Why does the United States have a two party system? Why has the United States, throughout its quarter millennium history, generally only ever had two major parties at a time? Why will the United States, barring a constitutional amendment, always have a two party system? It’s a pretty simple answer. It comes down to one specific clause of the Constitution.
Winning the presidency requires not a plurality, but a majority of the electoral college. If we had three or four major parties, no one would win the electoral college, and the President would always be chosen by the House. The public would never see a House-appointed President as legitimate. It might work elsewhere, but we’re too accustomed to picking our President. So national politicians in the United States know that they all have to coalesce around two parties at the presidential level, or we’d never have a legit President.
Because our system has necessarily coalesced around two major parties at the presidential level, that’s naturally going to fan out to the higher levels of government, such as the House, Senate, races for Governor, and so on. It’s just a natural progression. You’re not going to have two major parties at the presidential level, for instance, but three major parties at the congressional level.
The further away you get from the top, the more branching out you see from the two party system. In a big city race for mayor, the candidates typically strongly identify with one party or the other. In a small town race for mayor, there often aren’t any party affiliations.
But it’s pretty clear that as long as the Constitution requires the President to get a *majority* of the electoral college, we’re going to continue to have precisely two major parties. That will never, ever change, short of changing the Constitution.
In fact, even eliminating the electoral college would not eliminate the two party system on its own. If we made it so the President must win the majority of the popular vote, we’d still have the exact same two party system. We’d need to change it to a plurality of the popular vote (“plurality” means the largest number of votes, even if it’s not a majority).
Or we could change it so the President simply needs a plurality of the electoral college. That wouldn’t solve the inherent problems with the electoral college itself, but it would free us from the two party system. It really doesn’t matter which way it’s done. The two party system exists because, whatever numbers we’re going by, the President is required to win a majority of that number. It really is that simple.
Anyone who legitimately wants to end the two party system would be focused on a constitutional amendment eliminating the majority requirement for winning the presidency. It’s literally the only way to get rid of two-party dominance. There is literally no other path to do it.
Anyone who launches a third political party, without first rolling out a plan to get the Constitution changed, has zero chance of winning anything or fielding any competitive candidates in any races with a national profile. The people behind the push for a major third party either don’t understand why anything works the way it works, or they aren’t really trying to win anything and instead have some other motive.
Under the current constitutional rules, the only reason for third parties to exist on a national level is so that 1-2% of the population – who typically have little to no understanding of how politics and elections even work – can feel superior about having voted against both parties. And most of those votes are taken away from the major party that’s the most closely aligned to the third party, which only helps the party that’s the most ideologically incompatible with the third party. We’ve seen it time and again, from Ralph Nader to Jill Stein. Now we’re seeing it again with Andrew Yang.
So is Yang just too lazy to read up on (or too aloof to understand) how current constitutional constraints make 100% certain that his new third party will flop? Yang has shown a consistent history of not being willing to do the most basic homework while running for office, so it’s conceivable that he truly doesn’t understand why his third party is guaranteed to fail. Or is he just doing this to get revenge against a Democratic Party whose voters overwhelmingly rejected him twice, and he doesn’t care how badly his third party fails?
Either way, Andrew Yang’s efforts will only serve to hand a mathematical advantage to far right Republican candidates, meaning Yang is now a major threat to democracy, whether he intends to be or not. And given that everything Yang has done in politics has turned into an embarrassingly inept disaster, it’s a real shame that certain political figures who know better are partnering with Yang on this.
Obviously none of the above applies when you get down closer to the local level, where a third party or unaffiliated candidate can in fact win. In fact, plenty of small town races for mayor don’t have candidates with any party affiliation at all, because the local concerns are just that far removed from the national two party system. But the notion of a third party succeeding on the national stage, without changing the constitution first, is simply a bad punchline.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report