Policy Today magazine cover showing three soldiers on patrol
February 1, 2006

The Framers never wanted them. Today, few can imagine a world without them. The plight of the two-party system in the United States. 

"The parties are more internally unified and polarized against each other than any other time since the late 19th, early 20th century," says Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But has contention become an end in itself? Political parties are generally founded to advance certain ideas. In turn, they source and nominate qualified candidates who support those ideas, try to build a consensus within the electorate to elect those candidates, and then form a majority to govern and implement their agenda. In short, the American two-party system developed as a means of providing healthy political competition.

In recent years that competition has boiled over, developing into thinly disguised warfare that some believe compromises the federal government's most important duty, drafting the laws that govern our civil society.

"There's meaningless legislation proposed by the far left and the far right, it's legislation that's going to go nowhere and is put out there to be vindictive and expose," said Ron Talley, spokesman for the Main Street Partnership, a group formed by moderate Republican lawmakers six years ago. "It's gotten so out of hand it's ridiculous."

As polarization continues to worsen rather than improve, political insiders have started searching for a way to bridge the divide. How can two parties come together to function as a cohesive whole?

The role of political parties

Political parties can be traced to the beginning of the republic, when the Federalists and Republicans first drew battle lines in the 1790s. Today, parties have become virtually indispensable elements in democracies around the globe.

"Political parties are the first thing created in a new democracy and the first thing abolished in a dictatorship," says Gerald Pomper, a political science professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute. "They provide ways for people to get together to win power. You can't do anything in a country of 300 million as an individual; ultimately you need majorities to get things done. That competition is what gives people a choice."

The American political system has always been dominated by two major parties—a trend reinforced by the laws that govern our electoral system. While this has been the case since the birth of the nation, even some of those founding fathers involved in the first party cleavage looked upon partisan politics with suspicion or contempt.

Ideology becomes focus

Despite its conflicted beginnings, the two party system has continued to guide the U.S. political process for more than 200 years. Over time, they have shifted from entities focused on building coalitions to groups that are built on advancing ideologies, according to John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

"Responsive parties tell you what policies they want and then try to get elected. Pluralist parties want to win first and then decide what the policies are," Green explains. "Historically we have had pluralist parties but people have wanted responsive parties. We've probably come closest to responsive parties today."

The swing has also been characterized as a movement away from constituent-based parties to ideologically driven parties. Mann noted that this shift really became visible after the 1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that divided the South along ideological lines, and with Roe vs. Wade in 1973, which motivated the anti-abortion contingent to become involved in politics.

The ideological focus has intensified in recent years. With it has come a push to keep the most ideologically extreme in power, according to Pomper.

"Gerrymandering has benefited the extremes. And who are the people who are giving money? The people with extreme points of view. Then there's the Internet where people speak to the convinced," Pomper says. "All these things work together to push people toward the poles and make it difficult for the people in between."

As the ideological center is pushed to the margin, the number of competitive seats in the U.S. House of Representatives decreases. The true competition now plays out in the primary elections—with pressure from the national parties to "toe the party line" in order to win. Because so much campaign money is controlled by party leadership, candidates are often pressured to ratchet up their dedication to the national party ideology in addressing local issues. Instead of a synthesis of local concerns and shared national goals, the party system has left little incentive for candidates to achieve a compromise between the two.

A recent study conducted by Congressional Quarterly ranked individual members of Congress along party lines. Rep. Chris Shays, (R-Con.), was number two on the list of those least likely to vote with the Republican Party.

"It is my job to represent my constituents, not my leadership and my leadership understands my approach," Shays said. "The bottom line is, my 'community meeting test' guides each of my votes. I only cast votes I can defend at my community meetings."

Shays holds frequent community meetings across his predominantly Democratic district to find out what voters are thinking. As a moderate Republican, he is caught between Democratic constituents and the demands of the Republican national party.

"I always work to build a bipartisan coalition behind the legislation I introduce because I feel that in the long run, you have to work with both sides of the aisle to make positive change," he said.

Money in politics

Many believe that redistricting is to blame for the continued decrease in competitive seats. However, Mann contends that with a House incumbent reelection rate hovering in the high 90 percentile, there are other factors at work.

"Redistricting does contribute to uncompetitive districts a bit but it's not the lion's share…You see the same pattern in the Senate, which doesn't have redistricting," Mann notes. "The parties have redirected resources to protect their most vulnerable seats and people are unable to raise the resources they need to get elected [outside the parties]."

This belies perhaps the most important changing dynamic of the U.S. electoral system overall. As the national parties have grown stronger, money has moved to the forefront.

"Back in the day when national parties were weak and local parties were strong, money wasn't as important," Green says. Indeed, some argue that up through the 1960s, national parties largely served as an umbrella for self-financed local candidates meeting in Washington to advance an agenda which rarely reflected a cohesive national strategy.

Campaign finance reform, which attempted to decrease the influence of special interests on politics with the elimination of soft money, brought power back to the national party level with a new focus on hard money. This shift has many legislators concerned.

"Campaign finance reform is a necessary thing. We need to find ways to empower the average individual and not just the deep-pocketed interest groups," argues Rep. Kendrick Meek, (D-Florida). "But that's not the only pressure on the party system. It still comes down to finding ways to listen to the people you serve and bring a message back to them."

Middle ground

As Washington politics continues to gravitate toward the extremes, there is a fledgling movement afoot to bring power back to the center. The parties themselves recognize the power lying dormant in the middle.

"Two-thirds of the public consider themselves Republican and Democrat while one-third call themselves independent. This is a crucial deciding bloc," explains Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. "In a way you can almost argue that there are three parties."

The chief complaint about the ideological center is that it lacks the necessary passion exemplified by the far right and left. "It's very difficult to get people excited to be moderates," Pomper adds.

It may be difficult to excite people about moderation, but if there's any hope for cohesive national policies that synthesize multiple interests—local and national, ideological and cultural—finding a principled middle ground becomes as important as it is challenging.

About Emilie Karrick Surrusco

Emilie Karrick Surrusco is a freelance writer and communications strategist living in Washington D.C.