’s Two Party System Essay, Research Paper
Democracy in the United States is based on the indirect representation of the people by elected officials who are usually chosen by direct vote. Almost from the beginning of the United States’ history, however, two parties have shared the great majority of the elected positions from the local level to the presidency. However, up until the mid-1850’s when the Republican party was formed, other parties such as the Whigs, Federalists, and Anti-Federalists did not last very long. The Democratic Party has existed for much longer, tracing its roots from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican Party beginning around 1792 (Encarta). The two largest parties have changed, third parties have emerged occasionally, and smaller parties–that win few offices–have continued for decades. But the existing two-party system has become institutionalized and has added a persistent layer of mediation between the people and their government. There are both positive and negative sides to this system, but in recent decades citizens’ faith in the two main parties has declined as the Republican and Democratic parties have had difficulty in reconciling the varying interests of the people who make up their memberships. In the 19th century, political parties were much more powerful than they are today. They often motivated voter turnouts as high as 80%. Today, in an effort to appeal to more voters, the Democratic and Republican party platforms have become more vague and moderate. As a result more and more Americans see the two parties as less important and nearly one-third of Americans consider themselves “independent” with no party affiliation, while voter turnout averages less than 50% in each election. The two-party system will probably continue, however, because it has become a key element in the way federal, state, and local government operates.
The two-party system is said to promote governmental stability because a single party can win a majority of political offices and, with less bickering between differing and partisan legislators, govern more efficiently. In a multiparty country, on the other hand, the formation of a government depends on the maintenance of a coalition of parties with enough total strength to form a political majority. The weakness of the ties that bind the coalition may threaten the continuance of a cabinet in power. The stability shown by the government of the United States has not been entirely due to its party system, it has been argued, but has been promoted also by the fixed tenure and strong constitutional position of the president, as well as checks and balances built into the constitution to prevent one branch of federal government from becoming too powerful.
The Founding Fathers of the United States did not mention political parties in the Constitution. When George Washington left office he warned the country of the “baneful effects of the spirit of party”(Crabtree 18). and James Madison believed that the new nation’s politics would be structured around a greater number of “factions representing various segments of the electorate” rather than the overwhelmingly bi-partisan arrangement that exists today (Barone 64). Others felt they existed only to manipulate the independent will of the voters. Yet, by the end of Washington’s first term parties had begun to prevail in the Congress and by the third presidential election the candidates ran on the basis of party support. Parties changed more rapidly in the nineteenth century as, for example, Henry Clay’s Whig party declined after his death and “the Democracy of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren” dissolved in factional squabbling. But in the twentieth century the Democratic and Republican parties have been predominant despite occasional challenges from national-level third parties which usually affected only presidential races.
Since World War II, the third-party candidacies of George Wallace (1968) and John Anderson (1980) had some impact, but the 19 percent of the national vote accumulated by Ross Perot in 1992 was the first that may have affected the election’s outcome. Furthermore, in the 2000 election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader accumulated a sizable share of democratic votes. More Republicans than Democrats defected to Perot’s Reform party and this may have allowed Bill Clinton to capture the election from the incumbent, President Bush. Yet the biggest problem for any third-party candidate is that the party system is so important that in polls 61 percent of voters “feel that a president who was neither a Republican nor Democrat would have ’serious problems’ dealing with Congress”(Collett 434).
It is also, as Crabtree notes, very significant that “a candidate such as Ross Perot found it necessary to create a political party to support his independent candidacy”(Crabtree 18). This is a strong indication of the broader importance of parties. While it is bi-partisan politics that affect the management of Congressional business and strongly affect the nature of Congressional legislation, the two major parties also function at every level of politics. As Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee put it, someone who got information about the parties only from the popular press would think that “political parties were mere shells through which enormous sums of money were laundered outside the public’s eye to unscrupulous politicians”(Crabtree 19). But the two major parties are very complex and extend from the national committees throughout the state and local levels. At the bottom of the structure of state party organizations are the precincts, “small voting district[s] that select [their] own committee members” either through local party caucuses or primary elections” (Crabtree 19). The two major parties are also organized at the city and county level, with legislative and judicial committees, and are responsible for putting forward and supporting candidates for most local offices. State legislatures are also organized along bi-partisan lines that echo the arrangements of the Congress in most respects.
The local organizations also have a major effect on politics at all levels up the organizational ladder. Although campaigns at the state and federal level tend to be money-driven and professionally run candidates still require extensive support from local party organizations. Labor-intensive “field work” such as canvassing voters, leafleting, raising funds, getting out the vote, and gathering information on voters is organized at precinct, city, county, and state levels. These efforts, which can aid party politicians at all levels, are most effective at different levels of the organization. Local committees are especially effective in collecting voter information, voter registration, and getting out the vote. State committees were effective fund raisers and also very effective in mobilizing voters. Candidates for congress look up the organizational ladder to the national committees for assistance “in areas of campaigning requiring technical expertise, in-depth research, or connections with political action committees, political consultants, and other Washington operatives”(Herrnson 158).
Aside from their important roles in the management of politics at every level, the fact that grassroots party organizations enfranchise new voters, get voters out to the polls, and involve volunteers means that the parties are good for democracy in the broadest sense. Such active workers will feel that they are more directly involved in the democratic process–and may convey this feeling to some voters. Yet the inevitable problem of a party-based system is that the great majority of voters feel that their particular needs are not met by any one party. The distance between the processes of government and the individual citizen often feels too great. This feeling has strengthened in the last few decades as researchers have found that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the two main parties. The percentage of Americans who feel that the two parties fail to “make the government pay attention to what the people think rose from a mere 13 percent in 1964 to 30 percent in 1995″(Collett 431). In 1992 polls determined that, though Americans still held that the two-party system was necessary, there has been a steadily growing antipathy toward the two-party system and its ability to provide compelling ideas and solutions to the chronic problems of the nation.
This gradual change in attitudes toward the parties is due, in large part, to the fact that the Republican and Democratic parties no longer offer clear-cut alternatives in the eyes of many voters. In the past whichever two parties dominated U. S. politics were often able to build on sharp divisions in the voting population. But today’s parties offer nothing like the divide between agricultural and commercial interests found in the early nineteenth century or the “pro-management and pro-labor-union blocs of voters that polarized American politics half a century ago”(Barone 65). Shifts in party affiliation by enormous parts of the population have made for significant changes in the groups and regions that support the Democratic and Republican parties.
The best known of the changes in party affiliation has been the shift of the solidly Democratic South into the Republican party. Southern voters, who were once known as “yellow-dog Democrats, so loyal to their party that they would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican have left for the Republican party in great numbers”(Leiter 9). The change, which began with the civil-rights revolution, meant that while in the 1930s Roosevelt could win an amazing 85 percent of the Southern white populist vote, in 1960 Kennedy won half, by 1968 Hubert Humphrey “held only about a third” of that vote, and in the 1990s Clinton and Gore, two white Southern Baptists, could not carry any part of the South for the Democrats (Reddy 46). This trend continued in the 2000 Presidential election with Bush carrying a majority of Southern states including the ‘Bible Belt.’ In the urban North social issues (such as abortion) began to drive Northern urban ethnic populations away from the Democratic Party. 1960, when these voters went nearly three to one for Kennedy was the last time more than half of them voted for the Democratic presidential candidate. The third important change that affected party alignment was suburbanization, in 1994 the suburban populations of America cast the majority of the vote for the first time in history and this change has ensured that Republicans today can, for example, carry Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California without getting a single vote in Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco.
But the changes have meant more than a mere shift in numbers and regions. The Democrats retained the liberal, minority, and much of the labor constituencies while the Republicans gathered in conservatives of various kinds. Yet neither party represents a distinctive ideology and, in the struggle to gain or retain control they have taken in many factions that do not see eye to eye on many important questions. The Democrats are divided between their strong liberal base in the Northeast and the increasingly disaffected labor vote which have very different agendas. In a 1994 study the Democratic Leadership Council found that among party members 75 percent said they thought of themselves as what has been called “GOP Democrats (who believe government should help equip people to solve their own problems) as opposed to 20 percent who said they thought more like traditional Democrats (who believe government can solve problems and protect people from adversity)”(Leiter 7). Republicans, on the other hand, have not achieved unity because of the strong division between Southerners’ social conservatism and suburbanites’ economic conservatism”(Reddy 47).
The result of growing internal divisions in the two parties has been that American voters have stopped identifying as strongly as they used to with their political parties–or they may identify strongly only with those factions that they see as serving their particular interests; which leads to increased dissension and makes it more difficult for parties to achieve their legislative ends. While the two-party system has generally facilitated Americans’ participation in the political processes of indirect democracy, the developments of recent years may indicate that they are growing more detached from their roles as members of a democracy and that only an increased number of factional parties will ensure a return to closer identification with the processes of democratic self-government.
Barone, Michael. “Beneath the Two-Party System.” National Review, 11 December 1995, 64-65.
Collet, Christian. “Third Parties and the Two-Party System.” Public Opinion Quarterly 60 (Fall 1996): 431-449.
Crabtree, Susan. “Bosses No Longer the Life of the Party.” Insight on the News, 11 March 1996, 18-19.
Herrnson, Paul. “Field Work, Political Parties, and Volunteerism.” In Campaigns and Elections American Style, ed. James A Thurber and Candice J. Nelson, 152-60. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.
Leiter, Lisa. “We Are the Democratic Party.” Insight on the News, 4 March 1996, 9-11.
Reddy, Patrick. “Campaigning by the Numbers: Political Demographics Mean Trouble for Democrats, But Don’t Necessarily Add Up To Republican Victories.” National Review, 12 August 1996, 45-48.