The last US president to sit in the Oval Office as neither a Democrat or Republican was Millard Filmore, a member of the Whig party. 163 years later, Americans since have been allowed two realistic choices for president while casting their ballots: A ‘liberal’ Democrat, or a ‘conservative’ Republican. In the recent 2016 presidential election, candidates Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) and Jill Stein (Green) gained minor traction, but ultimately failed to win any votes from the Electoral College. How did the United States end up with a seemingly exclusive two-party system?
America’s choice for president didn’t always operate in this manner. During the first presidential election of 1789, political parties had not yet been well-formed, and Founding Father George Washington won the presidency without even campaigning for the position. This was an easy decision for the American people to make of course, as Washington served as General to the rebel armies that drove out the English redcoats.
Most of the Founding Fathers were not supporters of political parties, claiming that large groups constantly undermining each other over power would be detrimental to the American people. In his farewell address in 1796, President Washington said, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension is itself a frightful despotism.”
Regardless of Washington’s warning, by the time his second term ended, two major political parties in the United States had emerged: The Federalist Party, supported by businessmen and the upper-class, and the Democratic-Republican Party, supported by the lesser and working class. During the third US election of 1796, candidate John Adams ran with the Federalists to narrowly beat Thomas Jefferson, and became the second US president.
In the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party again went head-to-head with Federalist John Adams. Jefferson beat Adams to become the third US president, marking the first claim to power for the Democratic-Republican party. The Federalists began to fade, as most people couldn’t relate to their elitist positions. By 1815, the Federalist Party had completely collapsed. The Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand, dominated US elections for the next five consecutive terms. These presidents included James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams.
By 1824, multiple rifts tore the Democratic-Republicans apart, and new parties with recognizable names emerged. In 1828, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren formed the new Democratic Party. Jackson won his seat in the White House, with Van Buren following right behind “Old Hickory” to also sit as a US president. John Quincy Adams helped form the National Republican Party, eventually evolving into the Whig Party by 1835. After a 20-year stint, the Whigs became the New Republicans, and ultimately just the Republican Party. By 1854, the United States had formed what we know today as the Democrats and Republicans, and the two parties have dominated elections ever since. Abraham Lincoln was the first elected Republican US president in 1861.
The countless victories in government positions for the Democratic and Republican parties can be attributed to two key factors: The first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, and the US Electoral College. With the FPTP voting system in place, whichever candidate gets a majority of votes in a state will take all of the electorates, regardless of margin. This creates a big problem for any candidate seeking to join a third-party or run as an Independent – if Democrats and Republicans are popular, how can either of the two be contested? What’s the point of joining a third-party to gain a portion of the votes, but not enough to secure the electoral votes of the state? It’s not impossible to accomplish, but it is incredibly difficult.
In 1992, Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot ran against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, winning nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. While that was an amazing feat for a person who wasn’t backed by any major political party, Perot failed to win a single electoral vote.
Many members of the Libertarian and Constitutionalist parties will defect to the Republicans, bettering their chances to succeed in elections. Most Progressive politicians today will simply join the Democrats. This creates an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude that only further reinforces the unstoppable power grab of the two ruling parties. Even outspoken politicians like Ron Paul, a long-standing member of the Libertarian Party, had to succumb to the power of the two-party system and join the Republicans to have his positions heard.
The only way that the American people are going to see a third-party or Independent candidate elected as president is pretty straightforward: They have to vote for one. This may be an obvious solution, but seems to be no easy task for voters - American citizens consume most of their information from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and other networks of mainstream media. The Democratic and Republican parties are powerful, and are largely backed by television networks, publications, and financial institutions. They do their best to sway the population in believing that only their candidates are a “viable” choice in running the nation.
Unless a major event occurs within the nation that will compel Americans to demand real change, the DNC and GOP will continue to run the country. Short of a grassroots level revolution, it appears as though the United States is stuck between a red rock, and a blue hard place.