What The Heck Is The Two-Party Duopoly?

Created: 05 February, 2021
Updated: 14 August, 2022
16 min read

What is the duopoly? On the surface this may seem like a common sense question: We have a political system dominated by two major parties. Hence, we have a duopoly. That simple, right?  Yet, the reasons we have a two-party duopoly in the US are far more nuanced.

The Republican and Democratic Parties win nearly every partisan electoral contest in the US. But, this is not the reason for the duopoly, but a symptom of it, and unfortunately the damaging effects the duopoly has had on the political process at-large has been normalized.

Allow me to explain.

A monopoly is defined as “the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service.” An entity has such a grip on an industry that it is the only supplier of goods and services within that industry and competitors cannot emerge to challenge it. 

A duopoly is the same, just with two entities instead of one.

Americans would not accept this in any industry. We want choices. We want more than McDonalds and Burger King. We want more than Coke and Pepsi. And if our preferred choice fails to deliver quality service, we want the freedom to take our business somewhere else.

Now, it may be that within an industry, one or two dominant entities emerge and consumers simply prefer these entities. However, the existence of competition incentivizes the dominant entities to continue to listen and respond to consumer demand.

Amazon, for instance, cannot get complacent or else it will lose customers. And, the next Amazon could emerge and become the dominant entity within the industry. Thus, emergence or existence of competition inevitably impacts the evolution of the biggest companies in any industry.

That is how a free market ideally is supposed to work, and the same could be said for the political process. However, there is something inherently wrong with the way the US political system operates, because elected officials are no longer responsive to voters’ demands.

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Why? Well, consider the following analogy:

Imagine going out to dinner but there are only two restaurant options from which to choose. The customer service may be sloppy in both, and no matter how much a customer raises grievances with the limited options on the menu, nothing changes. Instead of adapting their business practices to an evolving consumer base, they increasingly distance themselves from the interests of consumers.

What’s worse, employees of these two restaurants also write the rules and regulations that govern the service industry and other employees enforce the rules.

Sounds crazy, right? Why would we ever allow this to happen? Well, this is essentially the situation of the US political system.

I touched on this a bit in a piece on election integrity. The entire electoral process has been designed to give an advantage to the two major parties and their members. This advantage extends to: 

  • Taxpayer-funded primaries, 
  • How election districts are drawn, 
  • Who is allowed on the ballot, 
  • Who can raise money and how much; 
  • Who gets voter data; 
  • Who gets to debate; 
  • how election laws are enforced 

And, the advantages continue from there.

Partisan Primaries

Consider from the onset of elections, voters are told to pick a side in partisan primaries. In several cases, the condition to vote in these taxpayer-funded elections is conditioned on being a registered member of one of the two major parties.

Voters are also warned by election administrators in several states that failing to join a party will lead to restrictions at the ballot box. In other words, public officials use taxpayer-funded channels to advocate for the membership of private political parties.

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Due to how districts are drawn or the natural advantage one party has in an area, most elections are safe for either the Republican or Democratic Party. This means the most critical decision voters make is in the primary, where the nominee of the political majority is chosen.

As a result of closed and semi-closed primary rules in several states, tens of millions of voters are denied a meaningful voice in the process because they do not want to affiliate with either of the major parties. In half the states that register voters by party, independents outnumber members of at least one of the two major parties. There are also many states where independents outnumber registered members of both major parties.

And, when pro-voter advocates have challenged the use of elections that give party members an extra say in who ultimately is elected at the expense of equal voting rights for all voters, courts have to date sided with the argument that voters should join a party or don’t vote.

Partisan primaries are where the askewness of the incentive structure in politics stars to become apparent. Due to the outsized advantage these low-turnout elections have in determining the outcome, public officials’ approach to legislation is to appease the extreme minority that participate in extremely partisan elections.

Voters may have heard the term “being primaried.” The biggest fear most policymakers have is not losing the general election, but having to defend their seat from a strong primary challenger - a challenger who could garner support from party leaders.

Thus, to protect their status with party leaders, which could impact access to party resources and voter data, many of the people in charge of writing and implementing policy are encouraged to never work with the “other side” and toe whatever the current party line is.

The consequence of partisan primaries is an extreme minority of voters and party leaders have an outsized advantage in deciding who ultimately gets elected to positions of power. The rest of the electorate is expected to just accept what they have been given by the partisan powers that be.

Partisan Gerrymandering

Anti-gerrymandering campaigns have made great strides over the years in order to take control of drawing electoral districts out of the hands of public officials loyal to their parties first. Still, the maps drawn in 2021 will largely favor partisan interests.

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Partisan gerrymandering is the most well-known scheme by both parties to maintain their respective majorities in states across the country. The parties crack and pack communities to ensure most districts are safe for their candidates. Even when the majority is slim, this power to draw electoral districts can lead to one party having a supermajority or near-supermajority of seats.

The result of how districts have been drawn has resulted in some oddly-shaped districts in the past, like the infamous “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” district in Pennsylvania, a district that prior to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in 2018 and subsequent re-mapping of the state’s congressional districts was held together in one spot by a single crab shack (not kidding).

Gerrymandering is largely viewed as a Republican scheme, but that is due to the fact that they have an overwhelming advantage. The GOP has once again won unmitigated control over redistricting in 21 states versus the 9 states where Democrats control the process.

Still, it is important to note that this scheme to protect and enhance majority control over state legislatures is not limited to a single party. Republicans scheme to draw maps that benefit them in states like Texas just as hard as Democrats scheme to draw maps that benefit them in states like Maryland.

In fact, the first partisan gerrymandering win of 2021 was in New York, where the Democratic-controlled legislature quietly approved a ballot measure for November that would essentially give Democrats unilateral authority to accept or reject an independent redistricting commission that exists only in an advisory role.

The gains anti-gerrymandering reformers have made over the years, including passing anti-gerrymandering initiatives in 4 states at the ballot box in 2018, are significant, but they are also still marginal when compared to where parties still have control over the process, and as reformers build on their successes, the parties further scheme to overturn these pro-voter gains.

In 2018, for instance, passed a comprehensive good governance package that included independent redistricting. However, a ballot measure spearheaded by partisan interests in the state, convinced voters in 2020 to eliminate key provisions in the reform and handed the process back to party loyalists.

The parties don’t like it when voters try to usurp their authority over the electoral process, because in their mind, they are entitled to elections. Voters take a back seat to the will of the party leaders.

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Ballot Access

Minor parties have made some strides in the last few years on the ballot access front in presidential elections. For instance, the Green Party and Libertarian nominees for president in 2016 and 2020 were on all or most state ballots.

Still, the obstacles in certain states for third party and independent candidates to make it on the ballot seem insurmountable -- so much so that candidates outside the major parties often see no incentive to run.

In Georgia, a state that has received national notoriety for its elevated role in determining how the ebb and flow of political power in Washington sways, for instance, requires valid signatures from 5% of registered voters for US House and state legislature. 

In modern history, the only time minor party and independent candidates have been in these elections is as write-in candidates as a result.

Illinois requires candidate petitions for the US House, state legislature, and county partisan office to receive 5% of the last vote cast. In Pennsylvania, a minor party must have a membership of 15% of the registered voting population to qualify for the ballot. In Virginia, a minor party has to get 10% of the vote in any statewide race in one of the previous two election cycles.

These are just a few examples where the bar to get on the ballot is substantially higher than it is for major party candidates who only have to get a few dozen signatures in many cases to appear on the primary ballot, and get marginal support from voters to advance to the general election.  

The challenge for minor party and independent candidates is not always meeting the signature requirement. It is the challenge the major parties pose, both legally and legislatively, when candidates outside the duopoly start to make inroads.

In Arizona, another state that has gained national notoriety, the Republican-controlled legislature changed the ballot access laws in 2015 to stave off the Libertarian Party by changing the requirement to get on the party’s primary ballot from being based on party registration to total state voter registration.

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In 2018, this required Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kevin McCormick to 3,152 signatures to appear on his own party’s primary ballot instead of the 133 required prior to the 2015 law. Still, McCormick’s campaign managed to turn in enough signatures, yet ended up still getting removed from the primary ballot.

Arizona GOP Chair Jonathan Lines challenged the legitimacy of over 90 percent of his ballot signatures, and the state’s largest county - Maricopa County - tossed 500 of the signatures gathered, which ended up costing McCormick gravely.

The most detrimental challenge to McCormick targeted the party affiliation of the voters who signed McCormic’s petition. State law states a party candidate cannot garner signatures from voters registered with another party, even though the new signature requirement on Libertarian candidates factored in the total registered voting population.

McCormick was not alone in being challenged in 2018. In total, there were 30 candidate petition challenges, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office. In 18 of those cases, including McCormick,  the candidate either withdrew or was removed from the ballot.

This does not even get into the numerous legal challenges to minor party and independent petitions for ballot access that have occurred across the country, and in many cases the major parties end up winning a battle of attrition because they have the money and resources to outlast outside candidates who spend most of their resources just to get on the ballot.

When they have nothing left to defend their spot on the ballot, alternative options end up dropping out.

Exclusionary Debates

Public debates and forums can be a way for the public to be introduced to alternative options to the Republican and Democratic Parties. They can also be a means by which new and innovative ideas and solutions can enter the electoral narrative.

However, the grip that the major parties have on elections extends to the debates and the national narrative. Nowhere are the bipartisan machinations to keep new faces and ideas out of the spotlight more apparent than the presidential debates.

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The major parties partnered together to establish the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, a move that essentially muscled out the League of Women Voters as sponsors of the debate. The League said it “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

And a hoodwinking indeed followed. Since the Commission took over debate sponsorship, three candidates have shared the debate stage only one time -- Ross Perot in 1992. In 2000, the debate commission changed its rules, the most notable change being a 15% rule that required candidates to poll at 15% or higher in 5 nationwide polls handpicked by the Commission to qualify for the debate.

Not only did the new rule make it impossible for 2000 Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to be heard on the debate stage, but the Commission had Nader forcibly removed from the same campus the Bush-Gore debate was held where he attempted to watch the debate in a separate auditorium.

Nader had a ticket for the event, but the Commission on Presidential Debates did not want a third party candidate anywhere near a show that they have deemed is solely about endorsing the major party candidates. 

This was not an isolated incident. In 2012, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her running mate were arrested for attempting to enter the debate grounds. 

Fifteen percent in 5 polls is a tall order for any third party or independent candidate. It’s a feat that must be accomplished even as pollsters bury their names, the media ignores them, and as previously mentioned, they have to spend all of their resources just to gain and keep ballot access.

The 15% rule has exacerbated the lack of competition in US elections as many potential independent and third party candidates have cited it as a reason why they won’t run for president, despite viable credentials and experience in public office.

The FEC was asked to address the clear bias the Commission on Presidential Debates. The FEC shot down administration complaints, which led to a lawsuit in 2015. Despite some early victories in court, the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, and a petition filed with the Supreme Court has yet to be taken up.

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The fight against the rigged electoral rules that deny voters competitive elections in the US has long been an uphill battle. After all, those who challenge the status quo are challenging rules put in place explicitly to benefit the major parties.

The two parties hijacked the presidential debates so they could apply the same control over them they have over every other facet of the electoral process.

It Doesn’t End There (Far From It)

These are just a few examples of the ways the US political process has been manufactured to serve the private interests of two political corporations, the Republican and Democratic Parties:

  • This doesn’t get into the impact winner-take-all, at-large elections have on disproportionate and inadequate representation. 
  • This doesn’t get into a first-past-the-post choose-one voting method that allows candidates to win elections with the consent of a political minority. 
  • This doesn’t get into how the organizations that control the biggest flow of money and voter data in the nation are the two major parties.
  • This doesn’t get into ways the major party leaders have intentionally and maliciously marginalized or destroyed campaigns within their own parties that might have massive appeal among voters, but refuse to toe the party line or stick to the partisan script.
  • This doesn’t get into how the agency charged with enforcing federal election and campaign corruption laws, the FEC, is intentionally split evenly between Republicans and Democrats so the agency can’t AND won’t move on anything. 

For decades, the rules and regulations that govern the entire electoral process in states across the country and at the federal level have been written by public officials loyal to their parties, and it extends to every level of the electoral process.

There is a reason why the number of elected officials outside the major parties in the US House of Representatives dropped from 41 in the Progressive Era (1911-1960) to 6 in the modern era, and only two of those elected officials were elected as an independent or minor party candidate. 

That’s right: two in the last 60 years. (Note: This does not include the US Senate.)

There is also a reason why Congress has become largely unresponsive to voters at-large, and the nation’s policy is trapped in a state of paralysis. Because elections, top-down, have become solely about “Team Red” and “Team Blue,” and who wins.

In a monopoly (and in this case a duopoly), when an industry is locked down for one or two entities, the consumer doesn’t really matter, because where is the consumer going to go, especially if the entity provides a critical service?

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The entities in a monopoly or duopoly only have to be accountable to themselves, and while a duopoly allows one additional option, when both options fail to meet the needs of the public, consumers are left bouncing between the two sides and hoping something eventually changes.

In the US, many consumers experience another monopoly on a daily basis. It, however, is a more region-specific monopoly. I am talking about consumer options for Internet Service Providers.

Many Americans know what it is like to only have one or two options when it comes to broadband access (if they get that at all), even when it is not the best quality that exists in the broader market or the companies put the interests of consumers first.

In fact, the similarities between the two-party duopoly and the ISP monopolies in the US are striking. According to Community Networks:

“The big telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America — their DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds — despite many billions spent over years of federal subsidies and many state grant programs.”

And, approximately 83.3 million Americans, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, can only access broadband through a single provider.

You know who else has largely abandoned the needs of rural America? The major parties, despite public support in one way or another.

We don’t find this acceptable. In fact, it angers millions of Americans that their options are so limited. We should be even more angered by the reality that the people we elect to represent us, to serve the public interest, and provide for the general welfare, don’t. 

The public interest takes a backseat to party loyalty.

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And, in the zero-sum contest between the Republican and Democratic Parties, the only thing that matters is who wins, even if it means sacrificing voters’ rights, voters’ choice, accountability, ethics, etc. What won’t either side say to get an advantage or get voters to hate the “other side”?

Division, anger, frustration, and fear define US elections, and the parties and their allies in the media want voters to believe that the state of things is normal, because it is good for business. It doesn’t matter where it has taken our country. It doesn’t matter how hyper-polarization has boiled over. And we are seeing the consequences of this play out in ways like never before in modern history.

As we wrap up, consider this question: What have the parties actually learned from the chaos and insurrection at the capitol on January 6? Who is really being held accountable for fostering such extreme hyper-polarized division? Who has helped build a political environment where this has even been possible to emerge?

Now, answer this: Are you fed

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