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 leadership; thus the Democrats are seen as the party of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Republicans as the party of former President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

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 the dwindling Blue Dog Democrats. In the Republican Party social conservatives form a significant element of the base. Tea party activists became a force in 2010, and more recently the pro-Trump faction has taken hold. There are also libertarian elements. Moderate Republicans are seen as a disappearing breed, disparaged by conservatives as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Independent groups such as the pro-life 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.

National, state and local party committees work to provide infrastructure to ensure electoral success of candidates up and down the ballot. In a sense the party committees set the grid and boundaries of the field on which electoral politics occurs. The work of the party committees goes on at every level, and, whether it be recruiting candidates, raising money, or registering voters, occurs in election and non-election years.

At the top are the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) with headquarters and staffs in Washington. Frequently one sees the RNC or DNC chair on television speaking for the party. Structurally the DNC and RNC are quite different entities—the DNC is governed by a charter and bylaws, while the RNC runs under rules set at its quadrennial convention. In addition to the RNC and the DNC, Republicans and Democrats also have separate national committees focused on electing members of the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, governors, other statewide officials, and state legislators. In areas such as technology and online security, for example, national committees are best equipped to stay abreast of the latest developments and then train and educate state and local committee staff.

At the state and county levels, one finds that party organizations vary in strength depending on the state or county and the quality of leadership. 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 candidate forums or tabling at farmer's markets or county fairs.

Shifting Fortunes
Over time, the American electorate has tended to vote so that neither of the parties holds too much power, and fortunes of the parties can change unexpectedly. Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, but Republicans rebounded in dramatic fashion to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, Democrats appeared to be in a very strong position. In May 2009 Time magazine ran a cover story showing the Republican elephant as an "Endangered Species" and National Journal focused on "The Shrinking GOP." However, in November 2010 Republicans dealt Democrats an historic drubbing. Historically, the party that wins the White House fares poorly in the midterms that follow, and expectations are that Democrats will sustain significant setbacks in 2022.

The parties engage in periodic soul-searching exercises to identify ways in which they can improve. Both parties have 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 problem in rural areas. Republicans have  begun to make headway in recruiting diverse candidates and women, but leadership and senior staff are often dominated by white males. Following the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee undertook a major reassessment and vowed "a new way of doing things." (+) The Democratic National Committee announced its own "top-to-bottom review" following the 2014 midterms (+).

The ebb and flow of the fortunes of the two major parties is a recurring theme in American politics, as is the inability of third parties and independents to gain any traction.

Ideological 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 the have as much or more impact. While progressives had somewhat of a head start in the development of this infrastructure, conservatives have clearly caught up in recent years. 

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 focuses on opposition research, including having trackers following and videotaping Republican presidential candidates and other 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 recent addition on the progressive side is the American Democracy Legal Fund, "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. Heritage Action, founded in 2010, focuses on conservative political advocacy. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973, is an organization of state legislators "dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism." One of its endeavors is producing model policies which can be emulated around the country.  The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, is "a conservative and libertarian intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community."  In the decade from 2010-20, the Koch brothers had a significant impact, providing backing to an array of organizations.  Freedom Partners supported "broad-based coalitions to advance free markets and a free society." Americans for Prosperity sought to "engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets." The Kochs also supported three constituency groups: Generation Opportunity (youth), Concerned Veterans of America and LIBRE (Hispanics). 

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. Partisanship has been a feature of American politics since its early days, but modern communications may be making it worse. Some people have come to rely on a narrow range of news sources that present a very one-sided picture of events. Talk radio, cable television and the blogosphere abound with heated rhetoric, echoing attacks. In Congress, there are fewer swing seats, and as a result Members, ensconced in safe districts, do not need to moderate their positions. The professionalization of politics may also contribute; while there have certainly been negative campaigns in the past, 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. The net result appears to be severe dysfunction, where both sides are talking past each other.  Republicans label Democrats as socialists; Democrats say Republicans are fascists.

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. There are a number of groups working to advance a bipartisan, crosspartisan or transpartisan approach.

- The Bipartisan Policy Center, formed in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell, is a think tank that "combines the best ideas from both the Republican and Democratic parties to address the nation's key challenges."

- No Labels, launched Dec. 13, 2010, seeks to "counter hyper-partisanship" and "bring together leading thinkers from the left, right, and all points in between." No Labels inspired creation of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which in 2022 had 58 U.S. House members evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

- Braver Angels, launched in 2016, is "a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America." The group is pursuing a multi-faceted approach including skills training workshops, debates, 1:1 conversations, and providing speakers.

- Unite America, previously the Centrist Project, launched in 2018 with the goal of electing "common sense, independent candidates." Its two-pronged strategy focuses on increasing competition and participation and promoting pro-reform candidates.

- Issue One, which bills itself as "the leading crosspartisan political reform group in Washington, D.C." aims to "protect U.S. elections, lessen political polarization, limit the influence of big money over politics, and improve the ability of Congress to solve problems." 

There is also the notion of "transpartisanship," (1,2) 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." 

Credible third party or independent candidates can help to elevate the quality of the debate by forcing the major party candidates to move beyond their hot button issues and talking points. However, the results for independent and third party candidates in recent elections have continued to be underwhelming (>). Statewide, few independents have been elected in recent years including Sen. Angus King (ME), Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and former Gov. Bill Walker (AK). Every election cycle there are a few strong candidates to watch. In 2022, the candidacies of Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate in Utah and Walker seeking to reclaim the governorship in Alaska have attracted a lot of attention. 

At the presidential level, efforts to elect independent candidates or even a unity ticket have failed. The last strong showings by independent candidates were Ross Perot's 1992 campaign (18.9%) and John Anderson's 1980 campaign (6.6%). In 2016 former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked into an independent run, but decided against it fearing it would tip the race to Trump. Former Starbucks head Howard Schultz encountered a lot of pushback as he looked into an independent run in the first part of 2019; ultimately he abandoned the effort (+).

Likewise the idea of a unity ticket has not gotten anywhere. In 2018 there was some talk that Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) might team up, but it never moved beyond talk. In the 2012 cycle Americans Elect. 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. In May 2006 Unity08 launched with the goal of electing a bipartisan ticket to the White House; the group folded in 2008. Another effort to overcome partisanship was 1787, which started up in 2013 and described itself as "an organization with a policy platform grounded in common sense." 1787 planned to have "a presidential, vice presidential and multiple congressional candidates on ballots in 2016." However, this effort gained no traction and has disappeared. 

Third Parties: Huge Obstacles

In an Gallup survey of 906 adults conducted in Jan.-Feb. 2021 (>), 62 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?")

Existing minor or third parties including the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party have shown limited appeal to the mainstream electorate, although their supporters argue that those parties can fill the void.  A notable ongoing effort to start a third party is the Forward Party, co-chaired by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman. Yang started the effort as a PAC in Oct. 2021 and it made some news following a merger with two other groups, Serve America Movement and Renew America Movement, announced on July 27, 2022.

The best showing by a third party in the presidential race in recent decades occurred in 1996, when the Reform Party ticket of Ross Perot and Pat Choate won 8.1 million votes or 8.4%. In 2016, the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, two former Republican governors, achieved the best showing ever by the party, obtaining almost 4.5 million votes or 3.27% of the vote. However, four years later the Jorgensen-Cohen ticket garnered 1.9 million votes or 1.18%. In 2000 Green Party nominee Ralph Nader won 2.9 million votes or 2.74%. More often, however, third party candidates are little known and face a struggle to achieve credibility and resources needed to have any impact in a race.

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. There are also a few state-based third parties which could benefit from dissatisfaction. 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.