Two party systems create a political structure for a country where the general population gets to choose between two specific platforms in each election. That means there will always be a majority and a minority party in this system. There are several governments around the world which utilize the system like this, but it is the United States who is had the most success with the dual party approach.
The idea behind using a specific two party system for governing is that it works to eliminate the extremism that can develop in national politics. Each district, community, or representative area can choose from one party or the other to represent their needs within a centralized government. Voters get to decide between the two platforms and the qualities of their elected officials to determine their specific representation.
Although there are two primary platforms that exist within such a system, each political party may have numerous factions that represents specific ideas in a manner that is similar to a multiple party system. Many of the governments that follow this structure will also permit third-party candidates as a way to increase competition in the electoral process. You can find Libertarians, Green Party, Reform Party, and Constitution Party candidates on many ballots in the U.S., even though they are considered outliers to the two party system.
There are several pros and cons of a two party system which are worth reviewing to see the strengths and weaknesses of this structure.
List of the Pros of a Two Party System
1. There is no question as to who is in the majority with a two party system.
When there is a multiple party system being used to govern a country, then it is rare for one political system to gain enough votes to have a 50% + 1 majority. Because everyone can vote their conscience in such a system, there may be 6-10 different parties represented in the government at the same time. When you use a two party system instead, the only way that a majority is not possible is if a tie occurs in a specific governing body.
The United States avoids this issue in the Senate by allowing the Vice President to cast a tie-breaking vote. There are coalitions, committee memberships, and other structures in place that work to reduce this threat as well.
2. It encourages more people to run for office.
The two party system encourages everyone to run for political office if that is what they want to do. The U.S. offers a system of primary elections that help to reduce the number of viable candidates to just one from each party. Then the entire electorate can vote again to choose the best candidate from the ones that remain. Although it isn’t a multi-party system, the results effectively act like one without the need to send representatives to the government to get everything sorted out there. The will of the people get to dictate which candidate and party will represent them.
3. It limits the amount of extremism that can form in the government.
When there are multiple parties who are responsible for governing, then anyone with a specific view can find themselves winning enough votes to secure an election. By creating a two party system where the platforms dictate the type of candidate that people want to see, then it creates a stronger bond of centrism that binds everyone together. There are still plenty of oppositional views to debate, but you won’t go outside of the societal norms under most circumstances.
This structure works to prevent conflict escalation. It stops the majority from harming the minority as a way to stay in power. Governments that follow this system find themselves in a better position to serve the people.
4. This system extends to local government as well.
A two party system does more than serve people at the national level. The platforms that these parties create will extend into local governing circles as well. Every person who decides that they want to run for office must declare which party represents them unless state laws dictate otherwise. Instead of trying to create a series of unique talking points that are independent of every candidate, you must try to line up your priorities with the ones in a political party that are similar to what you have.
That means a two party system tends to provide a variety of views and experiences despite the common ground found on the platform. You do not receive 100% alignment, but the party identifier does help your message to get in front of your preferred audience.
5. Government processes are faster in a two party system.
Because there are only two parties in the government, there are faster process to follow should there be an emergency situation to handle. Every governing branch in the U.S. works with the administrative staff of the political parties to communicate whatever specific needs may exist. Then the officials can vote to distribute emergency funds, create new best practices, or take on almost any other challenge that could benefit the population.
There is no need to form a coalition because a majority already exists. Even if someone gets coted into office as a third party or independent candidate, they must caucus with one of the two parties to ensure that their vote will make the impact it needs to make.
6. The two party system simplifies the process of governing.
Voters have an opportunity to have their say at the ballot box for any political party or candidate at any time. You even have the option to write-in a candidate who isn’t running for the election if you feel like the people who want your vote are not qualified to do the job. You can vote for a straight ticket of one party if you wish, but then you also have the option to vote for all of the members of the other party if you prefer. You can even vote for yourself if that is what you want to do.
Because there are fewer candidates on the ballot, there is less confusion with the stance of each person. Then you can mark the ballot as you see fit to represent the needs of your conscience.
List of the Cons of a Two Party System
1. It excludes viable candidates from having a legitimate chance at being elected.
If you want to run for office successfully in the United States, then you are forced to join one of the two political parties that are prominent in the system of governing. Anyone can choose to run for office, but that doesn’t mean their name will appear on the ballot. There were nearly 2,000 people who filed a statement of candidacy form with the government to state their intent to run for president, but there were only six parties that made it onto the ballots of at least 15 states.
There hasn’t been a viable third-party candidate for the office of the presidency in over 120 years. Teddy Roosevelt came the closest after receiving 27% of the vote when he decided to pursue an independent run for office. Ross Perot secured 18% of the popular vote, but didn’t win a single electoral vote.
2. It creates a system of assumptions instead of facts.
When you create a two party system, then you are building two distinctive platforms for political candidates to use. In the United States, Republicans are generally associated with a conservative form of governing, while Democrats are associated with a more liberal approach. When someone declares their candidacy for office, even at the local level, then their affiliation with either party creates an assumption that their choices will be similar to the platform they indicate they support.
The reality of politics is that some people are more complex than what a generic party platform can offer. Assuming that someone is always conservative or progressive based on the affiliation creates polarization. Republicans can vote for liberal causes, just as a Democrat can vote for the conservative agenda.
3. It eliminates the individual approach to governing, campaigning, and elections.
Bernie Sanders is one of many political candidates who went from an independent status to join one of the two major parties in the U.S. two party system during the 2016 election. Gary Johnson went in the other direction, pursuing the Libertarian platform instead of the Republican one. Because the public is given two major platforms to consider without much individualization, it would be inaccurate to say that this structure adequately represents the complexity of opinion from the general public.
4. Reform movements typically start outside of the two party system.
Gallup asks the same question to a group of voters each week. They want to know if someone approves or disapproves of the way that Congress acts. The results are usually the same, trending toward the very negative. The approval rating for the House and the Senate in the United States has been below 30% since 2009. It has been as low as 9%. Although the ratings are generally not very positive, they did receive an 84% approval rate after the bipartisanship shown following the attacks of September 11.
At the same time, Gallup talks to voters about how they feel regarding the work that their representative performs on their behalf. Those figures are generally above 50%. That shows why there is such a disconnect in the two party system.
5. There are fewer ideas introduced in a two party system.
The reason why it is so challenging for the United States to get anything done is the fact that the two party system splits the electorate. There is rarely a strong enough of a majority to pass significant legislation without spending high levels of political equity. That means the best ideas are usually discarded so that both sides can hammer out a compromise that works for as many people as possible.
New ideas typically come from the third-party systems in the U.S. instead of the two major political parties. Most significant efforts at change must take a grassroots perspective, eventually filtering up to the Republicans and Democrats in such a way that the issue can no longer be ignored.
6. It encourages people to group together based on political preferences.
The number of toss-up elections in the United States has decreased by almost 50% in the past 25 years because of this disadvantage. If you constantly vote in elections where the platform you support is defeated, then it feels like your ballot doesn’t count. The only solution is to move to a community, county, or state where there is more like-mindedness to the individual position. We are developing reliable segments of society that always vote for one party, which means there are fewer conversations where ideas can be shared.
This separation does more than create polarization within the electorate. It creates division as well. When you find yourself in the minority without suitable protections in place to safeguard your rights, then the easiest way to fix that problem is to go where you can do that to someone else.
7. Two party systems limit the voices and opinions of voters.
When you vote in a two party system, then you can either choose the candidate that best represents your needs or opt for the platform that supports one of the individuals. That means you may not find someone who represents 100% of what you feel is important in society. Some people like to describe this disadvantage as “voting for the lesser of two evils.”
It’s a terribly accurate description because a “lesser” evil is still focused on the opposite of good. You might have issues with the person’s moral character, but you know that voting in the other candidate will create legislative issues that you cannot support. That is why some Americans decide that their best vote is to not cast a ballot at all.
8. It encourages a lack of voter knowledge.
Instead of having voters attack the issues of the day with a two party system, there is a focus on specific points of interest that trickle down to the rest of the platform. Abortion is the most common subject that creates this disadvantage in the United States. If you approach an election using one general subject as your primary point of concern, then pro-life people typically vote for Republicans and pro-choice folks vote for Democrats.
You can find this approach in a wide variety of conservative vs. liberal approaches in society as well. Many people go to the ballot to support the one issue that is important to them and nothing else, which means the rest of the platform is secondary to the success of one issue.
9. A two party system can govern at the expense of the minority.
The United States is a nation that was built on the back of slavery. It has created a societal system where the minority has had to fight for its basic rights for more than a century. Even women had to fight for their right to vote because of the attitudes that permitted the ownership of humans in the first place.
Senator Mitch McConnell was asked in June 2019 what he thought about the idea of paying reparations to the families of those who descended from slaves. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African-American president.”
10. It creates a lack of consistency in governing.
When the Trump Administration came into power in 2017, government officials began to undo what the previous president had started. There were efforts to repeal Obamacare, initiate more tax cuts, and roll back the financial and environmental regulations that were put into place. Every time the other political party gets into power, there is a changing of the guard where the priorities of the government change.
This issue occurs with both political parties. Thanks to the gridlock in Congress, presidents are using executive orders more often to continue the governing process. Because there is a lack of consistency, it is challenging to create societal progress.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of a Two Party System
For all of its faults, the two party system does provide some unique advantages that are not possible in other systems of governing. You are almost always guaranteed to have a majority party. There are fewer debates to manage, committees to arrange, and coalitions to form. It also encourages a centric attitude by discouraging votes for extremism.
There can also be an overall lack of representation when= pursuing this political structure. A two party system must have safeguards in place that protect the rights of minority populations to ensure that everyone has the chance to pursue happiness.
The pros and cons of a two party system make it easier to distinguish the differences between candidates, but it rarely creates an authentic form of representation in the government. Each party has specific factions that can cause inner turmoil, which causes less to get done. You must still form coalitions with each caucus to get the results you want, which is why this system doesn’t always succeed.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.