I want to address why we have had historically a two party dominant political system this country. Note that I wrote “dominant” here, as there have been and are today other organized parties.
There is the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Objectivist Party, for example. But they have little chance of winning major offices at the state and local level. In other democratic countries multiple, competitive parties are the norm. So why are we different?
We have always had a two party system. Our system began in a division between those who wanted a strong central government (Federalists) and those who wanted power to remain primarily with the states (Democratic-Republicans).
But history alone cannot explain why only two parties are competitive. A two system persists because our method of electing officials, especially at the national and state levels, ensures that third parties can’t win. This method is called the single member plurality district system.
At the state and national level, we divide states into districts. This is done by the state legislature. Drawing districts is a highly political process. Generally the majority party in the legislature is successful in drawing districts in such a manner as to ensure that a member of the majority party is elected. We elect one person to each of these districts; a person is more likely to be elected if he is in district where the majority, or plurality, of voters are of his party.
The process is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandered districts are safe districts for those who are elected to them, because it is very unlikely that voters will elect someone from the other party. Such districts are essentially noncompetitive. The party whose voters are in the minority just can’t win.
And that is even for the major parties. Imagine the chances of a third party having enough supporters in one district to win that district; the odds are astronomical. Kick in the fact that third parties don’t have the resources to challenge the two main parties, and you can see why third parties a pretty much invisible in our country.
Third parties can’t win. Maybe they can at the local level, but at the state and national level, no. And this is a shame. Imagine going to your local pub and on tap is only two beer options. The lack of competitive elections discourages people from voting. Why should they if they can’t stand the choices given them by the two dominant parties?
The range of ideas are also limited, because the candidates don’t dare stray from a very narrow platform for fear of alienating their base. It also makes it easier for lobbyists to target a narrow group of candidates with campaign donations. After Citizens United, this is becoming an even greater problem.
I have not discussed problems with the Electoral College, which also bears much of the blame for the lack of viable third party candidates. There are possible reforms, but that must be left to a future post.