incorporating more coalition-building into the current two-party system. If politicians can compromise with each other, bringing different viewpoints together under one umbrella, this might grease the wheels for action. It would not be perfect, but it would be better than keeping things as they are.

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