Two-Party & Multi-Party Systems: Similarities & Differences

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

Governments often have two-party or multi-party systems, with each group possessing distinct ideologies and legislative policies. Examine the similarities and differences in governments with two-party systems compared to those with multi-party systems. Updated: 10/06/2021

Two-Party vs. Multi-Party Systems

If you own a smartphone, you no doubt realize how many brands and models now exist. However, this wasn't always the case. Historically, when smartphones were first invented, there were only two major models. While the original two models are still the dominant brands on the market, the influx of other competitors with similar products has made buying a smartphone a daunting task.

In general, having all that choice is a good thing, but after a while, all the models start to blur together and it becomes too much to distinguish between all of them. This comparison is very similar to the two-party political system of the United States and the multi-party systems of countries such as India, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

The two-party system is a deeply rooted feature of the American government. In most two-party elections, the contest is between two candidates of two major political parties. In the United States, they are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Multi-party systems, on the other hand, are set up to allow multiple political parties to have the opportunity to gain control of the government separately or in coalition.

Multi-party systems have many variants, and some end up looking more like the United States' two-party system where only one or two parties really have all the power. The more prevalent form of a multi-party system is one that relies on proportional representation, where the legislative seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the percentage of votes they win in elections. Nevertheless, both the two-party and multi-party systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

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Advantages of a Two-Party System

I'm sure you can agree that having choice is a good thing. Furthermore, having to only choose between two things is simple and, for most, less stressful, like just having to pick between chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

The same can be said about the United States' two-party system. Voters can most often expect to choose between either a Democratic or Republican candidate. Furthermore, it is thought that two parties tend to be more stable because the system encourages more moderate views that appeal to wide selections of the electorate.

Keep in mind the number one goal of a political party is to get elected and control the government, and the more people that vote for you the better chance you have at that happening. This encourages having a moderate viewpoint that appeals to a wide number of people. Some even argue that stability in a two-party system comes in the form of having a more efficient government because there is a smaller likelihood that there will be disagreement and fracture. In other words, it's easier to get two people to agree on something than a whole group of people.

Disadvantages of a Two-Party System

Sometimes, though, we want more than two choices. Sometimes choosing between chocolate ice cream and vanilla is not enough. Sometimes we have a craving for strawberry instead.

Unfortunately, in a two-party system, that third choice is very rarely a viable option. Thus, one of the disadvantages of a two-party system is the lack of choice. While choosing between ice creams may be fairly insignificant in the greater scheme of life, choosing people who will make some very big decisions on laws that will affect you is much more important. Therefore, many people would like to have more choice than just two major parties.

Some also argue that significant change in some areas of society is hindered because the majority view always overrules the voices of the minority. This can also lead to voter apathy because a person may see their differing view as not mattering if they always feel outnumbered. Fewer choices can also lead to polarization within the government. We said earlier that having only two parties created a smaller likelihood that there would be disagreement and fracture within a government simply because the probability of disagreement between two people is less likely than disagreement between many people.

But this also means that two-party systems can be quite polarizing. Often, inter-party compromise doesn't happen once a majority party takes control of a government. Instead, we see a rise in partisanship, or bias in favor of a particular party. Any time a new party takes majority control, they tend to reverse the policies of the previous government when voted into power, and this does not benefit the state in the long run.

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