A lot of people talk about our 'two party system' in the United States without really understanding exactly what it is, what it means, or that it wasn't always that way. What has become the modern 'two party system' grew up primarily by chance and happenstance, and then became institutionalized by those very two parties in order to protect their own control of the political process. Law requires Federal Election Committee members to be an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, thus mandating that only Republicans and Democrats can serve on the FEC at all. In the name of giving neither party an advantage over the other, both parties are given a collective advantage over all other potential challengers to their position in American politics. Public fascination with Ross Perot and Democratic ire at Ralph Nader aside, both of our political parties have become ingrained into the system and the system has been redesigned around them.
During the post-WWII period dating from 1945 to the nomination of Barry Goldwater by the Republicans in 1964, the country possessed a 'center-left party' in the Democrats and a 'center-right party' in the Republicans. The bogeyman in the closet, Cold War Communism, made it imprudent for liberals to swing too far to the left, while the improvements that the New Deal had brought to many Americans' lives made a swing far to the right by conservatives equally imprudent. Even the 'right wing' candidacy of Robert A. Taft, which Eisenhower sought the Republican nomination to block, was centrist by the standards of today's conservatives. Yet the mainstream of the Republican party saw a Taft nomination as a disaster. Today, the 'mainstream' of the Republican party is so far to the right that Taft would poll in the single digits in a presidential primary. Eisenhower would be a liberal in today's political world, and to get on the ballot anywhere he'd have to run as a Democrat.
There was very little choice, because there were only two parties with a genuine chance of winning. The States' Rights Democratic Party was unable to even tilt the national election against Truman in 1948 and entirely dissolved in the wake of Truman's victory. The South voted for Adlai Stevenson, Truman's hand picked successor, twice in his two unsuccessful bids for the Presidency. There were no significant third party challenges and the Eisenhower administration ended up incorporating many of the Stevenson campaign's ideas. The historical difference if Stevenson had won instead of Eisenhower appears negligible. The same can be said of the famous 1960 race between Nixon and Kennedy.
Third parties did appear again, in the form of the American Independent Party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968. Their platform, opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and government run welfare programs, bears strong resemblance to the Republican Party of today. The AIP still exists, but hasn't had a nationally recognizable candidate since Wallace. Parties like the Peace and Freedom Party and the Libertarian Party have had even less success.
The chinks in the armor of the two party system apparently shown by H. Ross Perot in 1992 soon disappeared. Perot made quite a splash in the '92 election, and in its wake and preparatory to the 1996 election he established the Reform Party. Initially planning not to run again, he ended up running against his own party's candidate in 1996 and essentially wrecking his own nascent political organization to little result.
Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy was accused of turning the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush. He polled two million votes with national media attention given his run. While most people failed to notice, Nader had been the Green Party candidate for President in 1996 as well. The main difference was the media ballyhoo connected to his run in 2000. Lacking the recognizable Nader or similar ballyhoo, the Green Part polled less than 120,000 votes in 2004.
There are two reasons for the current two party system in the United States. The first is the aforementioned institutionalization of the Democratic and Republican parties, which is the result of a long and awkward period of evolution. This will be covered in my next entry. The second is the media and how it covers elections. Third party candidates given equal media treatment (Wallace, Perot, Nader in 2000) with the major parties attract a surprising number of votes from those who share their views, even when those views are fringe views. They can even affect the election, taking votes from one party or the other. However, when the media ignores them, the voters ignore them as well.
Is the current system what best serves the United States voter? Probably not. Today we have a right wing party and a center-right party posing as a liberal party. The Republicans have become the party of evangelical Christians afraid of the complexities of the modern world and unwilling to bow to the realities of science and social change. They are not conservative, they are reactionary. The Democrats cling to the programs and doctrines of the past in a manner that can only be defined as 'conservative.' Unfortunately, the institutionalization of the parties into our election system means that they are unlikely to be replaced in the near future.
Perhaps someone should sue, challenging the law dictating who can sit on the FEC?