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Commentary: Two Party System (Part 1)

One of my favorite lectures to my students at Columbia College is about the stability and durability of the two-party system in America.  I draw a diagram across three whiteboards that dramatically demonstrates this.  It is two very long, almost uninterrupted parallel lines that begin in 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution and end with the present day.

The linearity of the diagram is striking, but so is the regularity of the inflection points, the moments when the system realigns – realignment is the word political scientists actually use to describe the shifts.  By regularity I mean how often the realignments take place and what causes them.

For most of our history there have been two, and only two, dominant parties.  The first were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, who fought over how strong the new national government should be.  The Federalists disappeared in the 1810s and for a brief period the only party was the one that in 1820 became the Democratic Party, the oldest party in continuous existence in the world.  America was becoming democratized in the electorate – property-ownership was no longer required to vote, although you still had to be white and male – and in the candidate selection process – delegate conventions replaced congressional caucuses as the way to nominate presidential candidates.

In 1828 the new Whig Party contested the presidential election and Whigs and Democrats were competitive for several elections until the Whigs collapsed over their inability to deal with the slavery issue.  The Republican Party was founded in 1854 and has been the other major party ever since. 

The 1860 election was about slavery and states rights and only because Democrats splintered into three parties were Republicans able to win.  Lincoln won with less than forty percent of the popular vote, the only time that’s happened.  Most elections for the next four decades were close, with Republicans and Democrats often trading the presidency and control of Congress.

The 1896 election was another watershed.  It was preceded by the rise of the Populist Party in the South and West.  Agrarian radicalism and industrialization ushered in a period of Republican dominance.  It took the rise of another insurgent party, the Progressives, in the 1920s and the Depression to break the GOP lock on government in 1932. 

Maybe about now you are wondering why these two parties have such a lock on American elections?  It’s a great question, and the answer is frustrating, if not depressing, for citizens who desperately want a meaningful third choice to vote for.  I’ll talk about this and resume the chronology in my next commentary.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.

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