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What is the American Party System?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The American party system has generally always been a two-party system, especially at the national level. This kind of system ensures that minority viewpoints can’t control the government. There are no actual explicit legal prohibitions against third parties in America, but most governmental institutions require a plurality, and that has generally resulted in two-party domination. The actual parties in control have changed several times over the course of history, and currently they are the Democrats and the Republicans.

Some people are strongly opposed to the American party system because it has the potential to slow down progress. It can sometimes take significant time for a plurality of the populace to embrace new ideas, and with the two-party system, only the two most mainstream viewpoints are often considered on any given issue. At times, ideas that might otherwise become popular may have a difficult time getting any traction or debate, especially if they don’t have enough initial acceptance.

In historical times, there have been short-term third party movements, but it is generally difficult for them to gain a foothold. On the state level, there have been situations where a single party gains control for short periods of time, and other situations where three parties have been in control temporarily. Every once in a while, a single individual from a third party will gain an important national elected position, but it rarely translates to success for that party across the rest of the government.

The first American party system involved the Republicans of Thomas Jefferson’s time and a party called the Federalists. The Republicans were interested in states' rights and individual freedom. The Federalists believed in a strong central government and using government power to maintain control over the populace. On the foreign policy front, the Republicans favored keeping a good relationship with the French, while the Federalists were sympathetic to Britain.

Those parties eventually died and were replaced in the early 1800s by the second American party system involving the Democrats and the Whigs. At that time, the Democrats were basically conservative and populist. They favored states' rights and old-fashioned values. The Whigs were the party of strong governmental power and progressive thought, or the equivalent in that time. They also sometimes favored restricting individual freedoms through alcohol bans.

In the mid-1800s during the ramp up to the Civil War, there was a total breakdown of the party system followed by a short period of chaos. At the end of that period, the remaining parties were the Democrats and the Republicans, which have been the two parties ever since. In those days, the Republicans were the party opposed to slavery, while the Democrats were the party in favor of it, and this was the main thing that separated the two. Over time, these parties have changed and evolved in many different ways.

In the current American party system, the Democrats are the party of liberal thought. They tend to favor things like social programs, financial regulation, and strict enforcement of civil rights. The Republicans are the party of small government and conservative thought. They generally favor states' rights, low taxes, and maintenance of a strong military. When it comes to social issues, the roles are often reversed, with the Democrats favoring lessened government involvement, while the Republicans often favor a more active government role in maintaining traditional values.

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Discussion Comments
By icecream17 — On Jan 17, 2011

SurfNTurf-I am glad that the Tea Party movement came about because people really felt disenfranchised with the political process.

Many people felt that neither party spoke to them and therefore they were not adequately represented. However, unlike other movements in the past this movement albeit conservative is partnering with the Republicans because they cannot afford to elect Obama to another term.

Although many of the moderate Republicans may not like this power sharing agreement,they realize that they have no choice because the people have spoken.

By surfNturf — On Jan 14, 2011

Moldova- This is like what is happening with the Tea Party movement. People that follow the Tea Party have strong American values and seek accountability in government along with reduced spending and a smaller less powerful central government and lower taxes.

Unlike what many people believe the Tea Party movement also contains Democrats and Independents who cannot relate with the current crop of Democrats and feel that the President is a disaster for this country.

Although the movement is more conservative it is not a threat to the Republican Party because the Republican Party recognizes their power and many of the Tea Party candidates were elected to congress.

By Moldova — On Jan 11, 2011

Cupcake15-I think that this happens when the candidate does not stay true to the ideals of the party and dissention mounts.

For example, in that race President Bush made a famous speech in which he said, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Raising taxes is as anti-Republican as you can get and he not only did not keep this promise but conservatives felt that their voices were not representative in the Bush 41 presidency which is how the third party movement of Ross Perot developed.

Perot ran a libertarian platform and this was what the conservatives wanted. They felt that President Bush 41 was too moderate and had watered down conservative values. The Perot candidacy gained momentum and he actually received about 20% of the vote.

His candidacy ensured victory for the opposing side and Bill Clinton, the Democrat was elected. Although people do become frustrated with their candidates it is best to work within your own party because if not the results will be disastrous.

By cupcake15 — On Jan 11, 2011

I feel that the two party system is best. A third party often sounds like a good idea in theory, but in reality they are very ineffective.

For example, in the presidential election of 2000, Ralph Nader ran as a third party candidate and actually siphoned votes from Al Gore who was the Democrat running in the race.

Nader was more aligned with Al Gore’s point of view but he differed from him in minor issues but his candidacy took away enough votes that the people with the liberal point of view actually lost and in the 2000 election.

The third party candidate in the 1992 race was Ross Perot. He ran a libertarian platform which was more conservative than the Republican candidate President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Perot receive 20% of the vote and many on the Republican side feel that his candidacy cost President Bush a second term.

Here the conservative point of view was in the majority, yet the Democrat, Bill Clinton actually ended up winning that race because the conservative vote was split.

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