In government structures, a two-party system means that only two political parties receive a majority of the votes that are cast for representatives. That means only one party or the other can win a majority in the government.
There are additional parties that are present and campaign within a two-party system, even on a national level. The United States is a two-party system, for example, but the Libertarian Party and the Green Party have nationwide influence. These “third parties” do not receive enough votes to become a majority party.
A two-party system can also be used to describe a system where two major parties dominate an election and work together to form a majority ruling coalition, even if neither party won an outright majority on their own.
Here are the advantages and disadvantages of the two-party system to think about and discuss.
List of Advantages of the Two-Party System
1. The two-party system simplifies the election process.
The average voter casts a ballot based on a handful of core issues that are important to them. In the United States, a conservative voter might cast a ballot for the Republican party because they support the party’s stances on abortion and taxation. A liberal voter might cast a ballot for the Democrat party because they support stances on freedom of choice and a right to healthcare access. Voters are more likely to participate when they have confidence that their actions can bring about social change.
2. It creates a system that eliminates confusion.
In a two-party system, the result of each election is that the winner takes everything. Voters know that the top candidate will represent their district in the state or national government. They know that their preferred party, if it achieves a majority, will push to have legislation passed that they support. There is a lot less confusion in this type of structure because you either get what you want, or you do not.
3. The two-party system allows for common ideas to gain traction.
In a two-party system, there will always be partisan ideas that are promoted by the majority and opposed by the minority. In 2017, the U.S. experienced this with the tax reform package that was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and Executive Office. There is also plenty of room for common ground to be found because the system encourages cooperation above anything else. That allows the two-party system to avoid extremism naturally.
4. It allows more people to participate in the civic process.
Multiple parties create multiple platforms that must be evaluated. Without a two-party system in place, anyone can create their own political party and platform to run on their own issues. With just two major parties, each must declare a platform that addresses all societal issues instead of a handful of “important” ones. That simplifies the evaluation process of voters, encouraging more of them to participate in the process of elections. There will always be outliers who do not identify with either political party, but for the most part, people will choose one or the other and stick to it.
5. The two-party system can speed up the process of governing.
Although the U.S. government is famous for its gridlock, it can move at unprecedented speeds when emergency situations arrive. All branches of government are linked through the two-party system, eliminating the need to form ruling coalitions. This allows people to vote for specific candidates that fall outside their party spectrum for certain offices. An individual could vote for a Democrat for President in the U.S. and a Republican as their senator. This gives the people more control on the overall structure of their government.
6. It allows anyone to run for office while naturally promoting the most experienced candidates.
The two-party system uses a series of primary elections to weed out the candidates that people do not want to have representing them as a majority. The system of primaries makes it possible for anyone to run. An example of this is the 2016 primary for the State of Washington Governor’s race. In total, 11 people ran a formal campaign to become Governor, including an individual called “Goodspaceguy.” The top two vote-getters were then advanced to the general election. At the same time, however, there is little chance for a “hung” government with no majority because one or the other will be in power.
7. The two-party system encourages majority representation.
Only two third-party candidates have been somewhat successful in elections from a national vote perspective history since 1900 in the United States. In 1992, Ross Perot received over 19.7 million votes, which was almost 19% of the overall total. Then, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate in an attempt to serve a second term as President. Roosevelt received 4.1 million votes, which was 27.4% of the total votes cast. The system, though inclusive, is also restrictive enough to ensure that the majority receives the exact representation they want in each district.
8. It limits the number of people with extreme views that can be elected.
A multi-party system makes it possible for anyone with an extreme view to be elected as a representative in the government. The two-party system restricts this concept, making it more likely that a centrist will be the representative of each party. In this way, the majority is protected from the minority. In a multi-party format, there is always the possibility that an extreme political party could become part of the ruling commissions. Extremism could introduce chaotic reforms that would be potentially damaging for multiple generations. With just two parties, more stability is achieved.
List of the Disadvantages of the Two-Party System
1. The two-party system creates societal polarization.
People are most comfortable when they are surrounded by others with similar beliefs. That means spending more time with like-minded family and friends. Households even move to neighborhoods with similar political preferences, so there is a “guarantee’ that the preferred political representation can be achieved. That means political polarization tends to occur over time in such a society, where there is little debate over certain issues. It closes more minds than opens them.
2. It creates thoughtless voting patterns.
In a two-party system, it is somewhat common for voters to vote a straight-ticket based on their political party preference. Some states even had a “master lever” which allowed a voter to vote for every candidate of their preferred party with a single voting action. Although that makes voter participation much easier, it also creates thoughtless voting. Instead of evaluating candidates based on their background, experience, and qualifications, they are evaluating people based off their political preferences.
3. The two-party system limits voter choice.
There were multiple candidates in the 2016 Republican Primaries for President. Donald Trump eventually emerged the victor and was nominated by his party to run for the Presidential election. Yet in the primaries, 65% of people in most states voted against Trump as Republicans. That meant a majority of people who affiliate with the Republican party were forced to support Trump in the election if they were going to support their party. Although anyone can run for office, the major parties limit voter choice through this type of nomination process. They’re told to vote for a specific person, whether they support the personal positions of that individual or not.
4. It creates a system of pluralism.
In the United States, 48 of the states give their electoral votes to the candidate which wins the most votes. Although the system of government in the U.S. allows electoral voters to cast ballots for a different candidate (sometimes with a personal fine levied if done), the end result maintains the system of two parties. Unless a third-party candidate can receive a majority of the votes, they’ll receive 0 electoral votes. That can make it difficult to vote out incumbents, especially when straight-ticket voters are out there.
5. The two-party system excludes individuality.
When someone talks about the fact that they voted for a third party in the United States, the average voter perceives that as a “wasted vote.” Or worse, they see it as a vote for the “other guy.” In the 2000 Presidential election, Ralph Nader received 2.74% of the popular vote. Democratic voters feel like if the third-party voters, most who self-identify as liberal, had voted for Al Gore instead of the Green Party, then it would have been Gore, not Bush, that would have won the election. In this political system, free-thinking and individuality are actually discouraged.
6. It creates debate restrictions that can limit new ideas.
Gary Johnson was excluded from the U.S. Presidential debates in 2016 because he fell short of poll thresholds that were implemented by the Commission on Presidential Debates. At the time, Johnson was consistently polling at 7%, but the Commission rules required a third-party candidate to be polling at 15% to be included. Yet, if a candidate receives 5% of the national vote, their party qualifies as a “major” party in the U.S. A two-party system creates restrictions on debates that can limit the new ideas that are available to a society.
7. The two-party system creates fixed political views.
The two parties in a political system create platforms that limit the number of ideas that are available on any given issue. These views are fixed, often set at the party’s convention every 4 years. That means each citizen is forced to vote for one party or the other, even if neither one fits their own personal preferences. These fixed views also make it difficult for the parties to be response to shifts in public opinion which may occur.
8. It eliminates the ability for the majority to rule in some instances.
In a two-party system, voter turnout is critical to the process. If the turnout is low in this political system, then the votes that the winning party receives are only a reflection of how a minority of the population wants to be represented. And, since the average voter only votes off of a handful of important issues on a personal level, they’ll vote for the one party that meets their core need, even if they disagree with the rest of that party’s stance on issues.
9. The two-party system creates inconsistent governing.
When one party loses power in a two-party system, their policies are often reversed since the other party has a reverse view of how things should be managed. The U.S. has seen this in the Trump Administration, with their efforts to undue the Affordable Care Act, change the DACA program, and reverse other regulations and executive orders. The Obama Administration did the same thing. It is a pattern that repeats itself, leading to high levels of policy change that make it difficult to create needed societal change.
The advantages and disadvantages of the two-party system of politics does make it easier to vote. It reduces the need to form coalitions and can encourage cooperation. At the same time, it can also encourage gridlock and inaction on the part of the government. No system of government is perfect. There will always be challenges to face with a two-party system. If they are carefully controlled, it can be a beneficial structure for everyone.