Two-party system

Two-party system

A two-party system is a system where two major political parties dominate voting in nearly all elections at every level of government and, as a result, all or nearly all elected offices are members of one of the two major parties. Under a two-party system, one of the two parties typically holds a majority in the legislature and is usually referred to as the majority party while the other is the minority party. While the term two-party system is somewhat imprecise and has been used in different countries to mean different things, there is considerable agreement that a system is considered to be of a two-party nature when election results show consistently that all or nearly all elected officials belong to only one of the two major parties, such as in the United States. In these cases, the chances for third party candidates winning election to any office are remote, although it's possible for groups within the larger parties, or in opposition to one or both of them, to exert influence on the two major parties.



There is strong agreement that the United States has a two-party system;[1] historically, there have been few instances in which third party candidates won any elections. In countries such as Britain and Spain,[2] two major parties emerge which have strong influence and tend to elect most of the candidates, but a multitude of lesser parties exist with varying degrees of influence, and sometimes these lesser parties are able to elect officials who participate in the legislature. As a result, some commentators have described the political system in Britain, for example, as being a two-party system, in the sense that two parties are strong and influential although other lesser parties exist and have an influence. A report in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, suggested that Spain was moving towards a "greater two-party system" while acknowledging that Spain has "many small parties."[3] In political systems based on the Westminster system, which is a particular style of parliamentary democracy based on the British model and found in many commonwealth countries such as New Zealand as well as other countries such as Ireland and Israel, a majority party will form the government and the minority party will form the opposition, and coalitions of lesser parties are possible; in the rare circumstance in which neither party is the majority, a hung parliament arises. Sometimes these systems are described as two-party systems but they are usually referred to as multi-party systems. There is not always a sharp boundary between a two-party system and a multi-party system.

Generally, a two-party system becomes a dichotomous division of the political spectrum with an ostensibly right-wing and left-wing party: Liberal vs. Labor in Australia, Republicans vs. Democrats in the United States and the Conservative Party vs. the Labour Party in the United Kingdom

Examples of countries with two-party systems include the United States, Jamaica and (an exception to the rule) Malta. Other parties in these countries may have seen candidates elected to local or subnational office, however. Historian John Hicks claims that the United States has never possessed for any considerable period of time the two party system in its pure and undefiled form.[4]

In some governments, certain chambers may resemble a two-party system and others a multi-party system. For example, the politics of Australia are largely two-party (if the Liberal Party and National Party are considered the same party at a national level due to their long-standing alliance) for the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by Instant Runoff Voting, (known within Australia as preferential voting). However, third parties are more common in the Australian Senate, which uses a proportional voting system more amenable to minor parties.

India too is showing characteristics of two party system with UPA(United Progressive Alliance) and NDA (National Democratic Alliance) as the two main players. It is to be noted that both UPA and NDA are not two political parties but alliances of several smaller parties

The Politics of Malta are somewhat unusual in that while the electoral system is single transferable vote (STV), traditionally associated with proportional representation, minor parties have not earned much success. No third parties won any seats in the Parliament in Malta's most recent 2009 election, for example. The Labour Party and the Nationalist party are the dominant parties.

Comparisons with other party systems

Two-party systems can be compared with…


There are several reasons why, in some systems, two major parties have dominated the political landscape. In the United States, for example, the reasons have to do with the historical foundations of the two party system, political socialization and practical considerations, the winner-take-all electoral system, and state and federal laws favoring the two party system. [6] Historical battling in the U.S. between federalists and anti-federalists helped contribute to America's two-party system, according to several views.[6][7]

Voting ballot.
In a two-party system, voters have mostly two options; in this sample ballot for an election in Summit, New Jersey, voters can choose between a Republican or Democrat, but there are no third party candidates.

Political scientists such as French sociologist Maurice Duverger as well as American professor William H. Riker of the University of Rochester and others speculate that there are correlations between voting rules and type of party system.

Consider a system in which voters can vote for any candidate from any one of many parties; suppose further that if a party gets 15% of votes, then that party will win 15% of the seats in the legislature. This is termed proportional representation or more accurately as party-proportional representation. Political scientists speculate that proportional representation leads logically to multi-party systems, since it allows new parties to build a niche in the legislature:

Because even a minor party may still obtain at least a few seats in the legislature, smaller parties have a greater incentive to organize under such electoral systems than they do in the United States.
—Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes (2008), [6]

In contrast, a voting system which allows only a single winner for each possible legislative seat is sometimes termed a plurality voting system or single-winner voting system and is usually described under the heading of a winner–takes–all arrangement. Each voter can cast a single vote for any candidate within any given legislative district, but the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, although variants are possible (sometimes a majority is required, leading to a run-off election; other times the candidate with the most votes wins regardless of whether there is a majority.) What happens is that in a general election, a party which consistently comes in third in every district is unlikely to win any legislative seats even if there is a significant proportion of the electorate favoring its positions. This arrangement strongly favors large and well–organized political parties which are able to appeal to voters in many districts and hence win many seats, and discourages smaller or regional parties. Politically-oriented people consider their only realistic way to capture political power is to be either a Republican or Democrat.[6] In the U.S. model, forty-eight states have a standard winner-takes-all electoral system for amassing presidential votes in the Electoral College system.[8] The winner–takes–all principle applies in presidential elections, since if a presidential candidate gets the most votes in any particular state, he or she takes all of the so-called electoral votes from that state, and other candidates get nothing. In all but two states (exceptions: Maine and Nebraska), the presidential candidate winning a plurality of votes wins all of the electoral votes, and this is known as the unit rule.[6]

Duverger suggested there were two reasons why winner–takes–all systems leads to a two-party system. First, the weaker parties are pressured to form an alliance, sometimes called a fusion, to try to become big enough to challenge a large dominant party and gain political clout in the legislature. Second, voters learn, over time, not to vote for candidates outside of one of the two large parties since their votes for third party candidates are usually ineffectual.[6] As a result, weaker parties are eliminated by the voters over time. Duverger pointed to statistics and tactics to suggest that voters tended to gravitate towards one of the two main parties, which he called polarization, and tend to shun third parties. For example, some analysts suggest that the Electoral College system in the United States, by favoring a system of winner–takes–all in presidential elections, is a structural choice favoring only two major parties.[9]

Third parties

Third parties, meaning a party other than one of the two dominant parties, are possible in two-party systems, but they are unlikely to exert much influence by gaining control of legislatures or by winning elections.[6] While there are opinions in the media expressed about the possibility of third parties emerging in the United States, for example, political insiders such as the 1980 presidential candidate John Anderson think the chances of one appearing in the early twenty-first century is remote.[10] Third parties can be (1) built around a particular ideology or interest group (2) split off from one of the major parties or (3) focused on a charismatic individual.[11] When third parties are built around an ideology which is at odds with the majority mindset, many members belong to such a party not for the purpose of expecting electoral success but rather for personal or psychological reasons.[6] In the U.S., third parties include older ones such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party and newer ones such as the Pirate Party.[6][12] Third parties don't affect American politics by winning elections, but they can act as "spoilers" by taking votes from one of the two major parties.[6] They act like barometers of change in the political mood since they push the major parties to consider their demands.[6] An analysis in New York Magazine by Ryan Lizza in 2006 suggested that third parties arose from time to time in the nineteenth century around single-issue movements such as abolition, women's suffrage, and the direct election of senators, but were less prominent in the twentieth century.[13]

A so-called third party in the United Kingdom are the Liberal Democrats. In the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats received 23% of the votes but only 9% of the seats in the House of Commons. While electoral results do not necessarily translate into legislative seats, the Liberal Democrats can exert influence if there is a situation such as a hung parliament. In this instance, neither of the two main parties (at present, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party) have sufficient authority to run the government. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats can in theory exert tremendous influence in such a situation since they can ally with one of the two main parties to form a coalition. This happened in the Coalition government of 2010.


Some historians[who?] have suggested that two-party systems promote centrism and encourages political parties to find common positions which appeal to wide swaths of the electorate. It can lead to political stability which leads, in turn, to economic growth. Historian Patrick Allitt of the Teaching Company suggested that it is difficult to overestimate the long term economic benefits of political stability. Sometimes two-party systems have been seen as preferable to multi-party systems because they are simpler to govern, with less fractiousness and harmony, while multi-party systems can sometimes lead to hung parliaments.[14] Italy, with a multi-party system, has had years of divisive politics since 2000, although analyst Silvia Aloisi suggested in 2008 that the nation may be moving closer to a two-party arrangement.[15]


Two-party systems have been criticized for downplaying fringe or extreme views, and putting a damper on debate within a nation. In The Tyranny of the Two–party system, Lisa Jane Disch criticizes two-party systems for failing to provide enough options since only two choices are permitted on the ballot. She wrote:

Herein lies the central tension of the two–party doctrine. It identifies popular sovereignty with choice, and then limits choice to one party or the other. If there is any truth to Schattschneider's analogy between elections and markets, America's faith in the two–party system begs the following question: Why do voters accept as the ultimate in political freedom a binary option they would surely protest as consumers? ... This is the tyranny of the two–party system, the construct that persuades United States citizens to accept two–party contests as a condition of electoral democracy.
—Lisa Jane Disch, 2002[16]

There have been arguments that the winner-take-all mechanism discourages independent or third-party candidates from running for office or promulgating their views.[17] Ross Perot's former campaign manager wrote that the problem with having only two parties is that the nation loses "the ability for things to bubble up from the body politic and give voice to things that aren’t being voiced by the major parties."[10] One analyst suggested that parliamentary systems, which typically are multi-party in nature, lead to a better "centralization of policy expertise" in government.[18] Multi-party governments permit wider and more diverse viewpoints in government, and encourage dominant parties to make deals with weaker parties to form winning coalitions.[19] While there is considerable debate about the relative merits of a constitutional arrangement such as that of the United States versus a parliamentary arrangement such as Britain, analysts have noted that most democracies around the world have chosen the British multi-party model.[19] Analyst Chris Weigant of the Huffington Post wrote that "the parliamentary system is inherently much more open to minority parties getting much better representation than third parties do in the American system."[19]

See also


  1. ^ ERIC ETHERIDGE with Asger Deleith (August 19, 2009). "A Republic or a Democracy?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "The US system seems essentially a two-party system. ... Most European countries have more than a dozen parties representing their citizens in their legislative. This gives a voice to people of many differing points of view. ..." 
  2. ^ "Sideshow in the streets: Spain’s prime minister has more to worry about than a general strike". Economist. 2010-09-30. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "Spain is a "de facto" two-party system. Other parties may influence policies if the government is in minority but, except for the Socialist and the Popular Parties, no other has, at the moment, any possibility of winning the elections. ..." 
  3. ^ Robert Marquand (March 11, 2008). "In Spain's elections, Socialists win with liberal appeal". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "The outcome also suggests that Spain, which has many small parties, is moving toward a greater two-party system – even as basic splits between right and left are deepening and becoming more contentious." 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Schmidt, Steffen W., Shelley, Mack C., Bardes, Barbara A (2008). "American Government and Politics Today 2008-2009". Wadsworth Publishing Company. Retrieved 2010-11-22. 
  7. ^ MICHIKO KAKUTANI (book reviewer) American Creation (book by Joseph J. Ellis) (November 27, 2007). "The Timing, Luck and Lust Behind the Forming of That More Perfect Union". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "... the standoff between the Federalists and their opponents, which led to the modern two-party system;" 
  8. ^ KRISTINA DELL (Nov. 01, 2004). "The Electoral College Explained". Time Magazine.,18471,749496,00.html. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "Forty-eight states have the standard “winner-takes-all” electoral system: whichever presidential ticket amasses the most popular votes in a state wins all the electors of that state." 
  9. ^ KRISTINA DELL (Nov. 01, 2004). "The Electoral College Explained". Time Magazine.,18471,749496,00.html. Retrieved 2010-11-07. 
  10. ^ a b Ryan Lizza (Apr 16, 2006). "But Is a Third Party Possible?". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-07. "I called John Anderson, the man who won 6.6 percent as an independent in 1980. ... “I think we’re pretty much inured in the throes of the iron grip of the two-party system at the moment.” ... But Mulford sounded similarly discouraged. “What we have lost in America,” he says, “is the ability for things to bubble up from the body politic and give voice to things that aren’t being voiced by the major parties.”" 
  11. ^ Ryan Lizza (Apr 16, 2006). "But Is a Third Party Possible?". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-07. "It has almost always taken a splashy candidate to light the fire of a third-party movement in the past hundred years—from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 to George Wallace in 1968 to Ross Perot in 1992 ... But Perot won 19 percent of the vote ..." 
  12. ^ Jack Schofield (8 June 2009). "Sweden's Pirate Party wins EU seat (updated)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-03-28. "The Pirate Party ... wants to legalise internet file-sharing and protect people's privacy on the net ... There *IS* a UK Pirate Party ... and there's a US ... one, and one in a few dozen others."" 
  13. ^ Ryan Lizza (Apr 16, 2006). "But Is a Third Party Possible?". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-07. "In the nineteenth century, third parties were single-issue creatures that grew up around great causes that the major parties were ignoring. Abolition, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of senators all started as third-party movements." 
  14. ^ "What mean will we regress to?". The Economist. Oct 5th 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "Certainly, there have been a whole lot of hung parliaments and slow-forming coalitions around the world lately. (Canada, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, Iraq...)" 
  15. ^ Silvia Aloisi (Apr 15, 2008). "Election pushes Italy towards two-party system". Reuters. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "Italy's next parliament will have far fewer parties than the previous assembly, pushing the country closer to the two-party system that many commentators say is the only way to end years of political instability. ..." 
  16. ^ Lisa Jane Disch (2002). "The tyranny of the two-party system". Columbia University Press. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  17. ^ KRISTINA DELL (Nov. 01, 2004). "The Electoral College Explained". Time Magazine.,18471,749496,00.html. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "Some argue that the winner-take-all mechanism in 48 states discourages independent or third party candidates from running because it would be difficult for them to get many electoral votes." 
  18. ^ "The advantages of parliamentarianism". The Economist. Jan 21, 2010,. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "So it may make more sense to centralise the policy expertise, if not the political expertise, at the levels of the political party and of line ministries empowered to craft recommendations, and then expect that individual legislators will largely sign on to the positions endorsed by their parties. This is how things work in parliamentary systems." 
  19. ^ a b c Chris Weigant (April 7, 2010). "Exceptional Democracy". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2010-11-07. "And, as a result, more parties are represented in their parliament after the elections. The Italian Parliament, for instance, recently had more than 70 parties represented. ... These deals are cut with the smaller parties by offering them the chance to fill high government offices..." 

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Look at other dictionaries:

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