The Two Party System is Not Working

Dear Asian Youth,


Since the American Civil War, the nation has been forever divided into Democrats and Republicans. The two-party hold on American politics has been a staple in American democracy for hundreds of years. However, as each election cycle goes by, it is becoming glaringly evident that this system is a threat to a healthy democracy. This two-party system ensures we are voting against the candidates that we dislike- not for the candidates that we do like. This lack of genuine representation encourages voter apathy and limits political innovation.


According to the Voter Study Group, 68% of Americans claim that the two major political parties do not adequately represent their beliefs. While third-party candidates are options, it is incredibly rare for any to be voted into office. In fact, as of 1920, only four third-party candidates (Robert La Follette, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and John Hospers) have been able to win a single electoral vote. Furthermore, even though Theodore Roosevelt ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns during the Election of 1912, he was still beaten by the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson.


Moreover, third-party candidates are not only expected to lose, but their presence in an election is often considered a “spoiler.” Essentially, the third-party candidate often takes away votes from the major candidates of the two main political parties. In turn, this allows for the candidate of the main opposing party to win, which is exactly what led Wilson to win his election. Before Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, he identified with the Republican Party, so many of his ideologies identified accordingly. As a result, Roosevelt and Taft (the major Republican candidate) split the Republican vote, allowing for an easy win for Wilson, who did not have to compete for any Democratic votes.


This “spoiler effect” is also incredibly clear in the upcoming election, particularly from the Democrats. Despite clear disapproval from both parties for Biden, many are still rallying behind him with the understanding that a vote for anyone else is automatically a vote for Trump. Furthermore, situations such as this often lead to voter apathy as voters dislike both major candidates, but do not want to “waste” their vote by supporting a third-party candidate. This lack of interest not only leads to neutral politics but contributes to low voter turnout, which is a significant issue in the United States. In fact, in 2018, only 53% of eligible voters cast a ballot. The people are the backbone of true democracy, but the two-party system and the resulting spoiler effect prevents the people from feeling represented and in turn, discourages an interest in the government.


From these criticisms of the two-party system, many would presume that the best solution would be to implement a simple winner-takes-all arrangement where there are no parties. Simply put, each citizen gets one vote and the candidate who receives the most votes wins. While this straightforward system seems idyllic, it is just as problematic as the two-party system. First of all, when there are no political parties to organize the candidates, a candidate who a majority of citizens do not support could win. In two-party systems, the spoiler effect ensures that voters choose between two of the main candidates, ensuring that the person in office has been voted in by a majority of voters. However, a winner-takes-all strategy means that a candidate with only 25% of the popular vote could end up in office. This is because the remaining 75% of voters divided their votes so that none would be able to win a majority.


More importantly, a “winner-takes-all system” inevitably evolves into a two-party system as it is smarter to vote for the person who has a higher chance of winning than to “waste one's vote” supporting a smaller candidate. For example, if I voted in a winner-takes-all election and the candidate that I voted for lost to someone who I despise, the following year, I would be willing to vote for another, more powerful candidate just to keep the individual I despise out of office. Eventually, the winner-takes-all system only promotes two major candidates, and the spoiler effect that results from this organization means that a winner-takes-all system results in a two-party-system.


Instead of focusing on taking away parties or adding new parties, a better solution is to change how we vote. Perhaps the United States should take inspiration from countries such as Australia and Ireland that implement the alternative vote system where voters rank the candidates. These votes are counted in rounds. If a candidate does not win the majority of first-place votes in the first round, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the votes are recounted. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated then their vote goes to their second choice. The cycle repeats until a candidate wins a majority vote, which allows voters to support third-party candidates without worrying about the spoiler effect.


This support for third-party candidates is incredibly important because otherwise, candidates restrict themselves to the two parties, which stifles political innovation. Prime examples of this issue are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who do not fit in with their respective party’s values. In fact, in 2000, Trump wanted the Reform party’s presidential nomination but was unsuccessful. However, despite not agreeing with all Republican values, he ran with the Republican nomination in 2016 and won the election. Furthermore, many Democrats criticize Sanders for his socialist values, but he is unable to run a third-party campaign because the chances of his success are so slim. The alternative vote system would eliminate these issues and, in turn, allow for better representation and further, more political innovation.


The people of the United States do not talk about the many issues surrounding the nature of the two-party system. It feels as though we have accepted the two-party hold on American politics because it is all we know of, but it is not the only nor the best arrangement. Various places are adapting to these changes; For example, Maine has already implemented an alternative vote system, and more states are expected to follow suit.


Changing the two-party system is an undeniably difficult task, but it is a necessary step in creating a democracy that accurately represents the wishes and desires of its people.


- Lora Kwon


Cover photo source: Sarah Pruitt, history.com