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Exploding the Myth of the ‘Two-Party System’


By Mike Feinstein, Green Party of California

In this country we do no justice to our cause by accepting and internalizing the language of our electoral opponents and oppressors.

Sometimes expressions become so much a part of our every day vernacular that we fail to even question their subtle biases, let alone their accuracy, and then we may internalize those biases and inaccuracies. When that happens with expressions that define how we relate to each other as individuals, or how we are organized as a society, whole movements often rise up to challenge their use. That is why we often challenge certain expressions as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ or ‘homophobic’, for example, and why there are even overt workshops to ‘unlearn’ racism, sexism and/or homophobia.

But what about ‘winner-take-all-ism’? Never heard of it? It happens every time someone says we live under a ‘two-party’ system. In the United States, we do NOT live under a ‘two-party’ system. But each time we fail to challenge that terminology – let alone if we use it in our own speech – we effectively internalize the language of our electoral oppressors. This is functionally no different than when racist, sexist or homophobic epithets go unchallenged. And just like with those epitaphs, it should be no surprise that winner-take-all-ism is used intentionally by many in power to marginalize the full participation in society of various types and groups of people with which they do not agree or support.

By law, there is no such thing in the United States as a two-party system – i.e. the law does not state, “There shall only be two parties.”

Rather, we live in a mostly private/large donor/corporate-funded winner-take-all electoral system, with mostly gerrymandered districts and with media that are mostly owned by increasingly fewer and larger corporations. It is that cumulative dynamic that has tended to produce only two ‘major’ parties in the American context; and it is that dynamic that in turn leads to the collusion by those two parties to enact laws to make it even harder for other parties to compete, and to appoint judges who would not overturn those laws upon legal challenge.

Therefore if there is a legal system to be changed, it is the winner-take-all system, not the two-party system. The former is a system and the latter is a dynamic resulting from that system.

Every time we identify the problem as the dynamic instead of the system (or the ‘symptom’ rather than the ‘disease’), we voluntarily give away our argument and energy to those who want to deny us our proportional place at the governing table, because it simply makes us sound like electoral ‘losers’ who are on the outside because we can’t compete with our ideas, which then just feeds into their desire to further marginalize us. Instead, we should be calling attention to the structural problems within the electoral system that is already in place.

And this structural problem is not limited to the American experience. In the U.K. where there are two major parties (Conservative, Labour) and one almost major party (Liberal Democrat) and in Canada where there are also two major parties (Conservative, Liberal) one almost major (New Democratic) as well as the special case in Quebec of the Bloc Quebecois, the unrepresentative defect of winner-take-all-ism still exists. Therefore it is not only erroneous but also self-defeating to start from the premise that ‘the system’ is either a ‘two-party’ (or ‘three-party’ or ‘four-party’) system and then argue it is that two-party system which should be changed.

The kind of reforms Greens advocate, public financing and inclusion in debates for all ballot-qualified candidates, instant runoff voting for our executive offices and proportional representation for how we elect our legislative representative would be fairer to all candidates and parties. Yes this is more nuanced than simply railing against a ‘two-party’ system, but it is also far more accurate and actually gets to the root of the structural problem that we are confronting.

Under such a fairer electoral system, it will be up to the public how many parties are viable. We Greens have no absolute right to be represented in the system just because we think we have good ideas. That is up to the voters to decide (however it should not go without mentioning under such systems voters have elected Greens in dozens of countries around the world.)

But in this country we do no justice to our cause by accepting and internalizing the language of our electoral opponents and oppressors. If we want electoral system reform that gives fair representation to the diverse perspectives held in our society, including those we hold as Greens, we must begin by reforming ourselves.

Green philosophy is all about seeing the big, interconnected picture and confronting the social ëismsí that diminish who we really are. If we want to succeed electorally, we have to do the same thing with the biased and intentionally limited ‘winner-take-all-ism’ that the myth of the two-party system portends.

Mike Feinstein

Mike Feinstein is a former Green Mayor and City Councilmember in Santa Monica, California; a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State.

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  1. dlw October 10, 2008

    A less is more approach is in order that holds more in continuity w. the existing system so as to reduce main party opposition and make it easier to share w. most voters.

    This is Project Democratic Renewal.

    It’s time to pick our battles and focus on the use of proportional representation at the state level and the leveraging of third party’s ability to potentially spoil an election in ‘winner takes all elections’ for influence and to reduce the incumbency advantage.


  2. Nick Mellis October 21, 2008


    Thanks Mike for a wonderful synopsis of what our current challenges are. As Greens our number one concern should be IRV or instant runoff voting, and getting the legal power to force the system to respond to our needs. Ballot access is a human right!

  3. dlw October 28, 2008

    IRV is a waste of time and energy.

    You all need to focus your limited political capital. I have argued that incorporating PR in state legislative elections is the strategic move, then you can focus on winning in winnable elections and voting quasi-strategically in other elections and thereby move the center….


  4. Mike Feinstein October 28, 2008

    Dear DLW

    I recommend PR for state legislative races and IRV for executive office.

  5. dlw December 19, 2008

    I differ somewhat, inasmuch as I think quasi-strategic voting would be a better use of limited third party resources. I find that fielding candidates for major single-member elections requires too much coordination and hierarchy for a third party. I would rather see decentralization of third parties so as to better immunize them against the influence of $peech.

    We are being told that winning the major offices is the big thing, but I don’t see why that is true, if we are increasing voter turnout and understanding and holding the main parties to their rules, which pushing to make the rules more fair.


    1. Jonah Thomas February 13, 2020

      “I find that fielding candidates for major single-member elections requires too much coordination and hierarchy for a third party.”

      Deciding on a strategy requires too much coordination and hierarchy for us.

      So it doesn’t do much good to say “The party should do X and not Y, because X gets better results.” It might do better to say “I’m doing X and I want volunteers to help me. I personally will not volunteer to do Y because I don’t think it’s worth doing.” Or don’t even mention Y, the people who want to do Y will do it regardless.

      We depend utterly on volunteers. We can’t decide what the party will do and make volunteers do it. We usually shouldn’t decide what the party won’t do and tell volunteers not to do it.


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