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Commentary: Two Party System (Part 2)


Last time I suggested our two-party system is deeply embedded in our political DNA.  In my American political parties class we examine the nine reasons for the persistence of the two-party system, but they can be summarized by three:

·      Most people feel an affinity, strong or mild, for either the Republicans or the Democrats, and the attachment is usually inherited.

·      Republicans and Democrats in elective office make the rules about elections, and about the only thing they agree on is that they need to keep outsiders out, so they make it very hard for third parties to get on ballots, raise money, appear in debates, etc.

·      Of these rules the most important one is how we determine who wins elections.  In the U.S. the winner of almost every election is the candidate who wins the most votes.  If you come in second, you lose.  If you come in third, you’re irrelevant.  If that outcome is pre-ordained, why should a third party bother?

Beginning in 1932 the Democratic New Deal coalition dominated politics, even when the party splintered again in 1948, and it was not until 1968 and the formation of the Southern states rights American Independent Party that the spell was broken.  The issues then were civil rights and the Vietnam War, both of which created highly-charged social and political divisions, and the Nixon presidency ushered in a period of close competition between the parties, with Democrats usually controlling Congress until 1995 but with many years of Republican presidencies.

Ross Perot’s Reform Party emerged in 1992 and his 19 percent of the popular vote allowed Democrat Bill Clinton to win election with less than 45 percent.  The critical issue Americans were grappling with, although it was not apparent for some years, was technology.  Technology, especially social media, altered existing social and commercial arrangements.  Technology meant automation and also rationalized production, leading to the off-shoring and globalization of the American economy.  Together these disruptions first cost millions of manufacturing jobs and later white collar jobs.  The election of 2000, with George Bush controversially defeating Al Gore only after the Supreme Court got involved, was the pivot point into the new, and current, era.

So three things must happen for our two-party system to realign:

·      There must be at least one seismic economic or cultural shift underway;

·      A new political party must have emerged to challenge the established order, or an existing one has splintered;

·      And it takes about a generation for these forces to come together.

We may be in the middle of another realignment, the result of which might be a Trump Party and a Not-Trump Party.  But it’s much too early to tell.  We can identify realignments only in retrospect.  Maybe we’ll know more when we celebrate our 250th anniversary.

I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready for some old-fashioned stability and durability in the two-party system: A party on Friday night and a party on Saturday night.

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