I was thinking about the two-party system in USA and comparing it to mostly multi-party systems in Europe and was wondering, if this national state of democracy is mainly caused by political decisions of a minor group, societal culture or historical developments (wars, cultural assimilation).

I'm not interested in the pros and cons of two-party vs. multi-party systems, you can read this on Wikipedia. But do political historians see identical and common explanations for different nations, why they developed towards two-party systems?

Interestingly, I don't know a two-party system evolving towards a multi-party system, while the reverse situation seems to be more common. Of course, one important reason for the two-party system of republicans and democrats in USA is the American civil war, so in what time scales do political historians think and try to analyse political developments, what phenomenological criteria (linguistic, cultural, ethnological, political diversification in a distinct society) do they compare to judge, what factors will strengthen a political development towards a two-/multi-party system?

I reformulated the question a bit to falsify the hypothesis in the title and to focus on easier to find out negative cases, where we have a long and established two-party system today, but no long substantial & longer civil wars in the past splitting the society politically. As quant_dev commented, Britain would be another example of such a historical development.

  • Interestingly, one could argue that the two-party system in Britain also evolved from the civil war (in the XVIIth century). – quant_dev Oct 31 '11 at 17:04
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    How many modern countries haven't had some sort of civil war? To consider Italy, there were the fights before the Risorgimento, the Risorgimento (which wasn't just Italians vs. Austrians) forming modern Italy in the 1860s or so, and the Repubblica Sociale Italiana fighting the rest of Italy in WWII, after Mussolini was deposed. Before discussing the role of civil wars, I'd like to get an agreement on what one is. – David Thornley Nov 3 '11 at 0:05
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    @david the question is not if they had at any time a civil war, but if their present two-party system originated from such a development in YOUNGER past. First i wanted to ask how political historians explain the development towards multi/two-party system (imho fund. question), but that questions is probably too broad for this site. For minimum requirements of civil war see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_war#Further_definitions My assumption is that a longer (years) period of civil war would generate strong and complementary political cultures strengthening two-party systems developments – Hauser Nov 3 '11 at 0:24
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    If you look at the origins of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists their creation was more about Unification than about Division. Although you could argue it's helped more to define our divisions. I think you need to reformulate your question WITHOUT using the US as a basis of Civil War creating two-party systems since that had nothing to do with the two-party system which existed before it happened. – MichaelF Nov 3 '11 at 11:31
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    I don't think a civil war is necessary to have multiple political parties, many countries have them without civil wars. What tends to generate parties are social issues that are not sufficiently addressed by either major party IMO. – MichaelF Nov 4 '11 at 12:11

There may not be enough data to get any meaningful answers, but it's worth remembering that the U.S. has had a two-party system for most of its history, including before the civil war (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans, Democrats vs. Whigs). As for other countries, remember that almost no country has a system as strong as that in the U.S. In Spain, for example, there are generally considered to be two major parties and many minor parties which sometimes join coalitions but almost never run the government. Spain did have a bloody civil war, but the two-party polarization arguably preceded this in the form of Republican/Monarchist strife which had existed since the Napoleonic Wars.

Also, several countries or political systems might be said to be developing or to have recently developed two-party systems without a civil war. Examples are Venezuela, where a once-broad slate of parties has become quite polarized along pro- or anti-Chavez lines, and the European Union, whose parliament is usually controlled by either the European People's Party or the Party for Socialism and Democracy. Although both World War II and the Cold War could be considered intra-European civil wars in this context, the ideological ancestors of the center-right and center-left are generally considered to have been on the same side in both these conflicts.

After looking at these examples I'm tempted to turn the question back to you: can you name a country whose two-party system is the result of a civil war?

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    While this doesn't answer the question, to me, it does reflect the reality of the US situation in that we had a two-party system in place BEFORE the civil war. So in the US's case it did not need a Civil War to create the existing system. – MichaelF Nov 3 '11 at 11:29
  • @anschel No, I cannot name :) As this was the original question (edited). Is there some truthiness in this hypothesis that a long lasting civil war will promote societal splitting of pol. views? I felt some "truthiness" (and the many upvoters of the question since the edit probably too) and I still believe in it, but not anymore in a strong way due to the good answers here. While being neither a sufficient nor necessary mono-causal factor for a two-party development, long lasting civil-war probably still CAN strongly promote/contribute to such a pol. development. In former times that you name, – Hauser Nov 3 '11 at 22:58
  • @anschel without nation-wide press, radio, TV a two-party systems was likely much more natural, politcal diversity could hardly develop due to lack of communication. The voting system rory mentioned is probably the main factor. But the diversity of political views in a dem. society and its origin is a tricky topic which cannot be answered by one question/factor. Actually this can be imho a potential of this site, as you need international audience with overview about many pol. systems to answer such questions. – Hauser Nov 3 '11 at 22:58
  • Consider that the United States emerged as the result of a civil war. Prior to that, there were the Whigs and the Tories. The parties that emerged in the U.S. appear to be differences in opinion rather than different labels for the Whigs and Tories. – Paul Rowe Jun 25 '15 at 20:11
  • @PaulRowe: Huh. I don't remember writing this, which is not surprising given it was four years ago. Are you referring to what's usually called the Revolution as a civil war? It seems to me that political parties didn't result from the pro- and anti-independence sides for the simple reason that most anti-independence people fled after or during the war. – Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Jun 25 '15 at 21:50

I doubt this is to do with a civil war, but instead to do with the voting system. This is Duverger's law. The USA & the UK use a first past the post system, as opposed to a proportional representation system, and under that, the system tends to 2 parties.

The UK is in Europe, has had a civil war (though is irrelevant now), and has a 2 party system (sorta debatable now, since the Lib Dems did well). Ireland, has a PR system, and is quite culturally similar to UK, but nearly always has coalitions & multi parties.

The UK had a referendum recently on whether to change the voting sytem to a proportional representation system and voted no, so there won't be any change there for a while.

The people of the USA have a strong narrative of their country being great for democracy, and haven't really changed any fundamental parts of the voting system (giving blacks the vote was probably the last change). It can be hard for someone to seriously question something that they view as fundamentally good (i.e. maybe the USA voting system isn't the most democratic system there is).

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    The recent UK referendum was actually on changing to alternative vote, which involves ranking candidates based on preference, with your vote transferred to the next candidate should your top remaining preference be excluded. Australia uses a similar system, but with all preferences compulsory. However, other than the first few years after federation, Australia has essentially had a 2 party system (although there is a conservative Coalition, they are always in government or opposition together). I get the feeling that it's PR that gives you multi-party, but anything else gives you 2 party. – lins314159 Nov 3 '11 at 12:21
  • I slightly followed the UK referendum, and "AV isn't a PR system" was a complaint. Proportional Represetation is a subjective term, but Ireland uses essentially AV, but we call it PR (technically Proportional Representation Single Transferable Vote). We just elected our President using the AV system. For our government, we have multi-seat constituances, so it's adjusted for that. AV is a PR voting system. – Rory Nov 3 '11 at 14:07
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    AV is not PR. There is nothing about any preferential system that does anything to ensure proportional representation. You can see that here in Australia, where the Greens get about 13% of the primary vote but 0.6% of the lower house seats because we have single member constituencies. It's the multi-member constituencies that that allow for PR. It's possible to use preferential voting to select each member, which is what happens in the Australian Senate and presumably what happens in Ireland. – lins314159 Nov 3 '11 at 19:59
  • @rory thanks for the interesting duverger's law hint, probably most important factor besides diversity of pol. views in a society. Perhaps this is a case of "chicken or the egg". Was there first a voting systems favoring development of two strong big parties or did a society/elite splitted strongly in their pol. views implement intentionally a voting system favoring strong big parties. May change on case by case. (PS I edited your link html tags dont work here, use CTRL+L) – Hauser Nov 3 '11 at 23:09
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    Australia has a 2.5 party system, based on a regional factional schism amongst the "anti-Labor" parties, the presence for a long time of a large Communist/Left faction in the powerful trade unions, and on white-collar social progressive votes in the Prop Rep house of parliament. The very success of third parties on prop rep, but their failure on preferential single member seats demonstrates yet again Durverger's law. – Samuel Russell Mar 16 '13 at 0:23

The U.S. has a two party system because of winner-take-all elections and the powerful executive branch. There are no run off elections so "third parties" are considered spoilers and can't gain traction.

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    And similar tendencies can be found in UK and France, who also have single-seat constituencies, or as you say "winner-take-all" elections. – Lennart Regebro Nov 3 '11 at 4:50
  • Now you only need to explain why this particular election system was developed - this will be an answer then. Intuitively, I would also say that this has nothing to do with civil wars but I cannot prove it. – Wladimir Palant Nov 3 '11 at 5:53
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    single-seat constituancies aren't the most important. It's the 'first past the post' system that results in the 2 party system – Rory Nov 3 '11 at 11:55
  • The reason the U.S. system developed is probably complicated. First, I don't believe it really had example Democracies to look at, so it developed the system without an understanding that it would lead to a two-party dynamic. Remember, George Washington did not have a political party and didn't believe in them. Also, the U.S. system didn't start as such a direct Democracy. It started with the idea that the voters should literally vote for members of the Electoral College who would vote for the President. The great power of the president just evolved over time as a natural progression. – Joe Nov 3 '11 at 13:09
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    I think all things considered, the "best" kind of Democracy is a parliamentary system with a single transferable vote. But, like I said, the creators of the Constitution didn't have the historical examples to realize that. The U.S. Constitution came to be after the Articles of Confederation failed, and they probably thought they might create another new system in the not too distant future. – Joe Nov 3 '11 at 13:14

I'll answer only for the United States, the country I know best, but the answer is yes. That is, the Civil War shaped the two party system as it exists today.

Prior to the Civil War, there as a "crazy quilt" of parties. A 36 year period from 1824-1860 began with the ruling party as the "Democratic-Republican" Party. The main opposition party morphed from the Federalist party to the Whig Party. A third party, the Free Soil Party, arose with only a handful of Congressional seats, but held the balance of power between the two larger parties, which were initially closely matched. When the Whig Party collapsed, the Democratic-Republican party split into "Democrats" and "Republicans," with the remaining Whigs, and Free Soilers joining the newer "Republican" party. This "confusion" helped bring about the Civil War.

The American Civil War changed all that by dividing the country North and South. It also created a two party system, with the Republicans controlling the more populous northern states, and the Democrats dominant in the South. From 1860-1932, the Republicans dominated Presidential politics. Basically, the only Democrat that had a chance to win during that time was the governor of New York State. That's because if you added the "tri-state" area of New York,the most populous state, (plus New Jersey and Connecticut), to the old Confederacy and border states, they had more electoral votes than the old Union MINUS these. Democrat Grover Cleveland won two (split) Presidential terms this way, and Democrat Samuel Tilden lost by one electoral vote, getting most of the Confederacy PLUS New York, but MINUS Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida. (Democrat Woodrow Wilson (Governor of New Jersey) was initially elected President because of the split of the Republican party between Teddy Roosevelt and W H Taft.) It is noteworthy that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been governor of New York, although he won a bunch of former Union, and newly created western, states, because of the Depression. It was only after FDR that both the Democrats and Republicans realigned, by which time memories of the Civil War had faded.


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