Understanding the US’s two-party system

 - Sakshi Post

The US is one of many nations around the world to have what is described as a two-party political system. Although other parties are allowed to compete in both local and federal elections, and frequently do, in practice one of two main political parties generally holds the balance of power, while the second party holds a significant minority of seats in the federal legislature and acts as the opposition party. The two main parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and one or other of these has held the presidency and controlled Congress since the mid-19th century.

US government

The US is a decentralized democracy, with individual states able to make many decisions and set laws independent of the federal government. Most government officials at the state and local levels are elected directly by popular vote, with the candidate who receives the most votes securing the election. A notable exception occurs with the presidential elections, held every four years. In this case, the president and vice president are chosen by the Electoral College, made up of electors from each state who have generally pledged to respect the popular vote.

The federal government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judiciary. The legislative branch is known as Congress and is made up of two parts, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each has different exclusive powers. Congress debates and votes on Acts of Congress, which then have to be approved and signed into law by the president.

The president and vice president of the US make up the executive branch of government, though their powers are often delegated to members of the cabinet. The president can veto an Act of Congress, though if two-thirds of Congress vote in favor of a second reading, it can become law without the president’s signature. Congress also has the power to impeach the president by a two-thirds vote if it believes that the president has acted unconstitutionally or is otherwise deemed to be unfit for office.

The third branch of the federal government is the judiciary, the highest level of which is the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and appointed by the Senate. They are able to settle legal disputes and so have a potentially high level of power in cases where the other branches of government cannot come to an agreement.

Promoting stability

A two-party system is said to promote stability in government. With an either/or choice, it should be easier for one party to form a majority in Congress and so govern effectively, without the need for many small parties to form coalitions in order to pass an Act. In a sense, each of the two parties is already a coalition, as they are made up of different factions that work together under a single banner in order to compete in elections.

Historically, there have not been massive ideological differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. As parties have to appeal to the same broad number of voters in order to be elected, this should prevent the rise of parties catering to specific minority interests and political extremism on either the left or the right. If the ruling party is always one of two broadly similar coalitions, then this should promote stability and continuity, as there should not be radical shifts in policy between each government.

Flaws within the system

In recent years, however, the differences between the two parties have become greater. Furthermore, the US has a complex system of checks and balances intended to preserve federal democracy and to prevent what is referred to as the tyranny of the majority. The problem with this is that when representatives and senators from the two different parties cannot agree, it leads to gridlock in both houses, and nothing gets done.

One response to this has been the formation of the organization No Labels, which seeks to combat partisan dysfunction by encouraging representatives from both sides of the house to find common ground on crucial issues such as health care, infrastructure, and the economy. No Labels has promoted the creation of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, which consists of 48 members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, who work together to find acceptable solutions to pressing problems and make sure that action is implemented.

Third parties

Because the two major parties have effectively controlled the whole landscape of American politics and have set the terms for all open political debate, it is hard for third parties to gain traction in the US. Perhaps the most tenacious in recent years has been the Green Party, but although it has secured representatives at state and local levels, it has never had a candidate elected to the federal government.

In the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote as an independent candidate, but generally, third parties struggle to get onto ballots or be represented in election debates. The first-past-the-post system used in the US also favors the two majority parties, as even if a third party wins a substantial proportion of the popular vote, if this is spread across the country, they may still not have a single representative elected.

The two-party system in the US has its critics, but it has served its people for nearly two centuries. Alongside the inalienable rights outlined in the Constitution, it is seen as still being the best method to combine stability with democracy across a large and diverse nation.

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