Periodically, our two-party system of Republicans and Democrats comes under attack as an outdated and cumbersome instrument of either gridlock or parallelism, depending upon the ideological makeup of the opposition. Naturally, during a presidential election campaign, the rhetoric is turned up several notches.
The two-party system has served the nation reasonably well for more than 200 years, ensuring that multiple voices may be heard on the issues of the day. The current two-party alignment of Democrats and Republicans was the result of the only third-party to achieve major party status.
In 1854, a coalition of anti-slavery forces from both major parties combined with the pro-business factions of the Whigs to form the Republican Party. The Republican's first candidate, John C. Fremont, lost the 1856 election, while the second, Abraham Lincoln, won in 1860.
Although the arguments favoring establishment of a third major party or the adoption of a multi-party system continue to attract a volume of vocal support, there has been little movement toward that goal. Nonetheless, in addition to the Republicans and Democrats, there is no lack of political parties offering candidates for election.
Since 1900, we have seen Progressives, Libertarians, Greens, Socialists, Independents, Dixiecrats and Constitutionalists as some of the political entities. With the exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt, who received 88 electoral votes in 1912; Robert LaFollette, who received 13 electoral votes in 1924; Strom Thurmond, who received 39 electoral votes in 1948; and George Wallace, who received 46 electoral votes in 1968, not one of the minor party candidates has managed to accumulate any electoral votes.
As a matter of record, the only modern elections in which fringe party candidates influenced the outcome were in 1992 when H. Ross Perot's Independent Party candidacy threw the election to Bill Clinton and in 2000 when Ralph Nader's Green Party amassed enough votes in Florida to hand that state and the presidency to George W. Bush. In reality, one has a better chance of winning by purchasing a lottery ticket than by voting for a third- or fourth-party candidate.
The two primary criticisms of the two-party system could not be further apart. One alleges the parties have morphed into similar or even mirror images of one another, while the other cites that political polarization stands in the way of reasonable consensus. Those subscribing to the former obviously lack political acumen inasmuch as the parties are ideologically dissimilar.
As for the knock on the polarization that is inherent in a two-party system, it actually lends a positive aspect. While it is commonly assumed that bipartisanship is the Holy Grail of political governing, it is highly overrated. Bipartisan cooperation works well in mundane governance — highway speeds, celebration of holidays and joint resolutions of praise — but effective government requires honest debate and disagreement.
The positive aspects of the two-party system are that it is a more stable and easily managed system and, more importantly, that neither party's ideology will be enabled to dominate. A move toward the center and moderation is all but guaranteed as both parties' candidates must appeal to the growing block of voters who identify as Independents, about 40 percent in 2011.
Additionally, it would range from difficult to impossible for a third party to match the organization and finances necessary to threaten the two major parties over the long haul. Take exception as you will, but it takes donors with deep as well as shallow pockets to finance elections and administrative/functional organization to do the business of legislation.
There are among us some who look wistfully at the European multi-party systems, alleging that adhering to two parties is inherently less democratic and provides fewer choices. A practical and realistic response points out that if two-party gridlock impedes progress, imagine the effect of three or more parties deadlocked, causing a hopelessly hung legislature.
Our two-party system is far from perfect; however, it has proven the most effective in an imperfect world. We have never been without a number of other political parties — is it not reasonable to assume that if elevation of one or more to competitive status would create a better mousetrap that it would have come to pass?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.