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Two Party System
Independent Cause

5 Reasons the Two-Party System is Bad for America

8 min read
Two Party System
Jack Nagel · Jan 23, 2023

A few years back, various versions of the meme above began circulating on the internet.

Most meme creators attribute the expression to one Native American tribe or another, and it has been used by people on the Right and the Left in different contexts as they attempt to push one agenda or another. Some positioned it as a call to unity, while most others used it to highlight how our binary, two-party system (and the money behind it) is the root of all evil.

According to a story published in the Washington Post, the true origin of this quote is none other than Pat Buchanan, right-wing pundit and former aid to both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. It was the basis for a speech launching his run as a Reform Party candidate in 1999.

I agree with very little that Mr. Buchanan has said over the years, but he was right when he stated that our current two-party system is rife with dark money and corruption.

Regardless of the origin of the words, the frustration behind them is real.

Our current American political ecosystem - echo chamber - is destroying our country while giving us the illusion that we have a say in who runs it. Or, as demonstrated in a 2004South Park episode, each election is like having a choice between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich. (This sentiment would become especially popular during the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.)

We don't have a viable range of choices, at least as things stand now, and it's been that way practically since the dawn of the United States.

Abstruse Goose Illusion of choice

Credit: Abstruse Goose, 2009

The Origins of Binary Politics in America

Once upon a time, a group of progressive thinkers and political influencers of their time set out to launch a grand experiment called Democracy. They formed the United States of America on the premise that all men are created equal (and many other things that looked good on paper but didn't quite pan out in reality).

The sentiment only really applied to people who looked like them. But it was a nice thought; many have fought and died to preserve that ideal over the past 246.5 years.

The reality is that two parties have dominated our country since the first election. Although the names and affiliations have changed over the years, the dynamic has not.

For example, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans were the first two main parties in American politics. Two other parties, the Whigs and the Know-Nothings, also achieved dominance at various points, but never to the level of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and later iterations of the Big Two that have evolved into the duopoly that we have today.

Platforms and ideologies have changed hands, shifted, evolved, and risen or fallen in importance over the years. Still, the main political divide between two major parties and the people on either side who support them has always boiled down to matters of a state's right to decide its fate versus a strong central government, how things should be paid for, and by whom.

For example, the first significant political divide of this nature came in the 1820s when Congress became divided about the federal government's role moving forward. This question essentially broke the Democratic and Republicans into two parties. These were the National Republicans, who thought that widespread infrastructure improvements like roads and bridges would be funded and planned at a national level, and the Old Republicans, that believed in limited federal powers and a preference for state-level authority.

These parties dissolved and evolved into the Democrats and Whigs after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. When the Whig party dissolved over the issue of slavery in the 1840s, that party was replaced by the Republicans.

While the parties' names and platforms have changed over the years, the core question of state-centric or federal control has always been at the heart of the divide.

With a few notable exceptions over the years, each candidate is some version of Douche or Turd, and the lesser of two evils is the best we can do. Third-party candidates have little real chance.

That's what they want you to think, anyway.

Some 209 state-level parties are registered in the United States, many of which you have never heard of. There are also many independents trying to get on the ballot across the country each election cycle, the most notable of which was Ross Perot in 1992 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

They weren't the first third-party challengers, either. Hopefully, they won't be the last.

A Brief History of Major Third-Party Challengers in US Presidential Politics

  • Abraham Lincoln: Few people realize that the Republican Party began as a third-party challenge to the status quo, replacing the Whigs. He won the 18609presidential race with 50% of the electoral vote. The fact that their first major national candidate won the presidency demonstrates that it can be done. In modern elections, this can happen if the playing field is leveled, candidates address issues that matter to voters in a meaningful way, and money ceases to matter in politics.

  • Theodore Roosevelt: In the early 1900s, former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt created the Bull Moose Party, aka the Progressive Party. This was the first true third-party challenge that didn't result from one of the two significant parries dissolving or breaking into two factions. This run resulted in a substantial 27% of the electoral vote and second place against Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The fact that Roosevelt was a popular former president was one factor. Still, it could be said that the progressive platform that favored Women's Suffrage, worker's rights, and direct election of senators made him a truly popular populist and paved the way for other Progressive movements.

  • George Wallace: This holdout of the Old South launched two unsuccessful presidential bids. His runs primarily responded to the Civil Rights movement and the Democrat Party's shift away from their historical representation of working-class white Americans. His first bid in 1968 was as the candidate representing the American Independent Party, where he won five southern states deep in the heart of Dixie. During the presidential election of 1972, Wallace won 45 Electoral College votes on election day as the American Party candidate.

  • Ross Perot: The first third-party severe challenge since Lincoln won the presidency more than 130 years before, Ross Perot was a self-funded independent who ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism and reigning in the budget deficit. He met the criteria for participation in the presidential debates and received 20% of the vote during the elections. His strong showing leads the duopoly to raise the bar for debate and signature requirements to get on the national ballot.

  • Gary Johnson is a former Republican who left the party to run for President as a Libertarian candidate in 2012 and 2016. His 2012 bid netted him just over 3% of the national vote, the best showing for any Libertarian candidate before or since.

  • Bernie Sanders: An independent from Vermont, America's Grandpa initiated the first real third-party challenge since Ross Perot. He initially ran as a Democratic Socialist in 2016. He then temporarily switched to the Democrat Party for his run in the 2020 elections, partly to criticisms that he peeled off voters from Hillary Clinton and threw the presidency to Trump. During the 2016 race, he received 39% of the roll call vote during the DNC primaries. Still, he withdrew from the race to pledge support to Clinton, allegedly after gaining concessions to pull the party further left and address critical issues like climate change, PAC money, voter and healthcare access, and education reform.

  • Donald Trump: Although Trump wasn't technically a third-party candidate, his campaign did attract a lot of disaffected independent voters who resonated with his message of "draining the swamp." There's also a possibility that Trump will try to transition his 2024 presidential bid to a new third party or attempt to run independently.

These third-party challengers and the occasional independent candidate span over 150 years of our nation's history and run along all political spectrum points. So, what did these "disruptors," "agitators," and "spoilers" have in common?

Well, they speak to:

  • Voter frustration

  • Populism

  • Anti-government or corporate sentiment

  • Independent, anti-establishment appeal

In other words, they were dangerous to the status quo somehow.

Read on to learn why that's a good thing when it's authentic, organic, and devoid of performative populism.


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5 Good Reasons That Two-Party Politics is Bad for America

Most third parties don't make it, and the reasons our current system is bad for America are not mutually exclusive. They're closely linked.

But you don't have to take my word for it. I always bring receipts.

1. Two-Party Politics Limits Our Options

This leads to the infamous "lesser of two evils" dynamic that encourages voter disinterest and low turnout. When faced with two often unpopular choices, people just drop out. This means that the interests of the many are often shaped by representatives chosen by as little as 20% of the expectorate.

2. Duopolies Promote Stagnation

Although this has always been true to some degree, American politics over the last 40 years have devolved into one party opposing the other at every level. This has led to unprecedented gridlock and national priorities being out on the back burner in favor of performative governance with no progress.

3. Two-Party Political Systems are Polarizing

It is adhering to a binary system that often encourages ideological factionist results in polarization. The parties have always been split o matters of economics, social issues, and the degree of government reach.

Because the parties are so polarized and focused on winning elections, they are often willing to adopt extreme positions to appeal to their base. This can lead to a lack of compromise and cooperation in government, as each party becomes more focused on defeating the other than on working together to solve problems.

But, the polarization has reached the point where the citizenry and the people elected to represent them are more interested in scoring against the "other" rather than supporting policies that benefit the national interest. Many of us can only agree on what the national interest is.

4. Two-Party Hegemony Encourages Corruption

Our political candidates spend more time raising money and campaigning for the next election than they do govern. Monied interests from the military to corporate America take advantage of the excessive money needed to fund the average campaign by pledging cash for favorable legislation.

Due to the enormous costs of running for political office, politicians often rely on donations from wealthy individuals and corporations to fund their campaigns. This can lead to a situation where politicians are more responsive to their donors' needs than the general public's needs. This can be particularly problematic regarding issues such as campaign finance reform, healthcare, and environmental protection.

This leads to laws that favor wealthy donors and the incumbent candidate, keep the dark money flowing, and promote governance that supports further corruption to the detriment of the people.

5. Two-Party Systems Unfairly Disadvantage Minority Viewpoints

When there are only two viable options and other voices are silenced, it leads to compromise that unfairly hurts marginalized and disadvantaged people. Creating a binary system forces people to choose between two parties that may not align with their beliefs or values, and it often excludes the voices of those most affected by political decisions.

Two-Party vs. Multi-Party Political Systems: What's the Difference?

Despite talks about being a one-person, one-vote democracy, the US is a representative republic. The two main establishment political parties, Democrats and Republicans, are the only political parties in the United States that are recognized with ballot access in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. They also account for 102 out of the 209 state-level parties.

In addition to the two established parties, we have three minor political parties that sometimes achieve national significance or recognition. These are the Libertarian Party, Green Party, and Constitution Party, which have ballot access in 33, 17, and 12 states, respectively.

However, the way debate guidelines and other criteria are created, and the goalposts keep getting moved whenever a viable third-party challenge does arise, the two main political parties will continue to pass power between them until we say "Enough!" and refuse to play.

What We Can do to Break the Hegemony

Since many among the American electorate have memories or knowledge of politics that doesn't extend beyond the past ten years, one need only look at the 2016 presidential campaigns of Clinton, Trump, and Sanders for a demonstration of why a multi-party political system is necessary to save American democracy and how hard the establishment will fight to stop a viable third party candidate.

That election cycle was also a masterclass in how candidates like Trump use populism to ignite an overlooked electorate.

One possible solution is to transition from a "winner take all" orfirst past post-electoral system and replace it with ranked-choice voting.

With ranked choice, voters rank the candidates in order of preference rather than simply casting a ballot for one candidate or another. This system is used in two states, Alaska and Maine, but several others allow ranked-choice voting during primaries.

Lastly, the outdated Electoral College must be abandoned in favor of a popular vote. Despite arguments, more is needed to remove the voice of smaller, less populated states.

FAQ About Two-Party Political Systems

Q: When did the two-party system start in the US?

A: Although there have been representatives of one of the two major parties at any given time since the first presidential election in the United States, the two-party hegemony that evolved through to today began to take shape between 1824 - 1840.

Two things happened around this time. First, the average person began to become more engaged in politics. This accelerated as the dust settled from the nation's birth and norms became established.

The second instigating factor was a chasm between those who saw the need for a strong central government and those who believed fervently in states' rights and a limit to federal powers.

Using rhetoric and any other means of persuasion, these two camps were also able to effectively divide the masses on a range of issues that defined their platforms.

Q: What do two-party and multi-party systems mean?

A: Two-party political systems, also known as duopolies or binary political systems, are political dynamics that place the power into the hands of two increasingly similar political parties. To protect this system, viable options outside these two parties are limited in reach and influence through various rules and regulations.

Multi-party systems are any form of democratic government that has more than two parties. Technically, there can be an infinite number of parties, but five is the most common and workable.

Under multi-party, there are enough challenges to keep all parties in check and prevent the dominance of any one party or ideology. The party that gains the majority during national and regional elections sets the agenda. Still, coalitions and alliances are formed among major and minor political parties to govern or pass legislation.

One drawback of multiparty systems is a need for transparent governance if a consensus can't be reached. This often results in stagnation, party turnover, and frequent elections, as was most recently seen in the UK.

Q: What are the three main features of a two-party system?

A: In a two-party system, such as we have in American politics, three main characteristics are present:

  • Legislative/ideological dominance that transitions between two main parties, one in power and one in opposition

  • Shifting rule changes that favor the two dominant parties and prevent any realistic third-party challenges

  • The opposition party acts as a check on the party in power

Final Thoughts

As you can see, America's current two-party political system only benefits a handful of politicians and their corporate masters. If we truly want a government that reflects and represents "We the People," then elections need to become open and based upon platforms and proposals that benefit all of us and improve our country.

That means:

  • Taking money out of politics

  • Rolling back outdated, self-serving rules and requirements that shut out viable challengers

  • Educating voters about candidates and issues

  • Improving voter access

These are only a few suggestions.

It isn't enough to voice disenchantment with business-as-usual politics, false equivalencies, and the illusion of choice. We must follow up with action by supporting independent presidential candidates during every election cycle and at all levels of government.


Ready to make a difference?

Learn about volunteer opportunities to support people-powered candidates running near you.
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Political Polarization
Political Parties
Political Dysfunction
Independent Movement
Two Party System
By Jack Nagel
I lead the marketing team at Good Party. After watching Bernie Sanders get squashed by the Democrat party twice, I knew I needed to get involved in giving outsiders a chance in American politics. I bring entrepreneurship and startup experience to our insurgent team at Good Party, helping us find sustainable ways to grow.