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Who Holds the Power in a Two-Party System?

Last September, John Boehner announced that he would resign as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and retire from Congress, effective October 30th. But once House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, pulled out of the election for Speakership, Boehner delayed the decision, declaring that he would leave office only after his successor had been chosen.

Both announcements spurred a maelstrom of commentary, as Republicans and Democrats alike grappled with the future of Boehner and McCarthy’s party.

Some expressed concern that the appearance of inner-party conflict could destabilize a seemingly shaky Republican establishment: Rep. Thomas Massey, R-KY compared House Republicans to a “banana republic.” Some of Massey’s colleagues, such as Rep. Dana Rhorabacher, R-CA, have advocated for electing an interim “caretaker” Speaker until proper elections could be held in 2016, so the party could “stay unified in our basic principles.” Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential race, insisted that Boehner’s resignation “pretty much guarantees a more radicalized House and a more polarized Washington.” And Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, called the situation a “civil war” within the House.

A number of commentators condemned Boehner and McCarthy’s leadership styles[1][2]. Others bemoaned what they considered to be overzealous Republican initiatives that have little chance of becoming legislation, such as the 2015 proposal to defund Planned Parenthood[3][4]. Observers on nearly every side of the political spectrum pointed to an issue and suggest corrective measures to shift the party toward a more moderate or more conservative philosophy.

Few, however, brought up the possibility of some Republicans branching off to form a third party.

The U.S.’s two-party system is still relatively modern. It began in the 1850s, when members of the Whig party splintered over the issue of slavery. While their opponents joined the Democrats—who supported slavery—Whig abolitionists formed the Republicans. When the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the election of 1860, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. Thus began the Civil War.[5]

Since then, Democratic and Republican ideologies have morphed and evolved over time, so much so that contemporary parties would be unrecognizable to their 19th century forebears. Still, the nomenclature—and the bifurcated political climate—persists. With it come advantages and disadvantages. For the voting public, two parties make choices simple and clear. Champions of the system argue it leads to balance and mutual growth, that—like in a football match—two rivals engaged in a one-on-one competition challenge each other to perform and strategize better. Two parties mean, at least in theory, a roughly equal distribution of power between ideological extremes. Millions of people can unite for or against a cause and know that there is a good chance for their interests to become policy.

A two-party system may not always represent all interests, however. Unless one thoroughly and unconditionally agrees with the Democratic or Republican platform, voting for Candidate A or Candidate B involves compromise. In some cases, it may mean a significant compromise, for instance, if the voter is part of a marginalized population but holds personal views that differ from the party that best serves her community. The candidate who supports looser border regulations may not also support stricter gun control laws. Or, both parties may ignore certain interest groups, especially when there is little economic incentive to do otherwise.

The U.S. is not officially a two-party system—other affiliated and independent candidates can participate in elections—but Republicans and Democrats have a vested interest in maintaining public perception that they are the only two viable options. It is not difficult to see how mutual antagonism has mutual benefit, how opposition to an idea is a principle in itself. At the same time, both parties are beholden to sustaining a sense of polarity, and perhaps becoming further entrenched in extremes. If one party agrees too much with the other, it weakens both parties’ standings and introduces an opportunity for a third party to differentiate itself. However, as Begala indicated, that dynamic could raise another set of issues, and lead to an anti-cooperative and encumbered environment where nothing gets done.

Who ensures that Democrats and Republicans remain in power? Voters, lobbyists, prominent families with political lineages, and forces in and outside each party all play a part. Nonetheless, history—both bygone and recent—exposes rifts: vertices at which a party transforms from within due to social pressures, economic circumstances, or vacuums at the top.

Members of the media participate as well. The tone and substance of news reporting influence real-world events. Framing the Tea Party a movement within the Republican Party, rather than a discrete third party, could disenfranchise its members from pursuing politics autonomously—without the consent of the conservative institution—or empower a faction to change its party from the inside out.

In this particular instance of inner-party uncertainty, Republicans were eventually able to reach a resolution by electing Paul Ryan, R-WI, as the next Speaker of the House. Ryan, however, was not quick to seize the opportunity. He accepted his new position only on the condition that it would not interfere with his “family time,” and called for “one group” of “bomb throwers and hand wringers” to cease from obstructing party decisions[6]. His reluctance to step into what is ostensibly one of the most influential roles in Washington echoes Boehner and McCarthy’s wavering, and speaks to the difficult and conciliatory nature of the job. Like the president, the speaker cedes power at least as often as he wields it.


[1] http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/good-riddance-to-john-boehner/

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/09/29/john-boehner-and-failure-to-live-up-to-conservative-principles.html
[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/25/john-boehner-resigned-republicans-true-faith
[4] www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-john-boehner-government-shutdown-republicans-20150928-story.html
[5] https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/jackson-lincoln/resources/breakdown-party-system
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/us/politics/republicans-paul-ryan-house-speaker.html?_r=0