Edited by Steven Spear, Jr.
Written by Morgan DeLisle
If you’re anything like me, politics are not your forte. You probably agree that they’re important and you probably want to care, but it seems like you’re running around in circles every time you even think about an election or listen to each candidate’s views. Well, to all the people out there who are about to quit reading, you’re in luck:
This article is not about politics. It is about government—there is a difference—and how the two party system works in the United States. We are looking at how our government functions without the distraction of platforms and the questions of which nominee has the sketchiest background.
A two party system can be defined as a system of government where two political parties (organized groups of people with similar views) dominate the legislature. The two party system in the United States formed in the late 18th century at the end of George Washington’s presidency. The two major parties were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, respectively. Even during the Founding Fathers’ time, before parties were as organized as they are today, people aligned themselves behind ideas with which they agreed.
Though we in the U.S. think very highly of ourselves and our way of doing things, there are other systems of government. The United Kingdom has many parties that all contribute and also make alliances with each other. There is something to be said for this multi-party system, especially since many of the countries who use it have been successful and have stayed relatively stable for a long time, even though 5 or 6 political parties might look like a crowded zoo to us.
Let’s take a quick look at how multiparty systems function, and why we only have two major parties here in the United States.
First, many multiparty systems have a parliamentary system of government, where the U.S. has a presidential system. However, Mexico has seven different parties and a president, so a multiparty system is possible while maintaining a presidential system. Some say that the instability sometimes attributed to multiparty systems is due to mixing multiple parties and presidents, but the data has not pointed to either presidential systems or multiparty systems as major sources of instability in and of themselves.
Second, multiparty systems allow smaller parties to thrive because elections are decided through proportional representation. For example, in Mexico, parties have to win only 2% of the vote to take seats in the legislature. Once this threshold is met, parties win seats based on their percentage of the vote (5% of the vote means 5% of the seats). In two-party countries, small groups often see their concerns being ignored because they don’t neatly fit into the agendas or beliefs of either party. With multiple parties, these groups are represented because they can make a difference in the direction of the country.
In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the winner-takes-all system is used to decide presidential elections. Whoever wins a simple majority of all votes cast wins all of the electoral votes in that state. In general elections for many other positions in local, state, and federal government, only a plurality of all votes is needed to win. This discourages people from voting for third party candidates, because we all want to say that we voted for a winner.
In order for the United States to become a multiparty system, voters need to move away from having a mindset of “a vote for a third-party candidate is a wasted vote,” and election law must become inclusive of third parties and minority ideas. Our general lack of understanding of the way that our government (much less the governments of other countries) functions keeps us from considering bold ideas for reform.
In next week’s article, “Two Parties. Twice the Fun?” the pros and cons of a two party system are spelled out, and you can decide if reform is needed or if the current system is working just fine. Until then, pay attention. There’s a lot going on out there.