Steak or fish. A or B. Black or White. American politics is somewhat limiting and constrained. Our political system has been built for stability, not for passions of the moment. From our constitution to our election laws, the idea is to eventually get to something almost like a consensus. Having two parties to choose from increases the likelihood of that.
But really though, what are our political parties? Political parties, in the official sense, are the committee people who make them up. In most cases, you elect your county party committee at the precinct level, and your state committee people at a county level, or some other higher political division level. The DNC and RNC members are chosen by state party and elected leaders. In an official sense, both parties are people chosen directly and indirectly by the voters. In reality, parties are a lot more.
In the case of both parties, there are two other groups with very direct power and oversight in the parties- elected officials and major donors. Elected officials are elected directly by the public, get to set policies that usually end up as party policy, and most importantly get to hand out appointments and jobs- all the stuff the party faithful care about. Major donors have a ton of influence, because elections cost money. As long as TV, mail, internet ads, canvass programs, offices, and staff cost money, donors will exist. Candidates who can’t raise any money, and parties for that matter, can’t tell anyone why they’re great and deserve your votes. Both of these groups have a ton of sway over political parties, and how they’re going to operate.
The thing about all three of these groups though is that they combine to make up less than 1% of both our 320 million plus population, and our 135 million actually active voters. In other words, they can’t make our political system run on their own. In fact, they can’t even run the political parties on their own. They’re all indispensable, and yet entirely inadequate to drive our politics in 2019.
The great divergence of the two political parties occurs at this point- who the base, or activists are. For the Republicans, they are an alliance of groups- big businesses, military hawks, Christian conservatives, and other traditionalist groups (generally white and male)- who generally share an ideological view. For the Democrats, they are a coalition of groups who often don’t completely share ideological positions- African-Americans, leftists, feminists, labor, Latinos, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, the LGBT community, and many other change related groups. All members of the Republican alliance are conservatives, or part of the right, usually. Not every group in the Democratic coalition is part of “the left” though, at least in the eyes of the others. Member groups of the Republican alliance can move further right without fear of alienating the other partners, in part because they all agree generally in their world view, and in part because they all oppose the direction of Democrats, pretty much at their core. When some groups within the Democratic coalition move right or left, they draw the ire of other partners.
Obviously this doesn’t cover every voter in both parties, which speaks to the general dislike of politics that many people feel. Many voters end up picking the lesser of the two evils because they’re not very ideological themselves, or they don’t fit perfectly in any of these boxes, or they dislike one or two groups on their side. In normal elections, these voters end up as swing voters, up for grabs to the candidate willing to come get them. In recent elections, particularly 2016, these voters end up pressed into “their” corner- happy about it or not.
Our two party system leaves a lot to be desired in recent times, but it’s also the greatest tool for stability this country has seen. Ironically, displeasure for the increasingly polarized positions of the two parties may end up changing that in the near time. Even if the parties end up going the way of the Whigs though, we have a system that is built to accommodate two.