The American Two-party System : A Brief History and Why Third Parties Fail

Duverger's Law:

Duverger's law re the two party system and third parties in winner take all elections.....

Explanations for why a country with free elections may evolve into a two-party system have been debated. A leading theory, referred to as Duverger's law, states that two parties are a natural result of a winner-take-all voting system.

Duverger's law also explains why third party candidates have little or no chance of winning in two-party systems.

Origins and History in a Nutshell:

There is general agreement that the United States has a two-party system; historically, there have been few instances in which third party candidates won an election. In the First Party System, only Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party were significant political parties. Toward the end of the First Party System, the Republicans dominated a one-party system (primarily under the Presidency of James Monroe). Under the Second Party System, the Democratic-Republican Party split during the election of 1824 into Adams' Men and Jackson's Men. In 1828, the modern Democratic Party formed in support of Andrew Jackson. The National Republicans were formed in support of John Quincy Adams. After the National Republicans collapsed, the Whig Party and the Free Soil Party quickly formed and collapsed. In 1854, the modern Republican Party formed from a loose coalition of former Whigs, Free Soilers and other anti-slavery activists.Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1860.

During the Third Party System, the Republican Party was the dominant political faction, but the Democrats held a strong, loyal coalition in the Solid South. During the Fourth Party System, the Republicans remained the dominant Presidential party, although Democrats Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were both elected to two terms. In 1932, at the onset of the Fifth Party System, Democrats took firm control of national politics with the landslide victories o fFranklin D. Roosevelt in four consecutive elections. Other than the two terms of Republican Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, Democrats retained firm control of the Presidency until the mid-1960s. Since the mid-1960s, despite a number of landslides (such as Richard Nixon carrying 49 states and 61% of the popular vote over George McGovern in 1972Ronald Reagan carrying 49 states and 58% of the popular vote over Walter Mondale in 1984), Presidential elections have been competitive between the predominant Republican and Democratic parties and no one party has been able to hold the Presidency for more than three consecutive terms, except for the elections from 1932 through 1948 when FDR won 4 elections and Truman one, both as Democrats. In the election of 2012, only 4% separated the popular vote between Barack Obama(51%) and Mitt Romney (47%), although Obama won the electoral vote by a landslide (332–206).

Throughout every American party system, no third party has won a Presidential election or majorities in either house of Congress. Despite that, third parties and third party candidates have gained traction and support. In the election of 1912Theodore Roosevelt won 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes running as a Progressive. In the 1992 Presidential electionRoss Perot won 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes running as an Independent.


Duverger's Law and Third Parties:

A two-party system often develops in a plurality voting system. In this system, voters have a single vote, which they can cast for a single candidate in their district, in which only one legislative seat is available. In plurality voting (i.e.first past the post), in which the winner of the seat is determined purely by the candidate with the most votes, several characteristics can serve to discourage the development of third parties and reward the two major parties....

....A third party can enter the arena only if it can exploit the mistakes of a pre-existing major party, ultimately at that party's expense.

Views: 368

Comment by Tom Cordle on November 6, 2017 at 12:10am

In my view, we de facto have had more than two parties since at least the Fifties, what with Dixiecrats, Goldwater Conservatives and Reagan Democrats. Indeed, the largest voting group may be Independents – I'm one myself and have been so registered for forty years. Given the current state of affairs, with millions of Republicans opting out of their Party and declaring themselves Independents, and millions of Democrats simply opting out of politics altogether or joining a fringe Party like the Greens, we may be in one of those periods of great political upheaval, and I suspect it will come at the expense of one or both of the major parties. It would appear we are headed for a period when there are three or four parties that could be strong enough to sway the outcome, as was the case in 1912.

Speaking of that election, as I recall, TR ran as a member of his own Bull Moose Party rather than as a member of the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party later did mount a strong candidate with Robert "Fightin' Bob" Lafollette.

Comment by Ron Powell on November 6, 2017 at 12:40am

"...we de factohave had more than two parties since at least the Fifties..."

The history suggests that we've had more than 2 parties going much further back than the fifties.

What we don't have is a multi-party system....

Comment by Arthur James on November 6, 2017 at 4:35am


22-minutes ago you commented

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Comment by Arthur James on November 6, 2017 at 4:40am


30 manures?

Minutes have passed

and no comment except 

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Bill Moyers uses term?

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Pain views and Gtoup





Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on November 6, 2017 at 7:22am


Duverger himself did not regard his principle as absolute. Instead, he suggested that plurality would act to delay the emergence of a new political force and would accelerate the elimination of a weakening force;[11] PR would have the opposite effect. The following examples are partly due to the effect of smaller parties that have the majority of their support concentrated in a small number of electorates rather than diluted across many electorates. William H. Riker noted that strong regional parties can distort matters, leading to more than two parties receiving seats in the national legislature, even if there are only two parties competitive in any single district.

BTW, thanks for ringing the death knell for the Democratic party!...  seeing as how there are respectively more members of the Republican party and Independent "party" then there are Democrats.

Comment by Rob Wittmann on November 6, 2017 at 8:56am

I once read that doing away with the electoral college will open up elections to other parties, that its' the "first past the post," and "winner takes all" arithmetic nature of our elections, and how they count, apportion and distribute votes, that ensures the strength of the two party system.

Teddy Roosevelt was the most popular man in the country in 1912. He won the most votes in the GOP primary of 1912. Regardless, he was too progressive for the GOP and they prevented him from getting the nomination. He bolted from the party and formed the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. Despite his popularity, and the rampant unpopularity of Taft, the GOP votes were split and this allowed Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats (who had advanced a modicum of minor progressive ideas---an attempt at triangulation) (as well as some highly racist ideas to woo southern voters) to win office.

If the most popular politician in the United States, at that time, couldn't win by way of a 3rd party, then how on earth could a Ralph Nader, Ross Perot or Jill Stein (regardless of how well-intentioned, eloquent or informed they are)?

The only successful "third party" candidate we've ever had---and you allude to this---was Abraham Lincoln on the Republican Ticket. The 1860 election was the craziest in American history. I think it was split 4 ways, as the whig party was divided, the democratic party was split between a pro-secession and anti-secession wing (each of whom had their own primaries and conventions and candidates). As such, I think the lessons from that election, as to the viability of a 3rd party candidate, are minimal. As Machiavelli would say, Lincoln's election had more to do with external variables outside of his control (fortuna), than variables due to his own agency and planning (virtu). Clearly, he had great gifts. But he could not have, through intrigue, created the national catastrophe and political melt-down that led to his election.

William H. Riker was a professor at my Alma Matter, the University of Rochester. He was a brilliant guy and his works were required reading. Game theory and quantitative analysis of politics is what our political science department focused on, and they are quite renowned for said approach. I enjoyed college far more than law school.

Comment by Ron Powell on November 6, 2017 at 9:33am

@Amy;  The death knell for the  Democratic Party as we know it will come when theGreens, or some other progressives, are able to successfully displace it.

Comment by Ron Powell on November 6, 2017 at 9:37am

@RW  ;  "I enjoyed college far more than law school."

 My guess is that most law school grads would agree with you, including myself.

Comment by koshersalaami on November 6, 2017 at 9:45am

The potential path I see to a third party getting the Presidency is if a viable candidate gets into the race and one of the main candidates implodes with something like a late major scandal. Jill couldn't pull this off because she's too minor, but Bernie now could like Ross Perot did, including being included in the debates. But I think a major party candidate would have to really blow it, probably a Democrat. 

Comment by Ron Powell on November 6, 2017 at 10:48am

The path for progressives is to coopt, ursurp, and displace the Democratic Party...

There will be no Third Party victory regardless of who the candidate is...

Our system is not geared (rigged) to accommodate a third party. ..


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