To all intents, America is a pure two-party country. Only the Democrats and the Republicans have any real chance of having a president elected under the current electoral system. No state has a major third party. In the 1996 election in Washington State, the following results occurred:


Clinton 1.1 million
Dole 840,000
Perot 200,000
Nader (Indep) 60,000
Browne (Labour) 12,500
Hagelin (NLP) 6000
Philips (U) 4,500
Collins (I) 2,300
Moorehead (WW) 2,100
Harris (Socialist Worker) 738

Clinton, Dole and Perot got 96% of all votes cast.

Therefore, 87,000 voters in Washington State voted for a candidate that did not have a chance of winning –  which begs the question, “why vote for them ?”

If their total is added to Perot’s total, the figure increases to 287,000 votes for ‘no-hopers’ – which would equate to around 10% of the voter turnout in that state. Therefore, 90% of all voters voted for either the Democrats or the Republicans in Washington State. 

In the 2000 national election, the only two parties that had a hope of winning the election were again the Democrats and the Republicans. 

The two-party system is supreme at present. In essence, most states are two-party in terms of competitive elections, though historically, many southern states were effectively one-party states.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have become “parties of exceptional ideological breadth compared to European parties.” (Bowles) Whereas there are clear differences between the main political parties in Great Britain, this is less so in America.

Traditionally, the Republicans have been associated with individualism and all that it represents.

It is common now to associate the Democrats with the support of civil rights in America. However, one of the great movements for civil rights occurred in the 1950’s under the Republican president Eisenhower. It was this that the Democrat Kennedy inherited. The bus boycotts and the Littel Rock High School incident occurred in a Republican America……….yet, the Democrats have been labelled the party of the minorities.

Therefore, it is difficult to state that one party supports one plan of action and the other supports something else. Possibly a more accurate equation, would be to state that both parties latch on to an issue if it has political ammunition to either advance their own support or damage the support of the other party. The 2000 election campaign showed that on issues such as tax and health care for the elderly there were clear differences.

The support of states’ rights, has meant that parties have found their chief expression at a state level and not at a federal one. Therefore, national organisations have invariably been weaker compared to state ones. 

Since the 1970’s there has been an attempt to address this and national party organisations have gained many new powers : primarily, they have the sole right to nominate the presidential candidate. However, the clash between the rights of state party power and national party power continues to fragment both parties.

Parties in America are not private organisations. They are subject to state laws passed by the state legislatures. There is no mass membership. Where local party organisations exist, their membership is determined by local and not national issues. The primaries give local voters power in the selection of candidates that is yet to be matched in Western Europe. However, local party organisation is often weak and dominated by the zealous. In some areas it is simply non-existent.

The ideologies that both parties claim to have is that which is articulated by the presidential candidate. 

However, as a president-elect does not have to fulfil his platform speech, there is an argument that the parties have no substantial policies and that any policy they have is formulated in government to meet a specific problem. This is probably in response to presidents in the past being held to platform pledges which have been carried out to satisfy one section of the party, but have proved to be politically damaging. 

In 1992, Clinton found himself in trouble for promising to allow gays into the armed forces (without fear of legal consequences) which he did not carry out after consulting with senior military figures and which, consequently, caused great anger in the gay community who hold some political clout in certain cities. Clinton eventually got out of this problem – an election promise/policy pledge – by stating that you could be gay in the US armed forces but you had to keep such information to yourself!

In the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to return to tax payers billions of dollars of what he called “their” money. He kept this promise.

Presidential candidates now determine their own programme. It would be impossible for a central party to enforce a programme on a presidential candidate. The purpose of a presidential campaign is to win the general/national election and not to control the party. The latter is held in check by supporting the presidential candidate as a matter of party loyalty. Such an approach does not build a system that allows a nationally coherent party structure. Neither of the major parties have ever tried to overturn the established systems found in economics or politics. Neither is severely critical of them either.


“Both major parties support the political and economic orders, and since the end of the Civil War have always done so, save at times of crisis……………party competition, though vigorous, occurs within a comparatively narrow ideological range; there exists widespread agreement on fundamental values.” (Bowles)


‘Party’ may be weak, but ‘party’ also matters to those in Congress. The support for Clinton in 1998 during the Lewinsky scandal was solely based on party loyalty.

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