81 Percent of Americans Live in a One-Party State
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The reality of America’s two-party system is a one-party system in 39 states. Union ForwardRead More
More than 200 years ago, in the early days of our republic, the Framers of the Constitution passionately implored their colleagues and future Americans to reject and repel partisanship.
In the eyes of the Framers, strong political parties posed a distinct threat to the Union’s first principles of a republican government and a democratic process. George Washington, the country’s first and only independent president, left future generations with a blunt warning on the dangers posed by political parties in his 1796 farewell address:
“[Political parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force—to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests.” — President George Washington
John Adams, Washington’s successor and co-founder of the Federalist Party, expressed similar concerns about a two-party system in a 1780 letter he sent to Jonathan Jackson, a successful businessman from Boston:
“There is nothing I dread so much, as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil, under our Constitution.” — President John Adams
As early as 1792, however, the nation’s first two parties were already established with clashing visions for the future. Many of the same visionaries who had insisted on shunning partisanship in years prior now regarded parties as necessary tools to further their respective views on what America really meant.
Washington was alarmed by the speed with which factionalism took root, and the leader who had been reluctant to seek office in the first place now found himself pursuing a second term in the hopes of fortifying the spirit of national solidarity over party loyalty.
Nearly 250 years later, Americans are growing increasingly convinced that our legacy two-party system reflects the tribal and inconsistent “projects of faction” which Washington described long ago.
Support for a hypothetical third party has hovered close to 60 percent since 2013, yet electoral and financial barriers to those outside the two-party system are robust. While approximately 40 percent of U.S. voters are independent, fewer than 1 percent of elected officials in Washington, D.C. are independent. This stark imbalance in representation also exists at the state level, yet the majority of state governments are controlled by just one party; not even two.
Unified, one-party control of the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature is known as a “party trifecta.” Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the number of states with party trifectas fluctuated between 20 and 25. Split party control between the governorship and the legislative bodies existed in more than half of the states. In 2010, however, the Tea Party movement upended that balance. The number of states with Republican Party trifectas more than doubled after the 2010 midterm elections, from 9 to 22.
The shift towards one-party states has proven to be a trend rather than an anomaly. The Republican Party tends to have more party trifectas as they are more popular in rural states, but the number of Democratic Party trifectas is on the rise in recent years, as well. Following the 2022 midterm elections, a record high of 39 states are governed by party trifectas.
The outbreak of COVID-19 shifted significant public attention towards America’s state governments, leading many people to recognize for the first time how dominant one-party systems have become. The reality of our polarized two-party system is that today, 81 percent of Americans live under a party trifecta.
For all of the criticisms levied against a two-party system—that it discourages competition, increases polarization, and fails to fairly represent the views of independent voters—one-party systems deserve all these criticisms and more.
Americans recognize that a system without legitimate competition is undemocratic, unrepresentative, and prone to an erosion of accountability. These are some of the fundamental beliefs which underlie the story of our Union. Yet while voters have grown more independent in recent years, states have moved to solidify one-party rule by undermining electoral competition. Gerrymandering, or manipulating the redrawing of electoral districts to give one party an advantage, is one of the most egregious forms of the two parties’ subversion of the democratic process.
Independent and third party candidates, meanwhile, must meet steep requirements just to earn ballot access, at which point they must contend with enormous fundraising gaps and a plurality voting system that reduces them to “splitting the vote” instead of being treated as a credible contender.
Rather than allowing for new parties to emerge in response to Americans’ abandonment of the two major parties, states are moving in the opposite direction. The decentralized nature of the United States political system necessitates that electoral reform advocates and third parties take a similarly decentralized approach. If national U.S. politics are to meaningfully improve, state politics and elections must improve first.
The last breakdown of America’s political party system occurred during the 1850s, when the Republican Party, an abolitionist party, was founded amid a profound division over the institution of slavery.
A number of parties rose and fell during the period from the founding of the Union until the Civil War. From 1792 until 1812, the political landscape was dominated by the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties—a two-party system. The Federalist Party, founded by Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a strong, centralized federal government and a strong national bank. When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw their libertarian vision for the republic slipping away, they founded the Democratic-Republican Party to counter this trend.
Hamilton’s Federalists waned in popularity following the War of 1812. President James Madison—a Democratic-Republican—hastened his opponents’ decline in the late 1810s by adopting several key elements of the Federalist agenda.
In the absence of outside competition, the Democratic-Republicans began to fracture by the mid 1820s. Founded in 1828, the Democratic Party pushed for states’ rights and westward expansion, animated by populist support for President Andrew Jackson. The National Republican Party was created in 1824 and lasted just ten years before merging into the Whig Party.
Notably, the first third party in U.S. history—the Anti-Masonic Party—was created in 1828. Several dozen Anti-Masons were elected to the U.S. House during the 1830s, but the party was dissolved by the end of the decade. Fierce opposition to freemasonry—fraternal organizations of stonemasons believed by some Americans to be a secret society of elites who exerted undue political and economic influence—was the chief uniting force behind the short-lived, single-issue party.
The Nullifier Party, founded in 1828 and dissolved in 1839, also sent a handful of members to the House, leading to a brief period in which four parties held seats in D.C. The party operated predominantly in South Carolina and sought to enable state authorities to nullify federal laws which they deemed to be unconstitutional.
A state of two-party competition between the Whigs and the Democrats solidified by the 1840s, but it stood on turbulent ground. Rapid territorial expansion in the decades before the Civil War inflamed the contentious fight over slavery by continuing to raise the question of whether it would be allowed in new territories.
During President James Polk’s single term in office from 1845 to 1849, the U.S. acquired through conquest and treaties an enormous swath of territory including modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The launch of the California Gold Rush poured fuel on the fire of western expansion.
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by a coalition of abolitionists and disillusioned Whigs. In its early years, the party’s central goal was to oppose the expansion of slavery into new territories. Party leaders made a concerted effort to win municipal and state races in northern states, developing a strong network of elected Republicans to advance their agenda.
Four prominent candidates competed in the 1860 presidential election due to the fractious state of the Union. Northern and southern Democrats nominated two separate presidential tickets while a group of former Whigs created the Constitutional Union Party and nominated their own ticket.
Abraham Lincoln was ultimately elected with less than 40 percent of the vote, and seven southern states promptly seceded from the Union.
Today, an erosion of the states’ commitment to preserving a Union with one another is not a distant idea, but a developing concern.
The idea of a national divorce, or a break-up of the Union due to irreconcilable differences, was recently supported by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and promoted by Libertarian Party leaders. A strong 77 percent of Americans oppose the idea, yet its place in our modern discourse reflects a creeping sense that the culture wars have broken the Union in some fundamental ways.
Nearly half of Americans have checked out entirely from the two-party system, yet this profoundly important fact fails to be mentioned in a media landscape that earns more advertising revenue when they report on provocative, eye-catching events. The culture war is thus amplified and exaggerated in the name of advertising revenue.
In reality, 44 percent of Americans are independent. Just 27 percent identify as Republicans and just 28 percent as Democrats. President Washington warned that powerful political parties would enable a “small but artful and enterprising minority” to replace “wholesome plans” developed by communities with shallow “projects of faction.” His words describe many of our states today.
A number of people find party registration statistics to be unreliable in determining whether voters are fairly represented, since many independent voters lean towards one major party or the other at the end of the day. This discounts the fact, however, that the question of which major party independents lean towards is explicitly asking voters to choose one or the other, just as our traditional voting system does.
Affiliation with the Democratic and Republican parties is at record lows while the number of independents is at record highs. Americans are abandoning the vindictive politics of the two-party system, but the way our elections are designed does not allow for a reflection of that shift.
As dictated by the Constitution, electoral districts in the U.S. are redrawn every ten years. Gerrymandering, or partisan manipulation of the redistricting process, essentially allows the majority party in a given state to entrench an electoral advantage (until the next census, which will take place in 2030) by creating as many “safe” districts for their party as possible while minimizing the number of districts in which the opposing party can compete.
This practice stakes out clear Democratic territory and Republican territory, eliminating most competition from general elections. In November 2022, just 10 percent of elections to the U.S. House were competitive. 90 percent of races took place in “safe” Democratic or Republican territory.
Candidates are now largely selected in primary elections, which do not always allow independent voters to participate and instead reflect the will of a small group of dedicated Democrats or Republicans.
It is only natural that such a system becomes warped towards partisanship. The vast majority of candidates running for office in the 2020s have little incentive, if any, to appeal to voters beyond the select few who show up to vote in their party’s primary. One of the first steps towards restoring our shared commitment to the Union and its first principles must be restoring genuine competition to our elections.
A country in which 90 percent of elections are safely in the hands of one party (which 27 percent of voters affiliate with) or the other (which 28 percent affiliate with) is not a democracy. It is, in the words of President John Adams, “the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Those who seek a re-invigoration of our storied democracy would find more success in building a foundation for a national movement by turning their focus to the state and local level. The Republican Party made a point of winning local and state elections in the 1850s, successfully building out the foundation of a national party network and winning offices to advance their agenda at every level within their reach.
Restoring electoral competition across the U.S. and ending the two-party system is a tall order, and there are a number of yet-to-be defined steps that must be taken before that order can be fulfilled.
Launched in summer 2022, the Forward Party is championing a state-led campaign for voting reform, nonpartisan primaries, and independent redistricting commissions. The party’s concise platform clearly emphasizes process over outcomes.
Voting reform (ranked-choice, approval, or STAR voting) aims to enable independent and third party candidates to compete on a level playing field by eliminating the “spoiler effect.” A nonpartisan primary would place all candidates in one primary election, regardless of party affiliation or non-affiliation. Independent redistricting commissions, as eight states have adopted, aim to counter gerrymandering by handing the power to redraw districts to an independent or bipartisan commission.
Fix Our House, an advocacy campaign for proportional representation in the U.S. House, examined the impact of independent commissions in a 2022 Redistricting Report. In states with these commissions, electoral competitiveness moderately increased and partisan districts moderately decreased. The report stressed, however, that the commissions alone were insufficient to overturn the “uncompetitive, unrepresentative nature” of the vast majority of congressional districts.
The first two elements of the Forward Party’s platform, voting reform and nonpartisan primaries, propose changes to the way we vote as a remedy to the current system’s tendency towards hyper-partisanship. Andrew Yang, the party’s founder, often remarks that the true nature of the problem is effectively summed up by a U.S. Senator’s comment to him in private:
“An issue is worth more to us unresolved than resolved.”
An unresolved hot-button issue gives candidates a powerful tool to motivate their party’s base to turn out on Election Day and a golden fundraising opportunity. Since the vast majority of general elections are noncompetitive, winning over the party base is most candidates’ only real concern.
Even if an elected official hopes that working across the aisle to solve a problem will win over independent and moderate voters, these are not the voters who decide whether they will be re-elected or not. The staunch Democratic or Republican voters who show up to that candidate’s party primary decide.
In terms of seeing these reforms enacted within such a warped system, citizen-led ballot initiatives should take the lead. Twenty-four states allow voters to propose reforms like ranked-choice voting (RCV) or nonpartisan primaries for a ballot referendum. Voters in Maine approved RCV in 2016, Alaska voters approved RCV and nonpartisan primaries in 2020, and Nevada voters approved RCV and nonpartisan primaries in 2022. Under the Nevada Constitution, the measure must be approved by voters a second time in 2024 to be implemented.
At the local level, 60 U.S. cities now use RCV, and 2 use approval voting. Some states that do not allow ballot referendums are considering the reforms proposed above, as well. At least 14 state legislatures will consider RCV bills this year.
The advancement of the Republican Party in the 1850s should be on the minds of all who pursue the multi-party system that many Americans have wanted for years. They did run national campaigns, including a presidential candidate in 1856, that third parties today will likely have to build towards over time in order to amass the necessary fundraising prowess in the absence of campaign finance reform.
In the years before Lincoln’s victory, however, the Republicans organized robust slates of local candidates, particularly in northern states. They focused their energy on building out a local network of elected officials, and that bedrock of support contributed to the party’s legitimacy. When the Democrats’ and Whigs’ two-party system of the mid-19th century began to fall apart, Republicans were organized and prepared to step in.
Lincoln’s Republican Party certainly owed a great share of its growth to the circumstances of the 1850s, but their focused campaign of winning the offices they were capable of winning helped turn their opportunity into tangible capacity to eliminate slavery.
The U.S. has more than 500,000 local elected offices in 2023. A focused, sustained, and moderately well-funded campaign could challenge uncontested or uncompetitive elections for city councils, municipal boards of education, finance, conservation, planning and zoning, and more. Local victories would give third parties power to shape local policy and impact lives in tangible ways.
Today, the Libertarian Party has 323 local officials, the Green Party has 123, the Constitution Party has 24, the Reform Party has 9, and the Alliance Party has 1. The Working Families Party, a progressive and pro-labor party founded in 1998, focuses on a strategy of using fusion voting to cross-endorse Democrats or Republicans which align with them. The People’s Party, a populist and non-interventionist party founded in 2017, hopes to challenge the Democratic Party in part by building a network of elected officials in a handful of states. The Forward Party, for its’ part, aims to establish a robust coalition of local and state officials in the coming years.
In addition to electing local candidates, the Forward Party is inviting elected Democrats and Republicans to embrace the principle of a multi-party system without completely abandoning their party. Four Arizona State Representatives announced several weeks ago that they had officially become the first “Forward Democrats” at a party event alongside Andrew Yang, Forward Party CEO Lindsey Drath, and Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes.
It is unlikely that a third party will enter the 2024 campaign cycle with a credible base to deliver statewide or national victories. A concerted effort, however, to spend the 2023, 2024, and 2025 elections on local races could make the 2026 midterm elections a different story.
The Founders of our Union feared precisely the environment we find ourselves in today. Yet the founding of the Republican Party provides us with a blueprint which upended a rotting two-party system once before. Modern third parties have neglected this proven model in favor of national campaigns that they believe will elevate their message and generate support through media attention.
Demand for a third party is at a record high and has been for years. If one or more parties can muster the will to spend several years sustaining a laser focus on winning offices that are within their reach, they may find themselves legitimately capable of running viable national candidates in 2026 or 2028.
The Republican Party began organizing in 1854 and won the presidency six years later. This was not by chance. Their achievement stood on the shoulders of dedicated years of local and state organizing.
This time, the goal cannot be to replace either the Democratic or Republican Party and continue on with a two-party system. The goal must be a true multi-party democracy which reflects the vast diversity of thought that exists within our Union of 334 million people.
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