© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cokie Roberts On The History Of America's 2-Party System


Divisions among both Republicans and Democrats are renewing interest in a third political party. Just listen to this. A recent Gallup poll found the highest level of support ever, 61 percent for a viable alternative. Discontent with the two major parties has been part of our politics for decades, more prominent in some elections than in others. Here is the voice of American Independent Party candidate George Wallace in the lead-up to the 1968 election.


GEORGE WALLACE: Today there's not a dime's worth of difference in the national Republican Party and the national Democratic Party and their approach to problems that confront the people of our nation.

GREENE: Running on a racial segregationist platform, Wallace won 13 percent of the vote in that election and 46 electoral votes, one of the few third-party candidates to capture any electors at all. Now, many of you have questions on your mind about why it is so hard for third parties to succeed in this country. You sent some of those questions to us, and we want to put them to commentator Cokie Roberts in our regular Ask Cokie segment. Hi there, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David. Good to talk to you.

GREENE: You too, as always. Well, let me get to our first question. It really goes back to the very beginning of the country, and it comes from Seamus Ennis, who asks, (reading) some of the founders warned about divisive party systems.

He wanted to know whose argument you find most telling or compelling.

ROBERTS: Well, both Hamilton and Madison warned against factions in the Federalist Papers, but both knew the differences were totally inevitable. They had just survived a very divisive Constitutional Convention. So the question then became how to control the effect of what Madison called the zeal for different opinions or the attachment to different leaders. They wanted to guard against the tyranny of a majority faction and thought the formation of a large republic with different branches of government would serve that end. Of course by the end of the first Washington term, they were leading opposing parties themselves.

GREENE: Interesting. Well, our next question actually gets to the subject of those early political parties.

ELAINA MARTIN: My name is Elaina Martin, and I live in South Boston, Va. What were the parties before Democrat and Republican, and how did they end up the two main parties?

GREENE: Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, Washington didn't represent a party, but by the time his successor, John Adams, ran it was as a Federalist, and his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, represented the Republican Party. Those two parties shaped the first several elections then the Federalists fell apart. And under Andrew Jackson, the Jeffersonian Republicans became known as the Democratic Republicans and eventually just the Democrats, who have fielded a candidate in every presidential election since 1796. The current Republicans first held a convention in 1856, and their candidates have run since then. But, look, basically what we have had is a party in power, a party in opposition. And though they've changed over the years and evolved, they're called the Democrats and Republicans.

GREENE: So what comes next? Let's just turn to our next question, which gets to that.

ADAM WILSON: Howdy. This is Adam Wilson from Houston, Texas, and my question is, is there a realistic possibility of having more than two major political parties?

ROBERTS: Well, howdy, Adam. It's hard to do for a few reasons. The two major parties make it very hard for others to get on the ballot so - and they're so entrenched that people think it's throwing away their vote to support candidates other than Democrats or Republicans. We've had third parties throughout our history. In the middle of the 19th century, when the country was so divided over slavery, lots of parties arose - the Whigs, the Know Nothings, the Anti-Masonic party, but then all but the Republicans disappeared. The most successful third-party candidate was Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, who came in second. He had the effect of throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson, and, David, that's been the main impact of third-party candidates, is to influence an election, not to win it.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just email us. Askcokie@npr.org, or you can tweet us. Just please use the hashtag #AskCokie. Take care, Cokie.

ROBERTS: You too, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.