In defense of U.S. two-party system

Caleb Glickman Sep 12, 2016
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Editor’s note: this is the first installment of our new column The Pragmatist’s Manifesto.This weekly column encourages civil discussion about politics in the U.S.

As you all know, it is an election year. The media never fails to remind us of this on an hourly basis. However, I would like to start this political column with a commentary on a different subject than our current election. There is a good chance that you are going to disagree with this article. You do not have to read it, but I sincerely hope you do.

Whether or not you believe these opinions is beyond the point. I hope you may take some of these thoughts and discuss them with other people. When we shy away from civil discussion about issues, we let ourselves be governed by the loudest voices in the room, no matter how civil they are. I hope for this column to be a place that encourages people to have open debate about issues, while keeping in mind that our country is an extremely heterogeneous place. We find it easy to live in our own bubble and discount others’ opinions as unintelligent because they have had different upbringings. I hope to break down these assumptions and invigorate spirited debate, without encouraging fear or hatred of the other political side.

Now, the first issue we will be tackling together is one that received widespread criticism on both sides of the aisle: the two-party system.

Yes, I know, you probably just groaned. I would like to try to convince you why the two-party system is beneficial for America. George Washington himself warned against the partisanship of party politics. Why would I, in my first column, challenge the words of our first president?

Well, that’s going to take a bit of explaining, so we will break it down into a few columns. We’ll start with an overview of American precedents, then discuss the changes of the modern media. Third, we’ll analyze the shift of partisanship over the last few decades, and finally we will get to our current election or as it is known abroad, “America’s game of chicken with authoritarianism gone wrong.” This may seem like a lot, but I’m not even going to get started on defending our current political landscape or the Electoral College; these are things we will discuss thoroughly in other parts of this series. Now, I am going to make the case that the system of two parties is the most beneficial one for the country we live in. To do that, we are going to start at the very beginning: the Constitution.

The Constitution receives a lot of praise from our current politicians. It is hailed as the all-seeing document of our Founders, and is the core gospel with which we have based our entire country since 1789, making only 27 edits. That is considerably impressive, considering how many other liberal democracies change constitutions every so often. (I’m looking at you France.) But the Founding Fathers felt far more hesitant about the Constitution than we would like to believe. The first partisan divide over the Constitution came over its adoption alone. This divide laid the foundation for nearly every single debate of our political leaders, the debate of a large federal government versus a small federal government.

Before adopting the Constitution we know today, the fledgling U.S. government adopted the Articles of Confederation. If you don’t remember it from the chapter after the Revolutionary War chapter of your U.S. History textbook, here’s a quick refresher: the Articles let a unicameral legislature with single votes for each state rule without an executive branch, there was no power to raise a national army or collect national taxes, and there was also no established judiciary. If you were someone who was a champion of the states, it was an appropriate system with a few flaws. If you were someone who wanted a stronger federal government, it was terrible.

To ensure the collective survival of a stronger union, some of our country’s founders wanted to edit the Articles; the summer of 1787 saw the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Instead of editing it, they tossed it and made something new. What followed was an explosion of ideas from a congregation of enlightenment thinkers and fairly unrestrained limits as to what to debate and how to organize a new government. We know what emerged at the other end of it: a comprehensive compromise by all the members of the convention appeasing both small and large states while keeping the geographic divides over slavery at bay to ensure to survival of the union. Meanwhile, the federal government was given significantly more power and superiority over state authority with the establishment of a single executive and an equal judiciary.

This is an extremely brief summary, but the fact remains that the final result of the Constitution was dissatisfying to nearly every single member of the convention in some way. Many ideas of our glorious founders were shot down and remain in the hidden fabric of history; some of these ideas were, like the Articles of Confederation, terrible. As historian Ron Chernow accounts in his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin called for a unicameral legislature and executive council, Alexander Hamilton advocated for a president for life, and even James Madison, often hailed as the “Father of the Constitution,” was in favor of a federal government veto over state laws. Thomas Jefferson was even against the adoption of the Constitution at all. The Founding Fathers achieved many great things, but it is important to remember that they were achieved usually at the expense of compromise of their ideas. The grand compromise that was the Constitution goes to show how compromise has endured as a main pillar of our political culture.

Through its ratification process, the first partisan divisions of our country emerged with Federalists, who supported the Constitution and its increase in centralized power, and Antifederalists, who sought to protect states’ rights from what they saw as an encroachment of a dangerous federal government. These two camps are the original divisions of our party system. Our party system is innately a debate over the role of federal government. Any other party tends to either be regional, personal, or a single-issue party with transient influence that are eventually subsumed into the two main parties.

However, despite their clearcut opposition, these two main parties are not meant to be zero-sum. George Washington warned against partisan politics, but he also was someone willing to find compromises. Having two moderately branded parties on both sides of the spectrum gave the country a way to make moderate changes and keep people happy after winning an election. This way, the majority of a populous can be satisfied with the government they voted into office. Our constitution would not be able to withstand the strains of loose party coalitions of a multi-party system because such parties would be focused on singular interests. Those can work in other countries with different governments; in the United States, a broad two-party system is the best option.

Our American experiment felt growing pains before finally settling on our two-party system. Antifederalists evolved after Washington’s election into the Democratic-Republicans lead by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, meanwhile, were extinguished by 1814 after loosing the White House in 1800, leaving the U.S. with an unbalanced political landscape. The Whigs came into existence in 1833 to end the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” in opposition to the populist Democrat, Andrew Jackson. (Side-note: This is in quotations because just because one party was dominant, does not mean partisanship melted away. It was not much one of good feelings, and rather one of compromise, e.g. the Compromise of 1820.) Andrew Jackson, it should be noted, came to prominence after losing in 1824 in a four-party race that led to the “Corrupt Bargain.” Since no candidate had a majority of electoral votes, Henry Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives in return for becoming Secretary of State. If two moderate options had been posed, this situation never would have risen. These Whigs, led by Henry Clay and David Webster were dedicated to opposing Jackson, creating the Second Party System. This party was also doomed, however, and fell apart after the Compromise of 1850 when the issue of slavery split the party. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act instigated the formation of the Republican Party. Then came the election of 1860.

In this flyby of American history, we are going to stop and make a note about this election in particular and the way it is framed by people from all parts of the political spectrum. Republicans like to say how they were the party that ended slavery, except in the lens of our analysis, it is quite clear that ideologically, the Republican Party of the 1860s is much closer to the Democratic Party of today. Democrats are usually quick to remind them of this. Third Party candidates (like Gary Johnson, who we will talk at length about in the future, don’t worry) love to make the claim that Abe Lincoln was a third party candidate, so why not give our guy a chance? This however, is grossly inaccurate.
The facts remain that the Republicans and Democrats ran candidates for president in the election of 1856, four years prior. James Buchanan won in a landslide, but two parties were clear. In 1860, Democrats split on regional lines. Stephen Douglas was the Northern Democrat and John C. Breckinridge was the Southern Democrat. It was the same ideological party, save for the slavery question. Lincoln won the north, Breckinridge won the south, and poor John C. Bell’s Constitutional Union Party won the border states, just looking to do what his party’s name said: keep a constitutional union. That was about it. Stephen Douglas was second in the popular vote, but third in the Electoral College. Lincoln won the presidency with 39.8 percent of the vote. Democrats had the popular advantage as a whole, but because their party had split in two, it handed Lincoln the election.

The point remains however, that Lincoln was not a “third party candidate,” as we treat them today. He ran in a four-party race, but he was clearly from one of the two ideological sides of the aisle. Not to mention that this election didn’t quite end in a peaceful transfer of power. But for now, we must move onward!

So, the South loses and Republicans experience a long stretch of wins, obviously. This runs until the Compromise of 1877, which is another beautiful example of the flaws of our Electoral College. But we’ll get back to that in a later episode.

Now we have our Republicans and Democrats from here on out. In column three, we will discuss the shifts of these two parties ideologically apart over the past 50 years, but I would like to tap one last example of American precedent in this first chapter. We will move forwards to the Progressive Era.

The Election of 1912 saw the greatest “Third Party” candidacy as we think of them today. The Bull Moose Party, led by the rough and tumble Theodore Roosevelt, split off the Republican Howard Taft nomination to form their own party, although ideologically similar. This rifted the Republicans straight down the middle, opening a hole for Woodrow Wilson to win the election with 41.8 percent. The Republican camp amassed a majority of popular vote, but due to the multiple parties running, a majority of people was dissatisfied with the result of the election. From a democratic standpoint, that is insanity.

The perfect union that we strive for is definitely a long ways off. Still, our government has maintained one document as its core for over two centuries; the debate over its powers is the one main question with which our government has quarreled over. Given the system that our such-beloved founders created, the most practical political system retains the same image of the Constitution’s inception: one of compromise. Two moderate sides of the political spectrum can act as umbrellas covering nearly all the population; when these parties are governed by those eager to continue moderate progress, compromises are more easily reached between these two sides.

A multi-party system cannot be sustained due to the question over the adoption of the Constitution. And when a single executive is elected separately from the legislature, a multi-party race in this country runs the risk of electing a president without full majority of support, which undermines the purpose of a fulfilling the desires of the people.
Next time on “Caleb Makes You Angry,” we will talk about how the media has shifted over the past 20 years and its effect on our political ideologies. We will also begin our conversation on how our current two parties have ended up where they are today. With regard to our modern political issues, I hope to propose some solutions to bring the partisan divide together again in a two-party system. Still, our current parties remain further apart ideologically than they have ever been before, save for maybe the 1860s. And we all know how well that decade went. So there is still much to discuss.