Why the same two parties dominate our two-party system

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inI’ve cited it a few times before, but I still get a smile out of what Minnesota political analyst Wy Spano once told me was his favorite cartoon. It shows two voters, meeting on their way out of the polling place, and one says to the other: “Which one did you vote against?”

Having to vote for the lesser of two evils is an old complaint in U.S. elections. This year it may have special resonance for Americans who find themselves with two major party nominees who spent most of this year with favorability ratings that are “under water,” meaning more disapprovers than approvers. (President Obama’s approval rating recently surged to just-barely-above-water status.)

Perhaps this reflects the grumpy mood of the public more than the inadequacy of the candidates. I don’t mean to back-handedly endorse the idea that neither of the nominees would be a good president. But those poll ratings remind us that our American party system provides us with only two meaningful choices in most general elections.

Today, let’s think outside the box for a moment and contemplate the durable rigidity and the quasi-constitutional roots of the U.S. two-party system.

By rigid, I mean that a voter who isn’t excited about either the Democrat or the Republican nominee has little choice other than giving his vote to the lesser evil, or voting for a minor party candidate who has no chance of winning – which in our system is sometimes called the wasted-vote syndrome – or dropping out of the electorate (as an embarrassingly large portion of our potential electorate does every cycle). I don’t mean to provide non-voters with a high-minded excuse for their apathy. And, of course, a citizen can get involved with the party they prefer and try to help nominate candidates about whom they could get excited.

Most have more parties

But it’s just a fact that most of the democracies in the world have more than two parties that play a more politically meaningful role than any third parties do in the United States (or have for more than a century). That’s what I mean by durable.

The Democratic Party formed essentially out of the (Andrew) Jacksonians in the 1820s. In some tellings, the Democrats prefer to trace their roots back a little further to the party of Thomas Jefferson, which called itself the Democratic Republican Party. Fun fact (if you’re as hard-up for fun as I am): In most states, the annual banquet/fundraiser for the Democratic Party is called the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. But in Minnesota, where the Democratic Party is the DFL Party, the dinner has been known for years at the Humphrey Day Dinner and has now been rechristened the Humphrey-Mondale Dinner. End of fun until further notice.

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

But the original historical/analytical point about durability is this (and there is nothing else like it in the world): Since the Republican Party formed in the 1850s and replaced the Whig Party as the second of the two major parties, the two-party lineup has consisted of the same two parties, Democrats and Republicans. Even in those democracies that have a two-party system, the identity of the parties changes more frequently than that.

The Republicrat duopoly is not total, but almost. At the state level, third parties have been relevant. (One of the biggest cases is the leftist Famer-Labor Party, a Minnesota-only institution that dominated Minnesota politics for a while in 1930s, before disappearing in the ‘40s into a merger with the Democrats.) And the centrist Independence Party of Minnesota is probably the strongest state-based third party in the country over recent years, spinning off from the Perot movement of the 1990s and even winning one statewide race (the 1998 election of that great statesman Gov. Jesse Ventura). But the centrist party now seems to be struggling for survival, or perhaps seeking a new way back to relevance.

No one other than a Democrat or a Republican has been elected president since Whig nominee Zachary Taylor in 1848. No party other than the Democrats or the Republicans has held a majority (or anything near a majority or even a numerically significant minority) in either house of Congress since the Republican Party came along. When, occasionally, someone manages to win election to Congress under a third-party label or as an independent, they generally decide to caucus with one of the two major parties in exchange for committee assignments or other borrowed influence.

More amazing

The durability and rigidity of Republicratism is even more amazing when you think about the changes over that period, including many instances in which the parties have traded positions on issues. It’s almost impossible to draw a coherent line connecting the Republicans of Lincoln (a party entirely of the North, the pro-civil rights party that advocated for a muscular, activist federal government) and the Republicans of today. It’s even more difficult when one notes that the Republican line has to pass through the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt Era, the tragedy of the Hoover years and the moderation of the Eisenhower period.

But why? Why so durable and rigid a domination by the same two parties? I asked University of Minnesota political scientist and Congress expert Kathryn Pearson and she surprised me with a two-word reply that clearly seemed to answer the question  (as long as you knew what the two words meant, which I did not). And the two words were: Duverger’s Law.

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

Yes, Duverger’s Law. Good ol’ Maurice Duverger, possibly the most influential French political scientist of the 20th century, noted that the surest way to get a two-party system within a nation was to adopt “first-past-the-post” plurality voting with single-member districts. Translated, it refers to the system used in the vast majority of U.S. elections, most specifically congressional elections. Every election for the U.S. House (and most elections for city council members and county boards) are conducted according to the SMDP (single-member districts, plurality) voting system.

This forces those who might favor a minor party candidate to either vote for whichever of the two biggest parties the voter dislikes the least, or to risk the likelihood that their vote will be “wasted” or, worse, that they will end up helping the major-party candidate whom the voter dislikes the most to win. Minor parties aren’t banned, but they seldom produce a plurality winner, and their lack of success often causes the minor parties to wither and die.

There are, of course, other election systems that are much more conducive to multiple meaningful parties. In tomorrow’s installment, I’ll describe an example.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 10/08/2012 - 05:35 am.

    The voter?

    The durable rigidity of our two party system comes from lobbying.They only allow the voter the choice of the lesser of two evils. It is not embarrassing, but shameful on the checkbooks behind the lobbyists.
    Neither of the two parties can trace their roots to the founding fathers.They have traded positions influenced by money.
    The two party system we have is controlled by the checkbooks not wanting to add a third party to their payroll for influence.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/08/2012 - 09:36 am.

      Exactly – it’s about the money – but others help the two party..

      …system stay afloat as well:

      – The legislatures that make public financing unavailable to 3rd parties, as a practical matter. They also fiercely resist any modification to the election system, such as ranked choice voting, which would create opportunities for minor parties.

      – The NGOs that supposedly support meaningful elections through forums and debates, yet ice out the minor party candidates.

      – Journalists who like to talk about “wasted” votes.

      All these folks make sure that minor parties remain out of the political mainstream.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2012 - 09:45 am.

      It’s also controlled by

      the unwillingness of most voters to do some homework and go beyond the political slogans and ads.
      Lobbyists cannot compel anyone to vote in a certain way, and there are third party candidates on the ticket. Whether these candidates are credible is another matter. For better or worse, the most competent candidates are likely to go where there best chance of election is, which is one of the major parties.
      Ross Perot put plenty of money into his campaign — he didn’t convince most people that he was a credible alternative. On the other hand, Jesse Ventura took advantage of two weak establishment candidates to win as ‘none of the above’.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/08/2012 - 09:19 am.

    Why is this so difficult?

    I don’t know why people have so much trouble understanding this. Our system produces duopoly because it’s NOT proportional. We have a winner takes all system that produces results in separate branches and does not require coalitions go govern. A president can get elected by one vote as long as it’s one vote more than anyone else. It’s the only kind of system whereby a guy like Pawlenty can get elected with way less than 50% of the vote and have the same authority as guy who gets elected with 70% of the vote. The executive in proportional systems is required to form legislative coalitions. Our executives frequently take office with the legislative branch being in the hands of the opposition party. And then there’s the electoral candidate system that pushes us towards a winner takes all result on the national level. The over-all effect of all this is that votes shake down into one off two parties because that’s the only way build enough electoral power to control the government.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/08/2012 - 07:59 pm.

      Electing a President is a different structural problem: the Electoral College. A winning candidate can have less than 50% of the popular vote AND fewer popular votes than a losing candidate. [See the 2000 Presidential election: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_US_presidential_election .] It would require a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, one that’d never pass in enough states.

      You’re right about electing Minnesota Governors and other constitutional officers. Very few winners for any of those offices since the mid-’90s has achieved a majority. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) would help eliminate minority winners.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/08/2012 - 09:26 am.

    Duvenger’s law

    helps explain the problem. Does our Constitution presently allow anything but SMDP voting? I’ve heard instant run-off voting could be a way to end this duopoly.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/08/2012 - 09:55 am.

    Two Parties

    There are also some structural elements in place that hurt third parties. Various states byzantine ballot access laws are meant to keep the two major parties unchallenged, for instance. The debates are also limited to just the two, which is hard on the minor parties. They aren’t given much chance to give their message to the masses.

  5. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/08/2012 - 09:59 am.

    The simple answer is the right one

    It is the voting system. Every year a handful of well-intentioned third-party voters try to make the argument as to why their candidate should have peoples’ consideration, and every year they fail miserably. It’s because they can’t fight the force of first-past-the-post. If we want different results, the only way is to change this system.

  6. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/08/2012 - 10:10 am.

    Sometimes, the problem is structural.

    I am very happy to see Eric Black discussing some of the structural causes of our political woes. It’s really not all the fault of individuals and their ideologies. Sometimes, the real problem is something structural. Some examples of structural problems:

    – the Senate filibuster

    – veto-heavy legislative process (the Senate has the unrestricted power to veto the House, the President has the unrestricted power to veto both chambers)

    – weak or non-existent limits to campaign funding, both directly (to candidates) and indirectly (through advertising)

    – un-proportional elections (in general, the first-past-the-post system of representation by district, which encourages gerrymandering as well as reduces voter choice, but also the disproportional, two-deputies-per-state structure of the Senate)

    – news media being bought up by fewer and fewer owners (encouraged by the inexcusable Telecommunications Act of 1996), while at the same time advertisers increasingly invest in more profitable venues, leaving independent journalism to wither. (Supporting MinnPost is one step I have taken toward solving this structural problem.)

    Kent Fralish’s comment about the force of big-checkbook lobbying is a point well taken, but I consider this problem and the problems Eric Black is discussing to be a case of “both-and,” not “either-or.”


    So obviously, I’m very pleased to see what I regard as the structural problems of our political system up for discussion here. I look forward to Eric Black’s next installment!

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/08/2012 - 12:58 pm.

    Open Question

    (I’m hoping this is related enough to not be considered off-topic.) I understand why some people on the right vote libertarian. What I don’t get is what the Green party offers that the Dems don’t. Can anyone help with that?

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/08/2012 - 02:38 pm.

      It’s about limits to growth and economic justice.

      The reason why the Green Party was organized in West Germany from 1977 to 1980 was largely twofold:

      (1) Left-leaning Social Democrats wanted a less compromised alternative to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – one that would not purge them, as Helmut Schmidt’s SPD was prone to do during the late 70s. This motive is similar to the Libertarian motive to build a “free” Republican Party of their own, one that will not ignore them or dismiss them (as Ron Paul’s delegates were recently dismissed by the Republican Caucus).

      (2) Left-leaning German ecologists were concerned that on a finite planet, it is not possible to solve the problem of economic justice (the traditional primary concern of the Left) in the traditional manner, namely by increasing the size of the economic pie. These theorists expected the ecological costs of more economic growth increasingly to outweigh the benefits, because of increased risk to the health of Earth’s ecosystem. They pointed to increasing reliance on nuclear power, with its obvious risks, as evidence for this claim, among other worries, including: the nuclear arms race, species extinction, land degradation, contamination of the water supply, global warming, and threats to the sustainability of agriculture.

      We have always had Greens here in the United States (indeed, the West German Greens considered themselves an offshoot of our Civil Rights movement and consciously chose a native American plant, the sunflower, as their symbol) – but our Greens haven’t ever elected one of their own on the national level (unless you count Bernie Sanders as a Green), and elections of Greens even at the local level have been short-lived and spotty at best. Contrast this with the success of the Greens in Germany, who regularly occupy more than 10% of seats in the German national legislature (the Bundestag), and who have had a profound influence on all other German parties – so much so that recently, the German national government has decided to phase out German reliance on nuclear power altogether.

      In the USA, Green political concerns have been taken up to some degree by Democrats – generally embraced by liberal Dems, generally dismissed by centrist ones. Hence the need (from a Green point of view) to reform the electoral system, to make it more proportional, as in most of Europe (including Germany). Campaign-finance reform would also be necessary to make a Green Party truly viable here, I think, given the power and influence of our fossil-fuel industry, which still unabashedly pursues and aggressively promotes an agenda of growth at any cost.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/08/2012 - 08:15 pm.

      Green Party principles

      The Green Party in the U.S. has different principles than the Democratic/DFL Party. For example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Pillars_of_the_Green_Party .

      One practical thing they adhere to is better voting systems, including Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and proportional representation (PR). The DFL sometimes uses a version of PR in its internal elections, but for real-world elections its support of RCV and PR (outside the party) has been mixed. (Somebody active in the DFL can confirm or correct me on this.)

  8. Submitted by Jeanne Massey on 10/08/2012 - 05:01 pm.

    If we want different outcomes, we need to change the structure

    Susan Maas says it well! Ranked Choice Voting eliminates the harmful wasted vote and spoiler dynamics and levels the playing field for 3rd parties, which struggle to gain traction under our current system. Another benefit of RCV is that it requires candidates to appeal to voters for second-choice votes, build coalitions and find common ground with other candidates to win. It discourages attack politics and instead rewards campaigning based on ideas and issues, fostering consensus-making and bi-partisan problem-solving once candidates take office.

    RCV is not a new idea and, in fact, is widely used in other countries (in both single-member and multiple-member proportionally represented districts) and in several cities in the U.S., including Minneapolis and St. Paul. More cities in Minnesota are considering it for local elections and there’s growing cross-partisan interest in RCV for state elections, too, as a solution to plurality winners and increasing gridlock. You can find out more about RCV efforts in Minnesota at FairVoteMN.Org.

  9. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 10/08/2012 - 06:09 pm.

    Back to College?

    Most of the posts here raise valid points in regard to various levels of elected office, but the Presidential election is swayed by one giant factor that gets mentioned only from time to time in poll results–the Electoral College. As we saw in 2000 (and a couple of times before that in US history), someone can win the popular vote and still lose because the EC totals are what count. Most analysts seem to agree that the real poll results should only matter in a handful of counties in 6-10 states. Both parties’ machinery is well-geared to that setup and makes any meaningful widening of Presidential choices all but impossible. I don’t know about the accuracy of the Electoral College totals that Huffington Post keeps going, but it has consistently put Obama comfortably ahead of Romney on EC totals, well above a majority of the 270 needed to win, even after last week’s debacle.

  10. Submitted by AmericanPatriotParty RichardTaylor on 05/13/2017 - 08:32 pm.

    The Solution is Easy – Prohibit States from Recognizing Parties

    Prohibiting parties from being listed equally with the two majors in voting manuals, and limiting political party candidates to “independent” candidates status unless thousands of signatures are collected to be “recognized” as a party by the state, limits the visibility, competitive description and competition of other parties. This practice of placing a unreachable signature bar secures the monopoly of the two major parties; It is in direct violation of the first amendment. Richard Taylor, Chair – American Patriot Party.

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