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Can the two-party duopoly survive?

Writing for the National Journal, veteran Washington reporter Ron Fournier tackles a question about which I’ve also been wondering: Can the Republican Party, riven between its radical right Tea Party wing and business-oriented traditional wing, stay together?

Fournier runs through a scenario in which Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky makes a credible but ultimately unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in 2016, then stays in the race as a third-party candidate. That would be a dream come true for whomever is the Democratic nominee, although Fournier throws in a little speculation that the Democratic Party could also undergo major stress in finding its post-Obama identity. That last bit doesn’t make immediate sense to me. The first part does.

Since Abe Lincoln was elected in 1860, establishing the Republicans as one of the Big Two parties, the Dem-Repub duopoly has produced the first- and second-place finishers in every single presidential election except 1912 (when Teddy Roosevelt bolted the GOP and finished second to Woodrow Wilson). Looking at the modern history of democracy around the world, it is really unusual for any particular two-party system to be so stable for so long.

The implications of a possible crack in the duopoly  are fascinating to imagine.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/14/2013 - 09:46 am.

    The Republicans

    We have been so focused lately on the Republican Party’s failures that we seem to have lost sight of the fundamental ways in which they have been succeeding. Take a look at the 2012 presidential map:

    In territorial terms, most of the country is Republican. In addition to that, Republicans, because of their control of statehouses, have redistricted the House of Representatives in their favor, something that will continue at least until 2022. And the senate, because of the two senators per state rule, has always favored smaller states, states which now skew Republican. The only reason the Republican Party doesn’t control the senate now is that the Republicans have made some very unfortunate candidate choices, a trend that is not guaranteed to continue. While the national electoral trend favors the Democratic Party, on the state level, the local dominant party is getting stronger, something that in the nature of our system favors the Republicans because state control is important and they control more states. What does this mean in terms of government? The fact is, right now, the minority party, while they don’t control the White House, does have an effective veto over anything the Democratically controlled White House wants to do. And since the Republican Party is essentially a negative party, one that wants to limit government from doing anything, what more than a veto do they really need to ensure the de facto continuance of most Republican positions we have seen in the last four years?

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/14/2013 - 10:25 am.

    The pace of national and international issues is picking up. 4 years of holding back the clock on issues had a price which will only grow when the stalemate is extended to 8 years. The crisis will be intense in virtually any of the national and global issues (climate, energy, security, financial, economic, etc..) and the costs of inaction will be clear.

    Demographic trends, compounding debt, health and education inflation, automation, climate change, energy costs, declining resources, increasing tribalism—all unstoppable–all becoming absolutely unavoidable issues.

    In 4 years, the cost of inaction will be apparent and the Republican party will split into the T-party wing with the same simplistic, jingoistic solutions and a smaller and still reforming Republican party that is struggling to retain relevance in a brave new world that they said could never happen.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/14/2013 - 02:05 pm.


    In contrast to European parliamentary systems, the US is dominated by centrist parties, since we have no easy mechanism of putting together coalitions of small parties with individually extreme agendas.
    So, I suspect that the Tea Party’s main effect will continue to be as an anchor around the neck of the Republican party, pulling it to the right.
    A new political party would replace one of the old ones (most likely the GOP) rather than leading to a plurality system. We’ve had a few cases on the State level (e.g. Jesse Ventura) where third party candidates have won elections with plurality votes, but these were special circumstances not likely to be duplicated on the national level (a lot of people voted for Jesse as ‘none of the above’ and were amazed when he won).

  4. Submitted by Jim Camery on 02/14/2013 - 02:27 pm.

    Wait until redistricting

    A lot can happen between now and 2020, but the current Repub hold on the House is entirely due to redistricting. The aggregate Dem vote for House candidates was over 500,000 more than for Repubs in 2012. With neutrally-selected districts, the Dems would hold the House right now.

  5. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 02/14/2013 - 05:51 pm.


    The aggregate Dem vote was over 1.4 million more than the Repubs in 2012. Yet they only picked up 8 seats.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/15/2013 - 10:26 am.

    The presidency

    During the campaign, some Republican guy assuaged doubts about Romney’s conservative credential by arguing that because of tea party control of Congress, any attempt by Mitt to step out of line could be quickly throttled. He wasn’t nearly as wrong as I would have liked him to be, and the logic applies almost with equal force to President Obama. How different really would an Obama presidency be from a Romney presidency in concrete terms? In each case, Congress has the same veto power over any initiative a president might take. In the president’s first term, in an effort to placate Republicans in Congress, Mr. Obama adopted pretty much the Republican view of health insurance, rejecting the far superior set of programs he campaigned on. Quite apart from the fact, that their failure to take yes for answer, the result was a Republican, as opposed to a Democratic health car plan was enacted into law, one very similar to a plan Romney would have sought.

    With government power effectively centered in the Republican controlled Congress, there really is very little a Democratic president can do. The fact is we spend a lot of time a lot of effort in electing folks to the presidency, an office that just doesn’t matter much anymore.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/15/2013 - 01:59 pm.

      It is pretty clear that Harry Reed will settle invariably for a quarter-glass when a half-glass is possible.

      I, for one, believe that Mr. Romney truly felt and believed his assessment of 47% of the population. He confirmed it by his remarks after the election.

      And, the Romney cabinet would have been filled by various Bush administration people.

      Those three things make me glad that Obama is president. Even if he is stale-mated or lags on virtually every issue.

      I’ll leave you with a quote from Grover Nordquist who saw Romney as a weak and passive candidate:


      ….All we have to do is replace Obama. … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.

      The requirement for president?

      Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

      (end quote)

      Not being Republican or Romney may have to be enough in these times.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/15/2013 - 12:31 pm.


    When thinking about Obamacare, it’s important to understand that Republicans didn’t oppose it because of any fundamental objection to it’s principles, Rather Republicans opposed it because it was proposed by President Obama. And the result is that Republicans have gotten a Republican health care plan, the defects of which can be blamed on the other party, and the benefits of which, I have no doubt, they will somehow find a way to claim responsibility for.

  8. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 02/15/2013 - 09:39 pm.

    The Faustian Deal – Both parties have sold out

    Both political parties have sold out to the big financial instiutions, who have criminally robbed the middle class. The Faustian deal is that both parties have sold out to get political contributions.

    Both parties have agreed, as a Faustian deal, to overlook criminal financial behavior by the major financial institutions in exchange for political contributions. The result of this Faustion deal has been declining middle class income, home values, and pensions. This failure to confront criminal activity is causing the decline of the middle class.

    The reason for the middle class failure to address the criminal activity by the big financial institutions through the political parties has been the distraction of the middle class. The middle class has been distracted by social issues … gay marriage, gun control, stadium funding, etc.

    In addition to addressing the immediate problems of criminal activity in the financial instiutions, , the middle class also needs to salvage Social Security to avoid being destitue in retirement years. The middle class needs to understand that conversations about “entitlements” and “spending” can be very misleading and could leave the middle class destitute in retirement.

    Social Security, often characterized as an “entitlement,” is, in fact, the largest creditor of the U.S. Government. Cutting “spending” for Social Security debt obligations would, in fact, be a default on a debt of the U.S. Government. Social Security has been fully funded by the contributions of employers and employees and has loaned money to the U.S. Government, which must be repaid. Social Security is a creditor. Social Security is not welfare. Social Security payments are debt repayments by the government, not welfare.

    In conclusion, I think that both Democrats and Republicans have, in a philosophical sense, become one party which is beholden to the big financial institutions. Both parties play to social issues as a way to distract people from the economic issues. The result is the decline of the middle class.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/16/2013 - 11:05 am.

    This is new territory

    The problem the Republicans have is that they’ve had absolutely nothing to offer for decades now. I honestly can’t think of a single successful Republican initiative since Nixon went to China. Reaganomics lead us into to two recessions. The “Republican Revolution” was a bust. And from the Iraq war to No Child Left Behind behind Bush II disaster. The Republicans have won elections, and some short lived ideological victories, but they have no interest in governing, solving problems, or moving forward in any way, all they do is enforce ideology. All they care about is winning elections, but they have no plan beyond that, and nothing to offer.

    I think we’re in new territory because the majority of Americans are finally realizing that the entire Republican agenda is based on magic. Magic tax cuts, magic spending cuts, magic low wages, magic wealth, magic markets, and magic ideology. If we would all just believe in the magic everything would work out. 30 years of magic has put the United States twenty years behind all of our major competitors in almost every way and dumped or economy into a very deep hole. From infrastructure to education Republican intransigence has stalled any and all systemic progress. This can’t go on indefinitely, eventually the electorate is going to respond.

    I’m looking at the Republicans here and I’m just not seeing anything but more intransigence on the horizon. All the Republicans know how to do is leverage division, and that’s not playing anymore. Now they’ll leverage division on each other, you can see it happening already. It will take a while to work down to the local levels to you see that happening already here in MN. Many other states will follow suit.

    Republican Politics since Reagan have been based on a bait and switch. They play to their base with code talk about family values and convince enough swing voters that they’re not extremists. But they’ve drifted completely into extremism and they can’t get out without losing their base, and they don’t have anything other than continued extremism to offer swing voters. It’s a dead end and the numbers just aren’t there.

    To top if off, the Democrats are finally realizing that they have a advantage here, and that if they work around the Republicans and produce results they’ll only widen the gap. The more Republicans vote against success the more alienated they’ll be. As the Democrats become less conciliatory and less apologetic they’ll look stronger and more reliable.

    I still have a hard time seeing the duopoly end because I don’t see the the third party anywhere. When the libertarians make their play they’ll lose, and Republicans will survive, that would be my prediction. But the Republicans will have to be a very different party than they are today.

  10. Submitted by David Wetzell on 05/11/2013 - 05:50 pm.

    The GOP might make Rand their Veep candidate,

    rather than let a rift take place…


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