The Two-Party System

Political parties frame the debate, recruit candidates, and raise money. The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics and are organized at the national, state, and local levels. Over the past decade in many states, an increasing percentage of the electorate has chosen to remain unaffiliated. Despite dissatisfaction with the Democrats and the Republicans, minor parties face huge obstacles in their efforts to gain a foothold.

The United States Constitution makes no mention of political parties, yet the two-party system has become a foundation of the American political system. The party that controls the White House has a major advantage in setting the national agenda through the bully pulpit, but executive power is constrained by the legislative and judicial branches. Congressional leadership plays a key role in determining the directions of the parties as do the national party committees, state parties and state leadership. Surrounding both parties are constellations of ideological and interest groups seeking to push them in one direction or another.

Both parties boast long traditions, the Democrats pointing to Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Harry Truman and JFK and the Republicans tracing back to Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Thanks to cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s, Democrats are represented by the donkey and Republicans by the elephant; a more recent phenomenon is the assignment of the color red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Generally, conservatives align with the Republican Party and liberals and progressives align with the Democrats (+). There is also the stereotypical image of Democrats as the party of big labor and ivory tower academics and Republicans as the party of big business and the rich. Views of the parties are also shaped by their national leaders; thus the Republicans are the party of President Donald Trump, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while the Democrats are seen as the party of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and to a lesser degree former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Within the parties are various forces and factions. In the Democratic Party there is constant tension between progressive and more pragmatic or centrist elements such as Blue Dog Democrats. Certainly that dynamic played out in the 2016 presidential nominating contest between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  In the Republican Party social conservatives form a significant element of the base, tea party activists have been a force since 2010, and there are also libertarian elements. Moderate Republicans are seen as a disappearing or almost extinct breed, disparaged by conservatives as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Many independent groups such as the tea party movement or the labor movement operate outside the party structure but seek to influence it even as they in turn are wooed by the party.

A contrarian view holds that the major parties are basically very similar. During his campaigns Ralph Nader often spoke of a "two-party duopoly" and likened the Democrats and Republicans to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. As politics has become increasingly professionalized, candidates of both parties must raise vast amounts of money to pay for pollsters and consultants. There is a Washington establishment, a culture of money and lobbyists, described in the book This Town, in which Democrats and Republicans figure equally.

On a micro level, far away from Washington, DC county parties and local party clubs provide a direct interface with citizens, engaging in such activities as sponsoring speakers or tabling at farmer's markets or county fairs.

Ups and Downs
Over time, the American electorate has tended to vote so that neither of the major parties holds too much power, and fortunes of the parties can change unexpectedly.

In May 2009 Time magazine ran a cover story showing the Republican elephant as an "Endangered Species." Eight-plus years later in Oct. 2017 Time's cover showed the Democrats as "shrunk" and asked "can anything save them."
May 18, 2009
Oct. 2, 2017

Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, but Republicans rebounded to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Twelve years later in 2006 Democrats regained control of the House. When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, Democrats appeared to be in a very strong position. However, the Obama years left the Democratic Party in a significantly weakened state. In the November 2010 midterm elections Republicans dealt Democrats a historic drubbing, including a net GOP gain of 63 seats in the U.S. House. Following then November 2016 elections, Republicans held 33 governorships to just 16 for Democrats. Over the eight years of the Obama administration, Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats so that by December 2016 Republicans controlled 65 chambers to 30 for Democrats, including control of both chambers in 24 states compared to just seven for Democrats. The pendulum may be swinging again. Results from 2017 contests and historical parallels suggest Democrats could achieve significant gains in 2018.  

In addition to ideological differences, both parties have myriad other weaknesses and flaws. Following the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee undertook a major reassessment and vowed "a new way of doing things." The RNC's Growth & Opportunity Project resulted in a 98-page report containing 219 recommendations (+)  The Democratic National Committee announced its own "top-to-bottom review" following the 2014 midterms. The final report of the Democratic Victory Task Force, release with little fanfare, weighed in at just 18 pages, one of which was acknowledgements (+). Depending on party leadership, such reports can be merely rebranding exercises or can lead to serious reforms. 

Republicans still have difficulty attracting support from minority voters, a fact which was clearly on display at the 2016 Republican National Convention, which had just 18 African American delegates (or about 80 delegates and alternates). The weakness is reflected throughout the party from staffing to officeholders. The party is very white, more so under Trump. The changing demographics of the country and increasing share of minorities in the population have led some observers to question Republicans' long-term viability. Republicans have also, with a handful of exceptions (retiring Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and Gov. John Kasich), firmly tethered their prospects to the success of Donald Trump. This could proved to be a mixed blessing as gains in rolling back the regulatory state and conservative judicial appointments are countered by Trump's pattern of lies and petty Tweets and by the outcome of investigations into Russian interference and possible collusion.

Democrats have their own set of weaknesses. One need only look at the U.S. political map, which is a sea of red with dots of blue in urban areas, to see that Democrats have a big problem in rural areas. While the Trump campaign made crude attempts in 2016 at reaching out to African American and Hispanic voters, the Clinton campaign seemed to largely write off rural voters. It is not clear that the party is wiling to do the work to attract these voters. Democrats like to tout diversity, but they seem caught up in a form of identity politics which can at times go too far. While they are busy pressing buttons for their base constituences, including African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ and women, some groups, for example rural voters or white males, are inevitably left out. Finally, there remain divisions from the 2016 campaign, where the DNC appeared to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the primaries. The DNC's Unity Reform Commission is scheduled to release its report and recommendations by Jan. 1, 2018 (>). It may be tempting for Democrats to try to coast on anti-Trump sentiment; the flowering of resistance efforts offers the potential of a great boost for the party. However, for the health of American democracy one hopes Democrats will make some efforts to move beyond the easy "no to Trump" message (see the 2016 Clinton campaign) and advance a constructive policy vision.

Political Infrastructure

Over the past decade, conservatives and progressives alike have developed increasingly sophisticated infrastructure to support like-minded candidates. Functions such as training, data and opposition research, which were formerly filled by the party committees are supplemented by or even implemented by outside entities. Although the assortment of groups and networks on the right and on the left are independent of the parties, there are often linkages and connections. For example, party committees and independent groups may use the same consultants or vendors (+), and it is not uncommon for staff of these groups to have worked at one of the party committees. In effect such groups form adjuncts to the parties, aligning with them and supplementing their work; one could argue they have as much or more impact.

One key group on the progressive side is America Votes. Formed in the 2004 cycle, America Votes coordinates the campaign activities of a number of progressive groups thus avoiding duplication of efforts. Another group, Catalist, provides "progressive organizations with the data and services needed to better identify, understand, and communicate with the people they need to persuade and mobilize." The Analyst Institute is "a clearinghouse for evidence-based best practices in progressive voter contact." The Atlas Project provides "political data, analysis, election history and insight." Also on the progressive side, American Bridge 21st Century focuses on opposition research, including having trackers following and videotaping Republican candidates. Democracy Alliance, formed in 2005, "was created to build progressive infrastructure that could help counter the well-funded and sophisticated conservative apparatus..." A more recent addition on the progressive side is the American Democracy Legal Fund (ADLF), "a group established to hold candidates for office accountable for possible ethics and/or legal violations."

On the conservative side, groups such as The Leadership Institute (founded in 1979) and GOPAC (founded in 1978) work on training activists and leaders. The Koch brothers provide backing to an array of organizations. Freedom Partners supports "broad-based coalitions to advance free markets and a free society." i360, a "data and technology resource for the pro-free-market political and advocacy community," has developed a database of 190+ million active voters and 250+ million US consumers."  Americans for Prosperity is "an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets." The Kochs also support three constituency groups: Generation Opportunity (youth), Concerned Veterans of American and LIBRE (Hispanics). Another key group on the conservative side is America Rising LLC, which like American Bridge does opposition research and tracking. Paralleling the Democratic/progressive-aligned ADLF, the Foundation for Accountability & Civic Trust (FACT) aligns on the Republican/conservative side.

One area where party adjuncts will be particularly important over the next few years is redistricting. How congressional and state legislative district lines are drawn can tilt the partisan balance, and both parties have organizations preparing for the battle: the National Republican Redistricting Trust and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Another example of ideological infrastructure are think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left; these serve as idea factories.

Is Increasing Partisanship a Problem?

Many commentators and officials believe the partisan tone has become more strident in recent decades. Some observers have argued that there are fewer swing seats in Congress, and that as a result Members, ensconced in safe districts, do not need to moderate their positions. The professionalization of politics may also contribute. Targeted seats draw the parties' resources, while other seats, and the voters living there are ignored or given short shrift, thereby reinforcing their disconnect from the minority party. There have certainly been negative campaigns in the past, but consultants now have the attack campaign down to a science. They churn out slick communications attacking opposing candidates. In a fair number of races, campaigns are outspent by outside interest groups whose backers are not apparent and whose messages frequently feature attacks. Additionally, talk radio, cable television and the blogosphere abound with heated rhetoric, echoing attacks. The net result appears to be severe dysfunction, where both sides are talking past each other. Democrats' passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2009 without Republican support, and Republican attempts to ram through an overhaul of the tax code in 2017 with Democratic support are not sound models on how to address the country's problems.

There have been various efforts to transcend partisanship. During their presidential campaigns, candidates George W. Bush ("uniter not a divider") and Barack Obama ("there are no red states and no blue states") both made bipartisan appeals, but once they were in office they found those sentiments difficult to implement. Part of the appeal of Donald Trump during his campaign was the notion that as a businessman he would not be beholden to party; he certainly was not an establishment figure.

Efforts to move beyond partisanship have met with mixed success. No Labels ("Not Left. Not Right. Forward.") formally launched on Dec. 13, 2010 to "counter hyper-partisanship" and "bring together leading thinkers from the left, right, and all points in between." No Labels fostered creation of the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus "to develop innovative bipartisan policy solutions to key national challenges;" by 2017 the caucus was an independent entity with over 40 members. In Fall 2015 No Labels released a National Strategic Agenda "to help catalyze debate in the 2016 presidential election." The Agenda set out four goals: create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years, secure Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years, balance the federal budget by 2030, and make America energy secure by 2024. Ultimately released as No Labels Policy Playbook for America's Next President, the document contained more than 60 ideas.

In the electoral arena, The Centrist Project ("America's first Unparty") is trying to achieve "breakthrough politics." The Centrist Project is advocating a "fulcrum strategy" wherein "just a handful of independents (3-5) can deny both parties an outright majority and exercise disproportionate influence as a swing coalition." In 2018 it aims to "draft a slate of 3-5 Centrist, independent candidates for U.S. Senate" and to recruit a slate of Centrist, independent candidates to run for state legislature in several targeted states.

In 2007 former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell established the Bipartisan Policy Center. The Center "harnessing the best ideas from both parties."  According to its 2016-17 annual report, "BPC has successfully brought together members from both sides of the aisle to foster collaboration and advance bipartisan debate and solutions, while our affiliated 501(c)(4) organization, BPC Action, has successfully influenced meaningful legislation."

There is also the notion of "transpartisanship," an approach which "recognizes the validity of all points of view and values a constructive dialogue aimed at arriving at creative, integrated, and therefore, breakthrough solutions that meet the needs of all sides."

Several projects centered on presidential campaigns have failed. In May 2006 Unity08 launched with the goal of electing a bipartisan ticket to the White House; the group folded in 2008. In 2012 Americans Elect ("Pick a President, Not a Party") proved to be a flop; after working on ballot access in all 50 states, the group conducted a primary process that failed to produce a qualified candidate. After Americans Elect wound down, another iteration appeared in 2013. 1787, which described itself as "an organization with a policy platform grounded in common sense," had strong resonances of Americans Elect. It planned to have "a presidential, vice presidential and multiple congressional candidates on ballots in 2016" and even scheduled a 2016 national convention, to be held at the Omni Hotel at Independence Park in Philadelphia from April 21-24, 2016. The effort gained no traction and the convention did not happen.

Third Parties: Huge Obstacles

In an Oct. 2013 Gallup survey (>) of 1,028 adults, 60 percent of respondents said a third major party is needed. (The question asked was, "In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?")

Supporters of existing minor or third parties including the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party argue that their parties can fill the void. Occasionally an independent candidate comes forth with sufficient credibility and resources to have an impact in a race. There are also a few state-based third parties such as the Independence Party in Minnesota which could benefit from dissatisfaction. However, despite the apparent opening for a third party, difficulties with uneven and inequitable ballot access requirements, raising money, recruiting credible candidates, and attracting media attention form high barriers to these parties. In the 2016 presidential campaign, the Libertarian Party fielded a ticket with two former governors, yet they were unable to meet the criteria for participating in the televised presidential debates. The historical record and the many formidable obstacles in our system suggest that third parties will continue to have a marginal impact. Even if third parties' efforts do not fully succeed, their ideas leaven the debate and their presence may hopefully improve our democracy.