As stated in his farewell address when writing about the nature of political parties, former US president George Washington put forward the claim that the ‘domination of one faction over another’ would be a ‘frightful despotism’. John Adams shared Washington’s highly critical view, calling a ‘division of the republic into two great parties’ a ‘great political evil’, while fellow founding father Alexander Hamilton went a step further, calling political parties and the partisanship that comes with it ‘the most fatal disease’ that a government could have.
The fragmentation of the United States into two divided factions was the founding fathers’ biggest fear, but fast forward 200 years later and the fathers’ nightmare has become reality.
America has split into two ideological contrasting parties, both of whom adamant to be more powerful than the other, and both of whom unwilling to compromise: inevitably causing political polarization, partisan animosity and an inadequate representation of the people’s best interests.
It is reasonable to question how we have got here, and more importantly, to ask what are the consequences and that can arise from this system of political partisanship.
Political parties first started to emerge from divisions with Washington’s inner circle of advisors in the 1790s. But parties and partisanship only really became significant in the 1850s, after the creation of Lincoln’s Republican party, adamant on ending slavery and introducing economic reform.
Today, the Republican party, along with the Democrat party, represent the two main parties dominating politics in the United States and ever since the 1990s, in terms of policies and voter demographics they have been growing further and further apart from each other. The number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans has been decreasing in recent years, and this is just one of many examples to justify this claim.
Democrats do not trust Republicans, and Republicans do not trust Democrats: in a winner takes all system this occurrence can be expected; where everything is to gain for the victor, while the loser gets nothing but feeling the taste of bitter defeat. Every electoral college vote matters, every swing state is up for grabs, and so, as a result of this disproportionate electoral system, it isn’t surprising that both party’s go-to extreme lengths attain support. Contrasted to a parliamentary system like in the UK, party candidates do not often get another chance at running for president so the stakes are increased even higher, further exacerbating partisanship within the 2 parties.
I am sure you have heard of the numerous reports of voter suppression, allegations of voter fraud and corruption allegations in the news. Instances of voting booth closures in minority neighbourhoods, as well as voter purges (where citizens are being removed from voter rolls), are common occurrences in the States as a result of partisanship. Gerrymandering, the manipulation of constituency boundaries, is another form of ‘cheating’ that parties, predominantly Republicans but Democrats are guilty of this too, partake, and (in the Republicans case) this undermines minority voters by concentrating them in already Democrat safe seats. As you can imagine, not only is all of this morally wrong but arguably unconstitutional, violating the idea of upholding equal rights and liberty set out in the 14th amendment. Furthermore, the fact that both parties go to such extreme lengths just to beat the other, is undermining the true meaning of American democracy.
On the idea of representation, there is of course the argument that a two-party system limits the choice in whom a person can vote for, but it can also lead to a situation where both parties are almost forced to ‘represent’ (or at least claim to) a large array of political beliefs and groups, causing huge difficulties for the party leaders. The Democrats are the best example for this, with the phrase ‘big tent’ regularly used to describe the large support base of the party. This is because it contains such a widespread of stances and beliefs, and this problem has been exacerbated further with the 2020 election as numerous voters, regardless of political stance, put Biden on their ballot as an ‘anti-trump’ vote. The policy of tackling climate change is a clear example to show these internal conflicts within the Democrat party, with the ambitious Green new deal sponsored by the progressives becoming a major factor of disagreement after getting rejected by the moderate Joe Biden.
With the moderates like Nancy Pelosi on right and progressives like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, it is unsurprising that the Democrats often find it so difficult to represent the majority of their voters. AOC herself said that in a different country she and Biden would never be in the same party. Trustee representation lacks as a result, as progressive members and their interests feel inadequately represented by Biden. Yet, unless they switch to the Republicans, what other choice do these voters have?
As I mentioned earlier, the 2020 election has made this situation of hyper-partisanship worse, with many people being forced to resort to voting for a candidate not because they liked them, but because they hate them less than the other candidate. Considering the fact that Gallup conducted a survey finding that only 33% of American feel adequately represented by political parties, reform must take place.
With Trump and other ‘far-right’ populists such as Majorie Taylor Greene gaining power in recent years, combined with the dwindling number of Republican moderates getting reelected in primary elections, it is justifiable to suggest that the Republican Party has been moving further to the right. As polarisation becomes increasingly more significant, it begs the question of where all this leaves centrists and other non-republican/democratic supporters? Who can they rely on to represent their interests?
The common response to this is to point towards the numerous third and minor parties, which, contrary to what many people think, do exist. However, unlike the UK, wherein the case of the Lib Dems in the 2010 election third parties can influence elections: in the States, minor parties play such an insignificant role that they rarely get mentioned come election year. Even though 63% of Americans believe that a 3rd party is needed, the United States has still to this day has not adopted another mainstream party with the largest minor parties, the Libertarians and the Green, unable to take off.
Probably the most significant reason to explain the absence of a competitive third party is to look at the electoral system. A first past the post (FPTP), ‘winner takes all system’ encourages two-party rule, for voters don’t want to ‘spoil’ their ballot by supporting minor parties they know are never going to win; preventing 3rd parties from ever garnering a large enough support base. This, combined with the fact that third-party candidates are excluded from presidential debates, provide a reasonable explanation to elucidate the presence of a two-party rule.
Consequently, for the near future, it seems as if American citizens are stuck with an unpopular two-party system whom few voters desire: with both parties plagued by the impact that partisanship can bring.
It seems as if the founders biggest worry had come to fruition.