For the last 163 years, the president of the United States has been either a Democrat or a Republican. No third-party candidate has come within shouting distance of the presidency. Why is that? Shouldn't we be worried?
Reporting from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Trace Dominguez examines America's two-party system by rooting through the strangeness of U.S. electoral history, in this strangest of election years.
Polls suggest that voters don't much care for either major party candidate this year, and yet the vast majority of us will vote for one or the other. The reason we're stuck with this two-party system has to do with how U.S. congressional and presidential elections work. America's plurality electoral system -- or first-past-the-post (FPTP) -- means that each state has a set number of electorates, and whichever candidate gets the majority of votes wins them all.
Since there is no reward for second place, there's little incentive to create or back a party that will get some of the votes, but not the majority. Over time, the system encourages the dominance of two massive political parties. The U.S. is one of just a very few countries that uses this FPTS system.
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Most other democracies use proportional representation to elect officials, rather than a winner-take-all system. This results in multiple political parties sharing duties. Japan, for instance, has five major political parties along with several smaller parties. In Israel, ten different parties of affiliates are represented in the national legislature.
So why have political parties at all? Actually, we didn't use to. During the first presidential election, there were no political parties and in fact George Washington won without even campaigning. Many of the early Founding Fathers were skeptical of political parties and Washington publicly warned of their dangers.
Nevertheless, U.S. politics were quickly dominated by two major parties. Each went through various incarnations, but by the mid-19th century we had the Democratic and Republican parties as we know them today.
Many critics contend that the two-party system is unjust, limited voters' options at the polls. The system also leads to corrupt practices like gerrymandering. But the situation is not likely to change any time soon. The reason is simple enough: Democrats and Republicans dominate the legislatures that make the very laws that govern elections. And they like the status quo just fine.
-- Glenn McDonald
Britannica: Two-Party System
PBS: Two-Party System
CNN: Washington (George) got it right