Two Party System: Is There Room for a Third Party in American Politics?

Historian and Author

If you ask one of America’s most prominent historians about the two-party system in US politics you can expect to go from zero to enlightened in just over two minutes. Thank you, Sean Wilentz.

The framers of the US Constitution did not envision or plan for America to have political parties; they didn’t like the idea of ideological clans, believing them to be divisive and damaging to the commonwealth that they were building. But not for lack of irony, the very system these framers designed was fertile soil for partisan groups to arise.

Political controversy in the 1790s, just a few years after the Constitution was signed, saw the emergence of two groups, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, who disagreed on the federal government powers of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They managed to iron out their differences however, and party politics ended for a sweet decade in 1816, a period that became known as the Era of Good Feelings – no, really.

Needless to say, the good feelings have since evaporated. And although we have cooperation across the aisle and bipartisan efforts on some issues (such as unlikely allies Cory Booker and Newt Gingrich on prison reform), the two-party sentiment is stronger than ever in US politics. Third parties come and go, but they risk splitting the vote and fracturing the thin unity that spans the left-right spectrum of politicians and voters, so they tend to bubble up and recede – but not without shaping the political agenda and forcing the major parties to refine their stance on important issues.

Sean Wilentz's most recent book is 360 Sound:The Columbia Records Story.

  • Transcript


Sean Wilentz: The two party system is inevitable in America. The framers designed a constitution that they thought would be without political parties. They didn't like political parties. They thought political parties were divisive. They thought political parties would ruin the commonwealth as they saw it. They didn't like them, and yet they designed a system in which parties very quickly arose and we're never going to go away. And the reason is simple that in a country as large, as diverse with so many clashing interests as the United States it's going to become necessary to find a focus, to find a focus for your political actions. Parties have become that focus. They very quickly became that focus.

Now, the question is why don't we have a multiparty system? Why aren't we more like Italy say or even France or a European parliamentary system? Well that's the answer is that we're not a parliamentary system. Because we have a system that we do and because it's based on the idea of first past the post, in other words the person who gets the most amount of votes will win the election, they're not going to have proportional representation. If you get ten percent of the votes you're not going to get ten percent of the power you're going to get nothing. On that account then the pressure is very, very strong for there to be eventually a two party system. Third parties can come in and they can have a tremendous amount of influence in shaping the major parties, but as a great historian once said third parties are like bees, they sting and then they die. So they make their sting, but because a third-party will always almost inevitably help the party they're most unlike, as you saw with say the Nader campaign in 2000 who got elected, they have their effect but then they very quickly disappear. So I think the two parties, it's not so much that I have some metaphysical or ontological love for two parties as a thing, it's rather that's the way the American constitutional system works. Now, if you change the constitutional system, of course, that would change as well, but it's embedded in the way that our government was set up in 1787/'88 and it continues that way to this day.