The Two-Party System

Political parties frame the debate, recruit candidates, and raise money. The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics and are organized at the national, state, and local levels. Over the past decade in many states, an increasing percentage of the electorate has chosen to remain unaffiliated. Despite dissatisfaction with the Democrats and the Republicans, minor parties face huge obstacles in their efforts to gain a foothold.

The United States Constitution makes no mention of political parties, yet the two-party system has become a foundation of the American political system. The party that controls the White House has a major advantage in setting the national agenda through the bully pulpit, but executive power is constrained by the legislative and judicial branches. Congressional leadership plays a key role in determining the directions of the parties as do the national party committees, state parties and state leadership. Surrounding both parties are constellations of interest groups seeking to push them in one direction or another.

Both parties boast long traditions, the Democrats pointing to Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Harry Truman and JFK and the Republicans tracing back to Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Generally, conservatives align with the Republican Party and liberals and progressives align with the Democrats. There is also the stereotypical image of Democrats as the party of labor and Republicans as the party of big business and the rich.

A more contrarian view holds that the major parties are basically very similar. Ralph Nader often speaks of a "two-party duopoly" and likens the Democrats and Republicans to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The reality is more complicated. In the Democratic Party there is constant tension between progressive and more pragmatic or centrist elements such as Blue Dog Democrats. In the Republican Party social conservatives form a significant element of the base, but there are also libertarian elements. Moderate Republicans are seen as a disappearing breed, disparaged by conservatives as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Then there are groups such as the tea party movement which operate outside the party structure, but seek to influence it even as they in turn are wooed by the party.

Over time, the American electorate has tended to vote so that neither of the parties holds too much power, and fortunes of the parties can change unexpectedly. Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, but Republicans rebounded to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Twelve years later Democrats regained control of the House. When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, Democrats appeared to be in a very strong position. In May 2009 Time magazine ran a cover story showing the Republican elephant as an "Endangered Species" and National Journal focused on "The Shrinking GOP." However, in November 2009 Republicans won governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, on January 19, 2010 they elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in the Massachusetts special election, and in November 2010 they dealt Democrats an historic drubbing.

Is Increasing Partisanship a Problem?

Many commentators and officials believe the partisan tone has become more strident in recent decades.1 Politics has become increasingly professionalized, and candidates of both parties must raise vast amounts of money to pay for pollsters and consultants. The consultants then churn out slick communications attacking opposing candidates. In a fair number of races, campaigns are outspent by outside interest groups whose backers are not apparent and whose messages frequently feature attacks. Always in the background, talk radio, cable television and the blogosphere abound with heated rhetoric.

There have been various efforts to transcend partisanship. During their presidential campaigns, candidates George W. Bush ("uniter not a divider") and Barack Obama ("there are no red states and no blue states") both made bipartisan appeals, but once they were in office they found those sentiments difficult to implement. In May 2006 Unity08 launched with the goal of electing a bipartisan ticket to the White House; the group folded in 2008. In 2007 former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell established the Bipartisan Policy Center. Some are advocating "transpartisanship," an approach which "recognizes the validity of all points of view and values a constructive dialogue aimed at arriving at creative, integrated, and therefore, breakthrough solutions that meet the needs of all sides." New to the scene in the 2012 cycle were No Labels and Americans Elect.  No Labels ("Not Left. Not Right. Forward.") formally launched on December 13, 2010 to "counter hyper-partisanship" and "bring together leading thinkers from the left, right, and all points in between."  Americans Elect ("Pick a President, Not a Party") is working on ballot access in all 50 states and will hold an online nominating convention; "candidates are required to choose a running mate from a party other than their own."

Third Parties: Huge Obstacles

One might think there is an opening for a third party, but uneven ballot access requirements and difficulties raising money, recruiting credible candidates, and attracting media attention form formidable barriers to these parties. Minor or third parties include the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party; there are also a few state-based third parties such as the Independence Party in Minnesota. Occasionally an independent candidate comes forth with sufficient credibility and resources to have an impact in a race.

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