Why We May Be Witnessing the Last Gasp of the Two-Party System

Author: Craig Berlin
Created: 03 August, 2016
Updated: 21 November, 2022
6 min read

The Republican and Democratic primaries this year reminded many of an episode of Dysfunctional Family Feud and although the path to the resulting nominations ended differently, the long lasting effects may be largely the same. As Ed Morrisey of HotAir and The Week recently pointed out, “the deep divisions running within both parties at what are supposed to be unity-fests suggest that the wheels may be coming off the much-derided two-party system.”

With major party dissatisfaction at an all-time high, the stage was set for a couple of populist candidates from outside the establishment to boldly go where no candidates have gone before. Bernie Sanders, an independent senator, declared himself a Democrat in order to gain the exposure and financing that only a major party can currently provide. Donald Trump, someone from outside politics who previously identified mostly as a Democrat, ran as a Republican.

Americans were looking for outsiders and they got two. Unfortunately there seems to be clear evidence of “no pain, no gain.”

Trump won the nomination despite alienating a wide range of Republicans, and though he received the eventual support of the party, notable non-endorsements include former candidates Lindsay Graham, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz, along with a list of other members of Congress and conservative pundits.

But Trump did manage to coalesce a substantial number of registered Democrats who identify as Republican leaners, with approximately 43 percent of their support. Even so, many of his eventual Republican endorsers appear reluctant, with their primary purpose being preventing Hillary Clinton from re-entering the White House. As the campaign has continued onward, Trump's ongoing displays of questionable behavior have made the tenuous relationship all the more awkward.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, also built an enthusiastic coalition but fell short of the nomination. With nearly half of his supporters not interested in supporting the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, and revelations that the DNC treated him unfavorably all along, Sanders nevertheless endorsed her, only to find many of his supporters staging protests and a walkout on the convention floor.

With Americans leaving the major parties in droves and independents now outnumbering both Democrats and Republicans, the controversies that led up to and encompassed both conventions will likely accelerate the trend. Trump himself has been an intensely divisive figure and by eventually embracing him, the GOP has lost some of its longtime supporters.

Conservative columnist George Will commented in June, “I joined it because I was a conservative, and I leave it for the same reason: I'm a conservative. [A]s Ronald Reagan said when he changed his registration, 'I did not leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.' "

When asked for his message to conservatives, Will further advised that they take their medicine and live to fight another day. “Make sure he loses. Grit teeth for four years and win the White House."

Bernie Sanders' supporters, on the other hand, have championed his self-identification as a European-style Democratic Socialist and the more progressive wing of the party sees many of our problems as the result of the rise of neoliberalism, a resurgent term that parallels conservatism in terms of its affection for free markets, deregulation, and reduced government spending.

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With Clinton’s reputation of being prone to the more hawkish neoconservatism, along with recent scandals over e-mail and impartiality during the Democratic primary, a substantial number of Sanders supporters also feel that electing Hillary doesn’t garner any significant advantage.

Like Will, some on the left see possibilities in a loss. No one wants to see Trump win but there is some “revenge” sentiment and some perspective that at least he overthrew the GOP establishment, whereas Hillary and the DNC conspired to suppress a truly progressive and honest challenger.

There is a strong sentiment that conspiring with corruption and continuing to try and pick the lesser of two evils doesn’t work and Trump’s election might be a necessary evil. After reflecting on the whole process, Morrissey added “the fact that the two major parties managed to nominate the most disliked general-election candidates in modern history makes for a pretty good argument that the value of the two-party system has been exhausted," with many now looking for the silver linings.

Indeed, as Paul David Miller recently wrote for The Federalist, “if we want to see real change, we should seek to bring down the two-party system itself,” and this election seems to be increasing the motivation.

In fairness, we can’t blame everything on the parties. While they don’t seem interested in the will of the people, primary voters can fail to see the long game as well. The motto of the GOP has supposedly been to nominate the most conservative candidate who can win, yet despite John Kasich being the only candidate with a net positive rating and the most likely to beat Clinton, he only won a single primary: his home state of Ohio.

By the same token, where Real Clear Politics found Bernie Sanders beating Trump by a substantial margin in all polling and Hillary losing in 5 out of 7, she won the nomination (although much is being debated over how much the DNC manipulated the process). Somewhere in the mix of polling, media, delegates, superdelegates and the actual voters, there seems to be a serious disconnect.

As more people look for alternatives, it opens the door for independents and third parties, the most popular of whom are the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson. Johnson also has a realistic chance of not only getting in the presidential debates, but is on the ballot in all 50 states and could, theoretically, win the election. This could end the dominance of the two-party duopoly and open the door for something along the lines of coalition government seen in other Western democracies.

In these systems, several political parties cooperate so no one party dominates that coalition.   The Democrats and Republicans are not going to fade away—they have resources, infrastructure and numbers and control large parts of the process, but as Miller points out, this is one of the important steps to changing the electoral process.

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There are admittedly historical and logistical challenges to bona fide alternatives. As Cliston Brown points out in The Observer, “while many Americans like the idea of a third party in theory, very few are willing to actually vote for one,” and this is at least in part due to the structure of our system and reliance on the Electoral College.  But Americans have shown in a number of ways they are fed up and moving beyond this type of governance seems to be the next logical goal, even if old habits are hard to break.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Photo Credit: Peeradach Rattanakoses / shutterstock.com