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Two-Party System

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An illustration of a red and blue elephant with white stars

“We really need multi-party development in this country, because we don’t have a government of, by and for the people. We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors…”
—Ralph Nader

While the United States is theoretically a multi-party system, it has operated as a de facto two-party system since the Civil War. Seventy-five percent of registered U.S. voters currently belong to either the Democratic or Republican party.

Third-party or independent candidates face a slew of obstacles in American politics, from limited media coverage to legal barriers and Congressional leadership rules. Laws regarding third-party candidates also vary from state to state, presenting additional difficulties. In addition, popular belief holds that a third-party candidate won’t win an election, so there is no need to give him or her publicity. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But U.S. politics have not always been solely dominated by two major parties.

Creating the Two-Party System

The notion of “parties” in American politics is not indigenous to American government itself. The administration of George Washington and the first four sessions of Congress were non-partisan. By 1797, factions had coalesced into the Federalists (who supported the policies of the Washington administration and a strong national government) and the Democratic-Republicans (who supported states’ rights).

The Federalist party eventually collapsed, and the Democratic-Republican party split further into additional factions: Democratic Republicans, who became the Democrats, and National Republicans, who became known as the Whigs in the 1830s. But by the 1850s, the Whigs had become bitterly divided over slavery. So-called “conscience” Whigs joined “free” Democrats and nativists known as the Know-Nothing party to form what is known today as the Republican party, while other Whigs joined what is known today as the Democratic party.

U.S. Third Parties

Major third parties in America have included the Socialist Party, Libertarian Party, Anti-Masonic Party, Know-Nothing Party, Constitution Party, Green Party and Free Soil Party. While third-party candidates have never held presidential office, they have ran and won numerous smaller positions at the state and local levels. Third parties have also advocated for issues such as women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and workers’ rights, challenging incumbent parties to put reforms into effect.

There are more than 100 national third parties in the U.S. today, but most lack the ballot status in most states to make a bid for president. The “winner takes all” system of the U.S. electoral college also favors the two-party system. In recent years, the presence of third-party and independent candidates such as Ross Perot in the 1992 election and Ralph Nader in the 2000 election have drawn attention to the need for election and party reform.

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