Two-party system — not the two parties — is America's political constant

Two-party system — not the two parties — is America's political constant
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American politics’ constancy is the two-party system, not the two parties. Failure to understand this, means being confounded by today’s seismic political shifts. Sometimes imperceptibly subtle, our parties are constantly shifting — not just occasionally dramatically — like the earth’s tectonic plates. 

To understand the obvious, we must first see it. Federal elections are a series of individual winner-take-all elections taking place within districts or states. From the White House to the Senate to the House, all officeholders get there this way. Within this simple system, which Americans intuitively understand, are elements yielding outcomes they do not.

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Because we know our system so well and have known it so long, we imagine no other possibilities. However, others — parliamentary, proportional representation, nationwide elections — also produce representatives, and significantly, very different dynamics.

 

Our individual election’s outcome produces just one winner. The political incentive is therefore to win at all costs because, regardless how close the loser comes, there is nothing to show for it. Moral victories receive no tangible trophy.

To win, the successful candidate must assemble a coalition from available parts. Conversely, those outside winning coalitions are driven together into a single goal — they must get as close as possible to winning.

This dynamic — a scale balancing between win and losing — results in just two parties. It is the reason why third parties so rarely succeed, or survive long if they do. Their direct impact in a contest — what they achieve for themselves — is usually electorally meaningless. Instead, their impact is indirect: Taking votes from one side, they can tip the balance to the other — as notably happened in 2000: Ralph Nader took votes from Gore and gave Florida, and the election, to Bush.

Our winner-take-all system means positions that can, and do, exist separately in other electoral systems must find a home in one party or the other to have an electoral impact. Even though potential third parties may aspire to achieve other results than winning elections, voters are unlikely to for very long. Just as in economics, an “invisible hand” drives all political positions to combine, whether they like it or not. 

Hard as it may be to see occasionally, this dynamic can have a comparatively ameliorating effect. Neither parties nor positions can be absolute — despite critics’ incentive to define opponents as such. To be absorbed into one of the two parties, a position must be rendered into a more general form for broader appeal. And because they must continually absorb new positions in pursuit of a winning coalition, each party is continually changing.

Though we tend to see it most plainly in what we oppose, both parties’ change of major positions are many. 

Almost impossible to imagine now, Democrats used to be adherents of a strong military and ready in its use. Wilson took America into WWI; FDR, into WWII; Truman into Korea; and Kennedy and Johnson, into Vietnam. Such positions seem unthinkable for today’s Democratic Party. 

Equally so, Republicans were unabashedly open to foreign imports, even when facing domestic job losses and foreign trade barriers. Now polls regularly show Republican voters more skeptical of such policies and even trade’s beneficial impact. Their last nominee won both nomination and presidency by tapping just such skepticism. 

Like the earth’s tectonic plates, the two parties are continually moving in friction with one another, so constant, and usually so subtle, it goes unnoticed. Only over extended time, or when shifts reach a sudden critical point — like earthquakes — do Americans take notice. We then profess shock that the dramatic has occurred and wonder how it did. Yet, the dynamic of continual movement was there all along. 

In George Washington’s famous Farewell Address, he tells the young nation: “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manor against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…” These he says “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party...This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.”

Washington knew well of what he warned. Even under his uniquely uniting persona, two parties were taking shape within his own administration: The Republican under Thomas Jefferson and the Federalist under John Adams. However, the creation of two parties was not a failure in his lieutenants, much less in Washington’s own abilities. 

They were endemic to the electoral system that Washington and other drafters of the Constitution created. The two parties change — some disappearing entirely or, as has been the case for the last century and a half, simply retaining their names but altering their policies — but the two-party system endures. It is the dynamic — not a dynasty — that prevails in America.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.