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Why do we have just two major political parties in the U.S.?

The upcoming presidential election has been heated, and it’s not even September.

With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton scoring historical lows when it comes to likability, many people have started to question whether or not there are viable third party options. In the current political landscape of the U.S., however, it seems impossible for any candidate not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties to get elected.

St. Clair County Community College sociology professor Kraig Archer, author of the upcoming book Democrats, Republicans: None of the Above (available Aug. 27 on Amazon.com), spoke with Thrive about why that is, and if it will ever change.

Thrive: With this election, it seems that people are talking about third parties options as much as ever. Have you seen an election like this?

Archer: We’ve had a two-party system for most of our history, and that started with the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. You’re probably familiar with the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The story behind that was that Hamilton was a Federalist and he was really opposed to Aaron Burr who was going to become the nominee of his party, so he told all the Federalists, “Don’t vote for Aaron Burr, vote for (Thomas) Jefferson. Because even though I’m a Federalist, I can’t endorse this guy.” That caused a lot of bad blood to the point they had that duel, and Aaron Burr actually killed Alexander Hamilton. Burr

There have been times where we were very divided in terms of not seeing eye to eye on things. I think what makes this election concern a lot of people is the issue of trust and character. I’ve always thought that when I vote for president, I’m voting for somebody who is the character of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. It’s pretty apparent that Donald Trump has said things that give you great pause. So I think the republicans that are voting for him that are not true believers are saying, “We’re going to hold our nose and vote for him.” But I think that’s a great moral compromise.

With Hillary Clinton, I’ve talked to a lot of democrats and progressives and she’s not their ideal candidate. Progressives really wanted Bernie Sanders, and they were unhappy because they feel like Hillary has made a lot of deals and compromised from what they considered true liberal principles.

I’m like a lot of voters, where there’s one or two issues in one party that I agree with. There’s one or two issues I agree with in this party, but there’s not really the ideal mix of issues. There needs to be an alternative that really makes sense for people.

 Thrive: Why don’t you think that there has been a third party candidate who has been able to come to the forefront, even as much as Ralph Nader or Ross Perot did?

Archer: A lot of people are thinking back to the election with Ralph Nader. They might have been strong supporters of him, but they felt that voting for Nader wasn’t effective in getting Nader elected, but cost Al Gore the election. I think they’re saying that it might be nice to flirt with your true love, but in terms of who you’re going to wind up with, you’re going to settle.

If you contrast the United States with other countries, like England, Japan and Israel, almost every other democracy in the world is a parliamentary system. The voters, they’re not voting for their chief executive, they’re voting for a party. So you have multiple parties that come together, then the party that gets the most votes has to form a governing coalition, and the politicians select who their prime minister is.

It allows a lot more political diversity in terms of different groups that say, “We’ll help you build that coalition if you include us.” In some sense, that may be more reflective, but they don’t get a direct vote on who the president will be. So those are some of the tradeoffs.Archer Book Cover

Thrive: Your book talks about what needs to happen to have a third party emerge, but do you think that in our current political climate it’s possible in the next 20-30 years to have a really valid other option?

Archer: Yes. After Ross Perot kind of crashed and burned, there was a reform party and they actually nominated a governor, Jesse Ventura. That says something important about third-party candidates. I always thought that if a third party could get a majority in a state legislature or a governership, that would get national attention, and from there you could spread to other states and have a viable thing. So once you convince the voters that you have a viable party that’s serious, if you can duplicate that, then you’ll get candidates on the national level.

Thrive: What was your motivation behind writing your book now?

Archer: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. As a professor, that’s kind of a natural fit. On the other hand, actually finding time or making the space to write is kind of a challenging thing. I felt really compelled to get this book out during this election season.

3 thoughts on “Why do we have just two major political parties in the U.S.?

  1. We have a two party system because unless you already have money and/or power the chances of you becoming President of the United States is slim to none. As you can see from recent scandals, Bernie Sanders was targeted by Democrats so as not to receive the nomination. It is all about the Washington game, money and power. If you don’t have either, you’re not going to get it by trying to be President.


    1. Jimmie, thank you for your post. It is true that much of our political system is controlled by very wealthy individuals, and so it is difficult for the average person to affect change. C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite and G. William Domhoff in Who Rules America? both analyzed the affect that the elite have in affecting the political process. Of course, the Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has amplified the effect that the wealthy can have on political elections. So, your point is well taken, which raised the issue how can the average person confront this?

      The average citizen is busy working, going to school, raising kids, and getting on with living. The average citizen doesn’t have the time and financial resources that the wealthy have. But, when individuals come together and organize, they can see their efforts make a difference. This is why the abolition movement was able to eventually overturn slavery. This is why labor unions were able to fight for and win a five day work week, and eight work day (with overtime pay), and pensions, other benefits, and social security. This is why the college activists of the 1960s were able to amend the US Constitution to allow 18 year olds to the right to vote.

      The question should then be under what circumstances can organized citizens actually change the system. Don Clawson dealt with how the Great Depression gave unions an opening to influence the government, but he argued that the unions never really displaced the wealthy; the situation was that during the economic crisis of the 1930 the wealthy had to take seriously the demands of working people or there would have been a revolution in the streets.

      It is during times of crisis in which things are not working that there is an opportunity to change things, if people no longer accept the status quo. This current election has voters very concerned about the future. This is why it is a good time to suggest something different.

      Whether that alternative will impact things depends upon organization and resource mobilization. Social movements and political parties can be effective if they can marshal the resource to get their message out and can build a social movement. I think my book can do just that. Kraig Archer.


  2. The U.S political system is set up for two major parties, because it awards seats for presidency with a winner-take-all method. Presidential candidates need to win a plurality of the vote in that state to be awarded all of that states electoral votes. This setup leads to what is known as a two-party system. Third party candidates usually cannot win as their is no prize for winning, for example, 15 percent of the vote wins them nothing. This leads voters to choose a candidate who is most likely to win.


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