The Two-Party System

Political parties frame the debate, recruit candidates, and raise money. The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics and are organized at the national, state, and local levels. Over the past decade in many states, an increasing percentage of the electorate has chosen to remain unaffiliated. Despite dissatisfaction with the Democrats and the Republicans, minor parties face huge obstacles in their efforts to gain a foothold.

The United States Constitution makes no mention of political parties, yet the two-party system has become a foundation of the American political system. The party that controls the White House has a major advantage in setting the national agenda through the bully pulpit, but executive power is constrained by the legislative and judicial branches. Congressional leadership plays a key role in determining the directions of the parties as do the national party committees, state parties and state leadership. Surrounding both parties are constellations of ideological and interest groups seeking to push them in one direction or another.

Both parties boast long traditions, the Democrats pointing to Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Harry Truman and JFK and the Republicans tracing back to Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Thanks to cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s, Democrats are represented by the donkey and Republicans by the elephant; a more recent phenomenon is the assignment of the color red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Generally, conservatives align with the Republican Party and liberals and progressives align with the Democrats (+). There is also the stereotypical image of Democrats as the party of big labor and ivory tower academics and Republicans as the party of big business and the rich. Views of the parties are also shaped by their national leadership; thus the Democrats are seen as the party of President Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Republicans as the party of Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Within the parties are various forces and factions. In the Democratic Party there is constant tension between progressive and more pragmatic or centrist elements such as Blue Dog Democrats. In the Republican Party social conservatives form a significant element of the base, tea party activists have been a force since 2010, and there are also libertarian elements. Moderate Republicans are seen as a disappearing breed, disparaged by conservatives as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Many independent groups such as the tea party movement or the labor movement operate outside the party structure but seek to influence it even as they in turn are wooed by the party.

A contrarian view holds that the major parties are basically very similar. During his campaigns Ralph Nader often spoke of a "two-party duopoly" and likened the Democrats and Republicans to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. As politics has become increasingly professionalized, candidates of both parties must raise vast amounts of money to pay for pollsters and consultants. There is a Washington establishment, a culture of money and lobbyists, described in the book This Town, in which Democrats and Republicans figure equally.

On a micro level, far away from Washington, DC county parties and local party clubs provide a direct interface with citizens, engaging in such activities as sponsoring speakers or tabling at farmer's markets or county fairs.

Over time, the American electorate has tended to vote so that neither of the parties holds too much power, and fortunes of the parties can change unexpectedly. Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, but Republicans rebounded to gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Twelve years later Democrats regained control of the House. When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, Democrats appeared to be in a very strong position. In May 2009 Time magazine ran a cover story showing the Republican elephant as an "Endangered Species" and National Journal focused on "The Shrinking GOP." However, in November 2009 Republicans won governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, on January 19, 2010 they elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in the Massachusetts special election, and in November 2010 they dealt Democrats an historic drubbing.

Then, in 2012, despite all efforts, they failed to make President Obama a one-term president. Some observers have even questioned Republicans' ability to regain the White House in future due to changing demographics of the country. Republicans have been working to address the problem. Following the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee undertook a major reassessment and vowed "a new way of doing things." (>) The Republican State Leadership Committee's Future Majority Project focused on recruiting diverse candidates and women in the 2013-14 cycle. 

In the 2014 midterms, Democrats endured widespread losses, casting some doubts on its future prospects. In addition to losing control of the Senate, and falling short in governor's races, Republicans achieved a net gain of between 300 and 350 state legislative seats according to he National Conference of State Legislatures, giving them "their highest number of legislators since 1920." Democrats have their own gender gap, among white males. One need only look at the U.S. political map, which is a sea of red with dots of blue in urban areas, to see that Democrats have a problem in rural areas. The Democratic National Committee announced its own "top-to-bottom review" following the 2014 midterms. (>) Looking to 2016, history suggests Democrats could have a difficult time holding on to the White House after two terms of Democratic administration under President Obama.  

Ideological Infrastructure

Over the past decade, conservatives and progressives alike have developed increasingly sophisticated infrastructure to support like-minded candidates.  Functions such as training, data and opposition research, which were formerly filled by the party committees are supplemented by or even implemented by outside entities.  Although the assortment of groups and networks on the right and on the left are independent of the parties, there are often linkages and connections.  For example, party committees and independent groups may use the same consultants or vendors (+), and it is not uncommon for staff of these groups to have worked at one of the party committees.  In effect such groups form adjuncts to the parties, aligning with them and supplementing their work; one could argue the have as much or more impact.  While progressives had somewhat of a head start in the development of this infrastructure, conservatives have clearly caught up in recent years. 

One key group on the progressive side is America Votes.  Formed in the 2004 cycle, America Votes coordinates the campaign activities of a number of progressive groups thus avoiding duplication of efforts.  Another group, Catalist, provides "progressive organizations with the data and services needed to better identify, understand, and communicate with the people they need to persuade and mobilize."  The Analyst Institute is "a clearinghouse for evidence-based best practices in progressive voter contact."  The Atlas Project provides "political data, analysis, election history and insight."  Also on the progressive side, American Bridge focuses on opposition research, including having trackers following and videotaping Republican presidential candidates and other Republican candidates.  Democracy Alliance, formed in 2005, "was created to build progressive infrastructure that could help counter the well-funded and sophisticated conservative apparatus..."  A recent addition on the progressive side is the American Democracy Legal Fund, "a group established to hold candidates for office accountable for possible ethics and/or legal violations."

On the conservative side, groups such as The Leadership Institute (founded in 1979) and GOPAC (founded in 1978) work on training activists and leaders.  The Koch brothers provide backing to an array of organizations.  Freedom Partners supports "broad-based coalitions to advance free markets and a free society."  i360, a "data and technology resource for the pro-free-market political and advocacy community," has developed a database of 190+ million active voters and 250+ million US consumers."  Americans for Prosperity is "an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets."  The Kochs also support three constituency groups: Generation Opportunity (youth), Concerned Veterans of American and LIBRE (Hispanics).  Another group on the conservative side is America Rising LLC, which like American Bridge does opposition research and tracking.

Another example of ideological infrastructure are think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left; these serve as idea factories.

Is Increasing Partisanship a Problem?

Many commentators and officials believe the partisan tone has become more strident in recent decades. Some observers have argued that there are fewer swing seats in Congress, and that as a result Members, ensconced in safe districts, do not need to moderate their positions. The professionalization of politics may also contribute; while there have certainly been negative campaigns in the past, consultants now have the attack campaign down to a science. They churn out slick communications attacking opposing candidates. In a fair number of races, campaigns are outspent by outside interest groups whose backers are not apparent and whose messages frequently feature attacks. Additionally, talk radio, cable television and the blogosphere abound with heated rhetoric, echoing attacks. The net result appears to be severe dysfunction, where both sides are talking past each other.

There have been various efforts to transcend partisanship. During their presidential campaigns, candidates George W. Bush ("uniter not a divider") and Barack Obama ("there are no red states and no blue states") both made bipartisan appeals, but once they were in office they found those sentiments difficult to implement. In May 2006 Unity08 launched with the goal of electing a bipartisan ticket to the White House; the group folded in 2008. In 2007 former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell established the Bipartisan Policy Center. Some are advocating "transpartisanship," an approach which "recognizes the validity of all points of view and values a constructive dialogue aimed at arriving at creative, integrated, and therefore, breakthrough solutions that meet the needs of all sides." New to the scene in the 2012 cycle were No Labels and Americans Elect. Americans Elect ("Pick a President, Not a Party") proved to be a flop; after working on ballot access in all 50 states, the group conducted a primary process that failed to produce a qualified candidate.

No Labels ("Not Left. Not Right. Forward.") formally launched on December 13, 2010 to "counter hyper-partisanship" and "bring together leading thinkers from the left, right, and all points in between." As of July 2014 the group reported 83 members of Congress had joined. In July 2014 No Labels fostered creation of the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus "to develop innovative bipartisan policy solutions to key national challenges." In Fall 2015 No Labels released a National Strategic Agenda "to help catalyze debate in the 2016 presidential election."  The Agenda set out four goals:
create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years, secure Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years, balance the federal budget by 2030, and make America energy secure by 2024.

Another effort to overcome partisanship was 1787, which described itself as "an organization with a policy platform grounded in common sense." 1787, which started up in 2013, had resonances of Americans Elect.  It planned to have "a presidential, vice presidential and multiple congressional candidates on ballots in 2016" and scheduled its 2016 national convention, to be held at the Omni Hotel at Independence Park in Philadelphia from April 21-24, 2016.  However, this effort gained no traction.

Third Parties: Huge Obstacles

In an Oct. 2013 Gallup survey (+) of 1,028 adults, 60 percent of respondents said a third major party is needed. (The question asked was, "In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?")

Supporters of existing minor or third parties including the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party argue that their parties can fill the void. Occasionally an independent candidate comes forth with sufficient credibility and resources to have an impact in a race. There are also a few state-based third parties such as the Independence Party in Minnesota which could benefit from dissatisfaction. However, despite the apparent opening for a third party, difficulties with uneven and inequitable ballot access requirements (>), raising money, recruiting credible candidates, and attracting media attention form high barriers to these parties. The historical record and the many formidable obstacles in our system suggest that third parties will continue to have a marginal impact. Even if third parties' efforts do not fully succeed, their ideas leaven the debate and their presence may hopefully improve our democracy.