The American Two-Party System

Posted by: Alamanda Gribbin, Political Office, Doris Hernandez, Political Intern

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Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President (1861–1865)
Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President (1861–1865)

The first president of the United States, George Washington, warned about the negative repercussions that the formation of political parties could have for the newly founded nation and its democratic foundation.

Up until the American Revolution, fear of factionalism and political parties was deeply rooted in American political culture. Leaders such as Washington and Thomas Jefferson hoped their new government, founded on the Constitution, would be motivated instead by a common intent, a unity.

In his farewell address, Washington expressed fear that political parties “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.”

However, political parties did form in the United States, and they had their beginnings in Washington’s cabinet. One party, The Federalist Party, headed by Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government and close links between the government and business. There was also The Democratic-Republican Party, founded by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, which supported a limited role for central government and a more populist approach to government.

During the election of 1800, Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, defeated Federalist candidate John Adams, notably becoming the first president to be elected as a representative of a political party.  Following this election the power of the Federalists began to slowly fade until it eventually disappeared entirely by the 1820s.

Andrew Jackson is typically considered the first Democratic President of the United States
Andrew Jackson is typically considered the first Democratic President of the United States

Despite the disappearance of the Federalist Party, the Democratic-Republican Party persisted but was split by factions. One group, the Jacksonian Democrats faction, led by war hero and future president Andrew Jackson, grew into the modern Democratic Party. Another faction, The Whig Party, emerged but was later supplanted by the anti-slavery Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican president.

Though the two-party system, Democratic and Republican Party, still persists in the United States today, the policies championed by each party have shifted as conditions and political agendas changed throughout history. Presidential elections since 1848 have featured solely Democratic or Republican competitive nominees each election. Yet there have been rare exceptions of third party nominees winning a significant percentage of votes.

Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of the Bull Moose Progressive Party
Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of the Bull Moose Progressive Party

Perhaps the most successful third party in American politics was the Bull Moose Party, also known as the Progressive Party.  In 1912, President Teddy Roosevelt lost the bid for the Republican nomination, and campaigned on a new, progressive party, called the Bull Moose Party.  Although he did not win the election, he managed to win over 27% of the vote, making him the most successful third-party candidate in history.

More recently, in 2000, Ralph Nadar, a consumer protection advocate, ran as a Green Party Candidate. He said he ran because no one in Washington would listen to his message.

Though he received a mere 2.74% of the vote; some say that this third party candidate cost candidate Al Gore the 2000 election.

While most other democratic nations have multi-party systems, the third parties that regularly pop up in American history are drowned out when a major party absorbs their ideas. These third parties are typically formed to address key issues that are neglected by the major parties.

As the two-party system remains prominent in U.S. politics, in his book, Is Democracy Possible Here?, American author Ronald Dworkin urged liberals and conservatives to realize that each team works for the same goal of a better nation and must collaborate in the most efficient manner.


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