As we enter this election year, the American public seems frustrated as ever with the constant, often inflammatory, conflict between Democrats and Republicans. We have all heard the disillusioned rhetoric, and probably thought something similar ourselves: the two-party system is broken, and Washington does not represent the interests of everyday Americans.
This sentiment leaves many exasperated citizens wanting change, desiring a system in which they are not forced to choose between only two options, neither of which represents their individual beliefs very well. To quote an ironic Jon Stewart in America the Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, “The two-party system elegantly reflects the bi-chromatic rainbow that is American political thought.”
From this perspective, it would seem that third-party candidates would be a viable option for voters frustrated with the bipartisan system. Why, then, has a third party candidate never been elected president in the past century? Why are there only two United States senators, and zero representatives, who are not affiliated with one of the two major parties?
Thanks to the writings of a twentieth-century political scientist named Maurice Duverger, we can see precisely how this situation has come to be. It is not the result of a defect in the character of Americans or an attempt by the powers-that-be to maintain domination. Rather, America’s two-party system is the logical outgrowth of our electoral system.
In order to understand the mechanics of Duverger’s ideas, referred to by political scientists as “Duverger’s law,” we first must understand the electoral system at work. The system used by the United States, and the cause of our two-party conundrum, is a single-member district plurality system (SMD-P). In such a system, a country is divided into districts that each have one representative in the national legislature. These representatives are elected in a “winner-take-all” fashion, in contrast to other systems that allocate votes in a proportional manner. This is where the term “SMD-P” comes from: “single-member district” indicates that the winner of the election is the sole representative of that particular district in the legislature; “plurality” is a term for the kind of system in which the candidate who garners more votes than any other candidate is the winner.
In such a situation, Duverger argues, a two-party system will arise because of “mechanical” and “psychological” factors. In terms of mechanics, the electoral system creates a disparity between the percentage of the vote that a third party receives and the number of legislative seats it gets as a result, since only the party with the largest percentage of votes in a particular district is awarded representation. Say, for example, that Party A, Party B, and Party C have candidates running for election in every electoral district in the United States. Suppose that in each district, Party A wins 40% of the vote (a plurality), Party B wins 35%, and Party C wins 25%. With these results, Party A will be the elected representative in every district, and thus control the entire legislature. However, even though Party C has gotten 25% of the national vote, a substantial 75 million people in a nation of 300 million, they are not represented in the legislature at all.
In this way, an SMD-P system gives preferential treatment to plurality winners and no regard to runners-up when translating vote percentages into legislative seats. Duverger refers to this divide between the percentage of votes received and the number of seats received as “under-representation” of a third party. This “mechanical” aspect is part of the reason why, according to Duverger, an SMD-P system fosters bipolarity: third parties have no access to legislative representation unless they are able to actually place first in a particular district’s contest.
The other piece of an SMD-P system that encourages two major parties is the “psychological” factor, or the way that voters weigh their choices when casting their ballots. Duverger asserts that when there is a third party vying for support against the two major parties, that third party is often seen as a “waste” of a vote. Voters realize that the third party’s chances of winning are slim, and it is not likely to get the most votes in any one district. Therefore, instead of “wasting” their vote on a party that will most likely not prevail, voters choose what they view as the lesser of two evils between the two major parties. This pattern of voter behavior is difficult for third parties to overcome, and it contributes to the establishment and endurance of a two-party system.
The United States is a definite example of Duverger’s law at work. It is an SMD-P system; the legislature is comprised of individuals who are the plurality winners in their individual districts. Additionally, while Duverger’s law is most directly applicable to how the legislature in the United States is elected, the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College fosters the same effect in presidential elections. In most cases, the state is essentially a “district” in which the plurality winner receives all of the Electoral College votes for that state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, are the only differences; both distribute their electoral votes proportionally among candidates.
Thus, in accordance with Duverger’s findings, our two-party system is entrenched. Rarely throughout our history has a President been elected without the support of a major party. In the twentieth century, every President elected was either a Democrat or Republican. The mechanics of the system keep third parties down in congressional and presidential elections; compounding this problem is the pervasive idea that for many Americans, voting for a third party is a waste of their vote since that party is so unlikely to win.
In spite of the seeming intractability of the situation, however, third party candidates continue to run for seats in the legislature and for executive offices at all levels of government. For example, both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party have been fielding candidates in every presidential election since 1972 and 1996, respectively.
Additionally, the current election cycle has seen another faction emerge with an alternative way of selecting a candidate to challenge the Democrats and Republicans. The group, known as Americans Elect, is a purportedly non-partisan organization holding an online “primary” via their website. Their belief, in part, is that the domination of the two major parties marginalizes other voices, other individuals, and is undemocratic in the way that it does not fairly represent those who do not strongly identify with either party. Thus, their goal is to choose a candidate through their popular, and supposedly more democratic, method of selection, as opposed to the primaries traditionally held by the two major parties.
Americans Elect’s website states, “You have the power to help break gridlock and change politics as usual.” Yet, the reality is that “politics as usual” is not a fluke of history or an unfortunate flaw of the particular individuals we have elected. Indeed, “politics as usual” is the natural, logical outgrowth of our winner-take-all electoral system.
In fairness to third parties, they often serve an important role in presidential contests by forcing the discourse to include issues that may not otherwise have been discussed. The Green Party, for example, has likely contributed much to public awareness of environmental issues. These alternate voices still provide an outlet for those who do not fall neatly into one of the two major parties, and help better represent the ideological diversity of American political thought. When examined through the lens of Duverger’s law, though, their chances for being elected to the legislature or the presidency remain grim.
For those Americans wishing for a change from the monopolistic control that the Democratic and Republican parties yield in our government, the prospects are not good. There will always be third parties driven by ideology. There will always be dissenting voices in the national discourse because the reality is that human thought is not “bi-chromatic.” Yet, without a major shift in party loyalty or a change to the nature of our electoral system, our government is likely to be run almost exclusively by these two parties for the foreseeable future.
 Duverger, Maurice. The Number of Parties. 1954. Essential Readings In Comparative Politics. Ed. Patrick O’Neil and Ronald Rogowski. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 282-86. Print.
 “First Past the Post.” Ace Project. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://aceproject.org/main/english/es/esd01.htm>.
 “U. S. Electoral College FAQs.” National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral- college/faq.html>.
 ”About Us.” Americans Elect 2012. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.americanselect.org/about>.