A two-party system refers to a system where in almost all elections, at every level of government, two main political parties dominate voting and, resultantly, all or just about all elected offices are members of one of the two foremost parties.
In a two-party system, typically, one of the two parties holds a greater part in the legislature and is usually known as the 'majority party'; while the other is the minority party. Though the expression two-party system is somewhat inaccurate and means different things in different countries, there is extensive agreement that when election results show time and again that all or nearly all elected executives belong to only one of the two major parties, the system is said to be of a two-party nature, as in the case of United States of America. In such a case, the chances for a third party candidate to win election to any office are far-flung.
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As to the question, that why two major parties have dominated the political landscape in some systems, there are several reasons. In the U.S, the reasons are various and diverse, though interlinked: (i) the historical foundations of the two party system; (ii) the winner-take-all electoral system; (iii) political socialization and practical considerations; and (iv) state and federal laws favoring the two party system. According to several views, historical encounter in the U.S. between federalists and anti-federalists also helped in contributing to America's two-party system (Aldrich, 1995).
In 1789, the U.S. had George Washington as a President: he did not belong to a party. A rivalry grew between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both Federalists), during Washington's two terms. Adams was challenged by Jefferson under the banner of the Democratic - Republican Party. The word Republican implies rule of law and the word Democratic implies will of the people.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson, the popular war-hero, became the first President from the Democrats, a new party. With the exception of one term, the Democrats held their place in the White House until 1860.
The Republican Party was formed as a result of the Northern Abolitionist Movement (1856). Their first successful candidate for President was Abraham Lincoln (1860). The Republicans held the White House till 1912, with the exception of two non-consecutive terms of Democrat Grover Cleveland's. Thus, 1864 really in scripts the beginning of the two-party system of Republicans and Democrats. From the beginning, the Democrats have been Southern and more populist; while the Republicans have been Northern and pro-business. The only other Democratic President before the Great Depression, besides Cleveland, was Woodrow Wilson. Point-in-Case, the Democrats held the Presidential power for 16 years, where Republicans held it for 72 years.
This is from where the expression 'Party Era' comes from. A party era refers to the period between two elections, during which two parties are assessed with regard to how powerful they are comparative to each other; that is actually a span of time during which there is one dominant majority party that gains victory in all elections.
Major Functions of Political Parties
To provide a way for the direction and organization of the struggle for political power is the most important function of political parties. Issues are publicized and candidates are nominated through political parties. After an election, the winning party takes over the government, while the minority party assists to keep the public updated about governmental actions. This is how; it serves as the protector of public interest in opposition to arbitrary assumption of power. However, the American electoral system also permits the divided control of the government by different parties (Keefe & Hetherington, 2003).
Plainly stated, political parties provide the link between politics and society. Stated through this aspect, they fulfill four crucial functions.
Firstly, political parties develop policies and programs. This content side of their responsibility ensures that there are special choices in the political marketplace - not only regarding candidates but also regarding ideas. Once they get control of the government, a party can start putting into operation these ideas.
Secondly, parties hoist demands from society and develop their collection into packages. Demands are abundant and sometimes incompatible. Parties are able to converse and appraise these issues and transform human needs into policy alternatives. This role makes them an important part of the political process.
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Thirdly, high level public positions (those considered political rather than technical), need to be filled by some means and parties provide a dependable medium for that. Parties are thus the chief vehicles for signing up and selecting people for legislative and government office.
Fourthly, depending on whether they are in government or opposition, parties either oversee or control government.
Even though political parties are very much involved in the functioning of government at all levels, they are not the government itself, and the Constitution of the U.S. makes no mention or comment about them.
Reasons for Decline of Parties
There is increasing evidence in support of the declining importance of political parties (Johnston, 2005).
There are a various ways to measure party decline; the most universal of which are: (i) membership; (ii) party identification; (iii) ideological cohesion; (iv) organization and control over candidate nominations; (v) the role of party in government; and, of course, (vi) voting patterns, including electoral turnout.
It is clear through employing the above, or part of above methods, that parties have long been in decline, superseded by media, interest groups, money, and candidate-centered politics. The party platform, which was at one time the fulcrum of immensely important national debates, barely matters today. And, ironically, some of the very reforms that progressives devised to authorize ordinary people, clean up politics, and buffer the excesses of a market economy have weakened parties.
During the past two decades, politics has become all the time more a process of raising money to compensate for polling and TV commercials. The candidate for presidential election speaks straight to the public, and the party is hardly in evidence. It is rightly said that to some extent, twentieth-century mass media has doomed the nineteenth-century mass party.
Though media age may have doomed, in part, brand of party activism; yet parties today still could play a momentous role. Parties will have to make themselves useful to the political process in order to become important political players. Officeholders and candidates could lend a hand by recognizing the worth of parties and working to strengthen them.