Pros and Cons of the Two-Party System

Democratic donkey and republican elephant with American flag main

The United States has a two-party system. Two political parties usually govern the country. This has various benefits and disadvantages. A two-party system is simpler, promotes moderation, and helps advance majority rule. Nonetheless, it also suppresses alternative views, delays necessary change, and encourages abuses of the party system.  

Politics and Political Parties 

Politics involves the science of government. We might think “politicians” and “politics” are dirty words, but they are the basics of self-government.  A political system provides a means for the people to choose their leaders who govern in their names.  

A political party is an organization that supports candidates for political office.  

There are different types of political party systems. Some countries have a proportional representation system. If a party gets 10% of the vote, 10% of the representatives will be given to that party.  This system encourages a system with many political parties.   

The United States has a two-party system.  We have many different parties but a member of one of two parties (these days, Democrats and Republicans) usually wins.   

Why Do We Have A Two-Party System?

Our political system encourages a two-party system.  We have elections and winners are chosen by determining who obtains the most votes.  One person wins.  

A winner needs to obtain at least a plurality (the most votes but not a majority).  This requires support from a variety of groups of people.  Parties formed to run candidates form coalitions, groups of people with different views.  A small party would not gain enough support.

From the beginning, if with different names (such as Federalists and Whigs), two competing parties generally run for office.  Other parties overall play a much smaller role.  

Why Is A Two-Party System Ideal?  

[1]  Compromise 

A two-party system promotes compromise.  There are over three hundred million people in this country.  They have a range of beliefs, needs, and desires.  Everyone will not be happy.

If there were a range of political parties, each one might appeal to a small number of people.  Democrats and Republicans need to appeal to lots of people.  They do this by supporting certain basic principles while accepting smaller disagreements.  Each group gets something in return.  

[2]  Moderation  

Two large parties require each group to agree to work together.  This encourages restraint, avoiding political strife.  The result is peaceful interaction and good governmental policies.  

People are by nature hesitant to go to extremes. Smaller parties require fewer people to agree. This makes it more likely for them to take radical positions.  Extreme actions can be dangerous.  

Speaking of moderation, you can read about Moderate Republicans in this article.

[3]  Majority Rule

A proportional system of government with many small parties often results in a small group of people having the balance of power.  Two or three larger parties are unable to gain the support of a majority of the legislature.  A small party’s support is required to gain a majority.

A two-party system avoids the possibility that the “tail will wag the dog.”  Each party is a coalition of voters.  The winning party has the support of a majority.  Majority rules.  

[4]  Simplicity  

Multiple parties can be complicated.  People will need to pick from a range of possibilities.  This can be very confusing.  There is already not enough political involvement in many elections.

[5]  Smooth Government 

Many parties also can result in a divided government.  A legislature might split in various ways without a majority obtaining agreement.  This will make it hard to get things done.  

Some Problems With A Two-Party System 

[1]  Fewer Choices

There is a complaint that there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two political parties.  Experience has shown this to be exaggerated.  Nonetheless, the two political parties often share basic beliefs (such as support of anti-communism) and others are left out.  

A two-party system discourages the growth of other parties that provide different ideas about governing.  “Third parties” are those outside of the two main parties such as the Green Party (environment) and the Libertarian Party (less government across the board).  

[2]  Foolish Consistency

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The system encourages party loyalty even when it is not warranted.  There are two sides with the other side the enemy.  No matter how bad “your” candidate is, you must support them.  

This shows the limitations of the benefits of the system.  The partisan loyalty encouraged by the two-party system can lead to party extremism instead of moderation.  

[3]  Less Agreement Across Party Lines  

Politics ideally is about compromise. This includes support crossing political lines. But, a two-party system makes this much harder to do even if many in each party actually agree.  

If we had multiple parties, people might be more likely to form different coalitions depending on the issues involved.  The two-party system in this way makes it harder to compromise.  

[4]  Political Party Follies

Two large parties place a lot of power in the hands of political parties. 

This can lead to corruption.  It can lead to a powerful party that uses power unwisely.  

A person needs the support of one of the two major parties to run for office and get much done once in office. This can lead to the people’s choice being required to make choices that surrender their own beliefs for the wishes of the party.  A party that has a lot of issues.  

[5]  Delaying Change

The two political parties generally work out a system where things largely stay the same.  They often cancel each other out, especially when a supermajority is necessary for change.  

Stability has benefits.  Nonetheless, there are things that should change. The two-party system, closing off alternative means of doing things, makes this harder.  

Some Flexibility

Our political system had two major parties from its beginning with the creation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. The two parties in place changed over time, including the nature of the parties themselves.  Parties do change over time.

We also have third-party options in each election.  There remains some “play in the joints.”

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.