Everyone knows by now that the American system of democracy is dominated by two main political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans. At every level of government from the local, state, and national, almost all elected politicians have allegiance to one of these two parties. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to suggest that this dominance of two political parties actually undermines the American ideals of democracy.
The essay will be organized into four main parts.
- The first part will discuss George Washington’s own warning against the dominance of parties in general.
- The second part will consider the “lesser of two evils” mentality cultivated by this system, using the 2000 presidential election as a case study.
- The third part will turn to a consideration of the effects of the two party system on the current presidential election cycle.
- The fourth part will suggest alternatives that could go a long way toward opening the playing field of American democracy to new parties and ideas.
Washington’s warning against the dominance of parties
To start with, then, it is worth noting that none other than George Washington himself—the first president of the United States—dedicated a substantial portion of his farewell address to the nation to warning Americans against the dominance of parties within the political system. This is Washington in his own words:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism” (Washington).
The main idea here would be that parties, by leading to entrenchment of political power and the polarization of opinions into different camps, would end up creating a situation in which it would become very difficult to engage in the kind of open and civil discourse that characterizes any effective democratic society.
It certainly appears that this prophecy would seem to have come true. After all, it is virtually common knowledge by now that politics in this day and age within the United States has become characterized by a level of animosity between the parties, to the point that the Congress can get almost nothing done. Its members even going to the edge of shutting the working government down before agreeing to work together in a productive way. The Pew Research center highlights,
“The 2016 [presidential] campaign is unfolding against a backdrop of intense partisan division and animosity. Partisans’ views of the opposing party are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century” (Pew Research Center).
Affairs have gotten to a point where the members of the different parties not only do not agree with each other at all but are even suspicious of each other’s motivations. Democrats and Republicans often seem to consider each other as treacherous, unpatriotic, and/or un-American for holding the positions that they hold and advocating for them within the public sphere.
At just this level, then, it can be suggested that the two party system as led to a level of acrimony between the parties that is basically antithetical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. A democracy is at the very least premised on the notion that good will can still exist between different citizens of a society who may disagree profoundly about what is the best way forward for a society they govern. By now, though, within the contemporary United States, even this simple idea has come to seem so idealistic as to almost being a fantasy—which is a frightening indicator, of course, regarding the health of American democracy today.
The two political party system: A lesser of two evils
Structurally, the two party system is also designed in such a way as to narrow down the possible spread of ideas and alternatives discussed in the public sphere, and to prevent citizens from actually voting in accordance with their actual consciences. For example, in popular mainstream discourse, voting for any third party candidate (i.e. a candidate who is not either a Democrat or a Republican) amounts to wasting one’s vote, since common sense would indicate that the third party candidate has virtually no chance of winning an election within the United States.
“The biggest objection by citizens to voting for a Third Party is the ‘wasted vote’ argument—the idea that if you vote for someone who will not win, then the vote does not count” (McAlister).
There is, of course, a serious fallacy present here at the moral level: the suggestion would seem to be that a person should not in fact vote with his conscience, but assume that the two parties offer the only actually possible political futures. This in itself testifies to the extent to which the two party system has undermined real democratic ideals.
What is worse, though, is that at the pragmatic level, the two party system is structured in such a way that voting with one’s conscience for a third party candidate could actually produce a result that the voter himself may consider far less appealing than if he had just not voted with his conscience and went with one of the two major parties. This dynamic was highly evident, for example, in the 2000 presidential election, in which commentators widely stated that third party candidate Ralph Nader, threw the entire election to the Republican candidate George W. Bush, whereas Democrat, Al Gore may have won if Nader had just stayed out of the race. While a large deal was made about the machines voters had to use, the real difference maker was the split created by Nader. The deep irony here, of course, would be that in terms of platform, Nader would have been much closer to a Democrat than a Republican. But the idea is that his very presence split the Democratic vote, which led to the election going to the Republican candidate.
“So it is necessary to set the record straight. Even if you believe (as I do) that the Supreme Court improperly stopped a Florida recount that could well have given the race to Gore, the fact remains that without Nader on the ballot, there would have no protracted recount spectacle and no Supreme Court involvement” (Scher).
In general, this phenomenon is known as the third party candidate acting a spoiler in the race. The main point would be that if Nader had not been in the race, then the people who voted for Nader would have instead voted for Gore, which would have given Gore a comfortable victory over Bush in the race as a whole. Of course, this is tantamount to suggesting that one actually gives one’s support to the greater of two evils by choosing to vote with one’s conscience for a third party candidate. As it is accepted as a basic principle of democracy that one should vote with one’s conscience, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the two party system undermines the fabric of American democracy.
Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in-between
In the current election cycle, it is clearly the fear of the spoiler effect that has caused Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders to throw his full support behind his rival Hillary Clinton, as opposed to attempting to run as a third party candidate. Bill Scher wrote back in May that “polls show that many Bernie Sanders voters say they will withhold their support for Hillary Clinton, and that’s exactly how Green Party nominee Jill Stein likely wants it” (Scher).
Thanks to Sanders own efforts since then, this will likely no longer be the case. To a larger extent, is because Sanders knows that he must do whatever is in his power to prevent the Republican candidate Donald Trump from actually winning the presidency. This means he cannot be the cause of a radical split occurring in the Democratic vote. Of course, this entrenches the two party system further and prevents credible alternatives from truly entering the race.
On the Republican side, there has been some talk of a third party candidate actually running against Trump, with that candidate being fielded by actually principled conservatives who believe that Trump is the embodiment of everything that they have always opposed (Goldmacher). It would seem, though, that nothing had come to fruition on this end.
There is also the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, who could draw substantial votes away from Trump and thus act as a spoiler for that candidate. However, many Republican partisans would not seem to be highly concerned about a spoiler. Trump’s candidacy itself has already ruined this election for them if you consider all the fellow Republicans, and business trying to distance themselves from Trump. In general, the power of the two party system would seem to be waning at least a little with the present election cycle, due to the simple fact that not many Americans are genuinely excited about either Trump or Clinton. That is, the more or less farcical nature of the game established by the two party system is starting to become readily apparent to all.
Alternatives and changes to the two-party system in America
There are two main ways in which the structure of American democracy could possibly be changed in order to address the problems of the two party system. The first of these would involve the implementation of instant runoff voting.
“With ranked choice voting [another name for instant runoff], voters can rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice” (FairVote).
This would eliminate any issues regarding wasted votes or throwing the election to the greater evil. This is due to the nature of instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting works by stating that if one’s first choice is eliminated from the election, then one’s vote is automatically tallied to one’s second choice. For example, this would have meant that in the year 2000, most of the votes for Nader would have automatically been tallied to Gore, once it became clear that Nader was not going to win the election.
The second main structural change consists of proportional representation. Proportional representation is an “electoral system that seeks to create a representative body that reflects the overall distribution of public support for each political party” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
This is quite common in several of the parliamentary democracies of Europe; and relative to the American system, it has the advantage of truly representing the range of opinions within the population in the governing body itself. This is because proportional representation does not adhere to a winner-take-all paradigm. The winner is not simply the candidate who receives a majority or plurality of the votes; rather, each party would be assigned seats in proportion to the percentage of the total vote that it received. This could open up the sphere of discourse to a wide range of new ideas and policies that are not dominant within society but still have substantial and meaningful support nevertheless. Among other things, it could break the stranglehold that the two party system has on American democracy.
The Dominance of Two Main Political Parties on American Democracy: A Conclusion
In summary, this sample essay from Ultius has consisted of a discussion of the ways in which the dominance of two parties within the contemporary political system undermines the strength of American democracy. After beginning with a consideration of Washington’s own warning against the dominance of parties, the essay proceeded to discuss the way in which the two party system essentially prevents or at least discourages citizens from voting in congruence with their own consciences. The last part of the essay then addressed potential changes to the system that could help offset these negative effects. However, it is unlikely that such changes will be implemented in the United States anytime soon, due to the catch-22 that this would involve the two party system itself voluntarily choosing to relinquish its own power and dominance.
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Proportional Representation.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
FairVote. “Ranked Choice Voting / Instant Runoff.” Author, n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2016.
Goldmacher, Shane. “Top Conservatives Gather to Plot Third-Party Run against Trump. “Politico. 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
McAlister, John. “The Wasted Vote Myth.” Free Press. Aug. 2000. Web. 16 Sep. 2016.
Pew Research Center. “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016.” Author, 22 Jun. 2016. Web. 16 Sep. 2016.
Scher, Bill. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. 31 May 2016. Web.16.Sep. 2016
Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796.” Avalon Project, 2016. Web. 16 Sep. 2016.
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