Why do the main two US political parties not seem to suffer from "power erosion"?

  • By "power erosion" I refer to the phenomenon which usually affects a party in power: the trust gets lower towards the end of the legal mandate, thus reducing the chances of wining the power for the next mandate.

    In my native country, Romania, a much more fragile democracy (only 27 years after the fall of the Communism and a few years before WW2), I have seen several important political parties suffering from "power erosion":

    • National Peasants' Party is almost 100 years old and failed to enter Parliament (5% electoral threshold) for three times in a row (the latest)
    • National Liberal Party, more than 100 years old and one the most notorious parties in country's history got only 20% of total votes at the last elections and some analysts argue that they might get lower in lack of solutions
    • Other smaller parties disappeared from the Parliament after 2-3 mandates

    This article shows the evolution of public trust in Government:

    The public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

    This article confirms the historical low trust level:

    Public trust of government is near its all-time low according to the Pew Research Center, which finds a perfect storm of factors -- including a deep recession, high unemployment and polarized Congress -- are driving distrust near an all-time high of 80%.

    At the same time, this table shows that the two main parties act and acted as a "political oligopoly" for many years.

    Question: considering the low levels of public trust, how comes that there is virtually no political alternative to the two parties?

    If you go back far enough (150+ years), the United States used to have the Whigs and Federalists parties, which are now long gone. Further, our current parties have undergone major position shifts over the last 150+ years.

    I'm not sure about Romania political system but comparing with Polish you can blame winner-takes-all and electoral college. In current US system the 3rd party candidates are often symbolic and them gaining power risk weakening closest candidate splitting their votes. In Polish (for president) the winner of first round is paired against the second place if (s)he doesn't have majority. So with that system people could vote for, for example, Stein without fear of making Clinton position weakened (assuming potential Stein voted for Clinton).

    Same goes for multi-representative vs single-representative districts.

    @MaciejPiechotka - yes, Romania (and possibly many European countries) have similar electoral systems to Polish one. A recent example showed what I see it is major advantage of this system. A small and young party formed mainly from people from private companies and scientists managed to become the second political force within the capital city (Bucharest). They also managed to become the third force within the Parliament (some 9% of total seats). It sounds small, but this ensures a place in all TV debates (there is some law that forces media to allow a balanced representation in debates).

    it comes down to America not being a winner take all system. voters don't vote for a party they vote for people. So, while everyone hates the political parties they still think their local candidate will be the one to turn it all around.

    The POTUS's party on average loses 23 congressional seats in a midterm election. That's not erosion?

    @T.E.D. It is erosion of one party but a 2 party system is in itself relatively stable. Compare it with Polish parliament which contains 6 parties out of which only 3 existed during last election. If we go back to 1997 election only 1 existed.

    Although the two parties exist under the same name since a long time ago, their ideologies do change. For example, the Democrats are now often crusading for minority rights, but in the 19th century they were more conservative than the Republicans, and were pro-slavery. So parties **do** change, even in America, maybe not as fast as in other countries.

  • There are probably a dozen correct answers to your question. The reasons for it contribute and pile on each other. I have no way of telling which reason is the most important.

    As you pointed out, American trust in our political leaders is at an all time low. As a sign of this the Republican party elected a President who is not a politician, Donald Trump. The Democratic party had a serious primary challenger who was not a Democrat, Bernie Sanders. Both of these people were able to gain political traction despite not being part of the party establishment, because American trust in our political parties is so low.

    Both of these candidates ran as a party candidate, despite having no real affiliation to that party or support from the party power structure. The alternative to this is to start a third party.

    President Theodore Roosevelt ran for a third reelection as a third party candidate in the 1912 presidential election. The election was very weird by American standards. 4 candidates got a large share of the vote. The winner, Woodrow Wilson, got 40% of the popular vote and won 81% of the electoral college.

    Taft was the third place candidate. Roosevelt and Taft agreed on a lot of issues. If one of them had dropped out of the race, the other would have had a much better chance of winning. The actual outcome was a landslide loss for their ideals. Roosevelt's new party fizzled out over the next few election cycles.

    This outcome is baked in to our electoral system. Although the political landscape has changed a lot in the past 100 years, the election system has not. Simply put, the American election system strongly discourages the existence of a third party. You get more political traction if you work within an existing party to change the course of that party. If you start a third party, you may wind up sabotaging the main party that you are politically closest to.

    Wikipedia has a pretty decent write up of this. Duverger's law is also very relevant.

    Thanks for the quick and good answer. This explains it very well, but I am wondering how is it possible to have only two parties within a modern society. Things are so diverse and complex there days, that I doubt only two parties can catch this diversity. The list of parties in Netherlands shows an interesting political power distribution.

    One of the other things that currently hampers a 3rd party candidate that BobTheAverage didn't mention was that for most debates, a candidate needs to poll at least 10% to be allowed on stage. That's not a hard rule in the primaries (I think the Republicans had 14 candidates trying to get into a 12 person circus during the 2016 primaries), but I've heard it several times for the final candidate's debates.

    Look into Duverger's law too. @Alexei

    @Alexei It's true that two parties can't cover much diversity, but the issue is that a party, by necessity, must hold a position on every single policy matter out there. And people in the United States at least tend to care most about a few specific policies. Regardless of what a party's stance might be on 95% of its issues, if it's in line with John Smith's views on the two or three major ones, then he's likely going to vote for that party's candidate. It's only after the election that voters see the other 95% of those policy/issue stances in action and find they don't like them.

    @Krillgar That is one of the dozen reasons I mentioned in the intro sentence.

    @TylerH The official party platforms can't cover much diversity, but the voters for each party are much more diverse than the party platform.

    The general population are also *well aware* of this phenomena - they've seen countless third parties lose in the election, and even seen third party candidates divide voters and cause the other primary party to win - this knowledge discourages people from voting Third Party, to avoid 'wasting' their vote.

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