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Why Are There Only Two (Important) Political Parties In The U.S.?

In a country of 323 million people, why aren't there more legitimate options?

Simple question: At a time in which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent the “fringe” of their respective parties, why don’t we have more political options? Why hasn’t the Green Party, or the Constitution Party, or the Libertarian Party picked up more support nationally?

Why doesn’t a country of 323 million people have more than two main political parties?

Short answer: Because, well, the Constitution says we can’t. Sort of.

Long answer: The United States is not a parliamentary democracy (see: Norway), in which a party or coalition of parties with the most members forms the government. Instead, the U.S. uses a “winner take all” system. This means that whoever gets the most votes -- whether by one vote or 1 million -- wins, no matter what. If you come in second, you lose. Moreover, when we vote for president, we’re not voting directly; rather, our votes determine how many delegates each presidential candidate will receive in the Electoral College.

Why? Because the Constitution says so, and changing it would be … hard.

But why does this mean we can’t have strong third (or fourth, or fifth) parties? According to Elaine Kamarck, the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, “You need a proportional representation system of some sort, and we don’t have it.” She continued, “That’s not something unique about American politics itself, it’s the structure of the rules of the game. It’s not that they don’t allow third parties to happen, it doesn’t allow them to prosper.”

Let’s say the U.S. were to use proportional representation. If a party got 10 percent of the vote, they’d get 10 percent of the seats in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. They could then form a coalition with a larger party, and that’s how they’d get things done. This is how elections work in countries like New Zealand. But not here -- in the U.S., if you get 10 percent of the vote and the other party gets 90 percent, you get nothing.

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To be fair, the U.S. does technically have multiple political parties. Despite starting a political party being purposefully expensive,* third-party candidates have appeared in almost every presidential election since the Civil War.

The Green Party won 2.9 million votes in 2000 (the Ralph Nader/Al Gore/George W. Bush election my eighth grade civics teacher talked about every day for a month while I was like, dude, I just saw The Matrix for the first time, I am above this). There’s also the far-right Constitution Party (for the voter who hates foreign aid and gay people) and the Libertarian Party (for the person who just doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else does, ever, at all). Historically, the Populist Party in 1892, the Bull Moose Party in 1912, the Progressive Party in 1924, and the American Independent Party in 1968 all received nationwide support.

But -- and here’s the point of a two-party system -- after each of those elections, the major party closest to those fringe parties absorbed their views. The Populist Party just ended up making the Democrats of the 1890s more populist. George Wallace and the American Independent Party made the Republican Party of the 1970s more ... uh ... let’s go with “conservative on social issues.” In 1992, Ross Perot ran as an independent conservative deficit hawk, and the people who voted for him were absorbed into the Republican Party just in time for the 2000 and 2004 elections (i.e., the ones that brought us President George W. Bush).

A two-party system means that, as Kamarck put it, the nation is “forced into consensus.” In the general election -- that is, what’s happening in November 2016 -- the two parties move toward the middle.** That’s why the presidential primaries are so bruising: In essence, the Democrats are fighting between far left and center left, and the Republicans are fighting between center right and whatever Donald Trump is at this particular moment in time. “In the end,” Kamarck said, “the deal gets cut” within each party.

In countries with lots of political parties, however, people can vote based on more specific ideology -- but they have to wait until coalitions are formed to actually get anything done. Imagine if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump each had their own parties alongside traditional Democrats and Republicans. Let’s call the Trump party “This Hypothetical Depresses Me” and the Sanders party “POLITICAL REVOLUTION THROUGH YELLING.” Would either “PRTY” or “THDM” get enough votes to push through change? Probably not, meaning they’d have to unite with larger political parties to gain traction. Like a crossover episode of the original Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU, but with less camaraderie and fewer dead bodies.

TL;DR: We don’t have a lot of political parties because that’s not how our Constitution works, and, to be honest, it’s probably better that way. To change things, we’d have to change the Constitution, and that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. There have been 11,539 constitutional amendments introduced in Congress since 1789 -- with 27 amendments, that’s a success rate of 0.23 percent. The 27th Amendment was ratified in 1992. It had been submitted to the states in 1789 -- 202 years earlier. Good luck!

*No, really. (1) To get matching funds from the U.S. Treasury, a party needs to raise at least $5,000 in at least 20 states. That’s at least $100,000 raised in nearly half the country. (2) In order to receive public funding for the general election, parties must have won 5 percent of the popular vote in the previous presidential election. This has happened twice for third parties since 1945. Don’t start a political party.

**This is how this is supposed to work. However, both parties have become more ideological over the last 50 years. There used to be such a thing as “Southern Democrats” (or "Dixiecrats"), who made the Democratic Party more conservative, for example, and “Northeastern Republicans,” who made the Republican Party more liberal. For many, many reasons, these two groups no longer exist.