What does it mean to be a Republican or Democrat in 2020? What did it mean in 2016, or in 2012? How has the meaning changed between the last three presidential elections?
Debate over the two party system in the United States has been occurring for some time and especially more so now as the characteristics of both parties continue to rapidly change and evolve in the opposite directions of each other. I believe that the American two-party system will lose popularity and legitimacy as time progresses due to the lack of effectiveness from gatekeeping within parties, extreme polarization between the two parties, and lastly because of the intensification of populism.
Gatekeeping is a political party’s responsibility to keep out authoritarians or extremist leaders; political parties are the quote on quote gatekeepers of democracy. Keeping out extremist leaders was the most significant importance of having parties because they can check these leaders before they appear on the ballot or engage with citizens. A successful example of gatekeeping was the Swedish Conservative Party (AVF) during the 1930’s, leading up to World War II. The AVF had a youth group, named the Swedish Nationalist Youth Organization . The Swedish Nationalist Youth Organization condemned parliamentary democracy, supported Hitler, and even assembled a group of uniformed storm troopers. The AVF reacted by dissociating and removing the organization .
However, with the introduction of media and technology, gatekeeping is no longer as successful as it once was for parties. Technology removes the barriers for extremist candidates to reach citizens because in this day and age, everyone is constantly digesting media through their technological devices. Although a meme, President Donald Trump was able to engage with his voters and build his platform through Twitter. The Five Star Party, which currently holds the most seats in the Italian Parliament, also arose from the internet. Technology has successfully infiltrated the effectiveness of gatekeeping for parties. The deterioration of the two-party system is only going to be aggravated more since media and technology use will only increase in future elections.
The next determinant towards two-party deterioration is the extreme polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties. In the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many people voted for Trump even if they did not believe in his platform due to partisan interests. Candidate platform polarization is incredibly damaging to democracy because people put aside their own views in order to vote in accordance with their party . Trump may have not been representative of the Republican party and would likely bring an irresponsible, negative connotation to the party, yet people were willing to concede that fact in order to go red.
In the recent 2020 election, we saw the effects of likely some of the greatest party polarization in American history. President elect Joe Biden gained over 74 million votes, defeating President Donald Trump who received over 70 million votes. Biden gained the most votes in American history and Trump gained the second most votes in American history. This high turnout was a result of extreme polarization between the parties because polarization raises the stakes of elections and causes people to make a decision between partisan interest or democracy . Polarization is detrimental to the two-party system because if gatekeeping is no longer a check for democracy, then polarization can exacerbate democratic erosion and two-party erosion due to extremist candidates being able to run for office with polarizing platforms. The current polarization of the two-party system will only get more polarized as extremist candidates with even more polarizing platforms run for office, thus foreshadowing the two-party system’s imminent demise.
The last factor that hinders the two-party system is the intensification of right wing populism that has arisen with the Trump presidency. Populism happened to cling onto the right side of the two hyperpolarized political parties due to Trump’s efforts to pit the commoners against the media and political elites . Trump’s charismatic populism especially resonated with communities consisting of racial and economic inequalities along with cultural cleavages . Charismatic populism has contributed to partisan degradation, which was seen in an almost complete red wave control of the US in all branches of government combined with Republicans often placing partisan concerns over national issues . Populism is essentially a catalyst to speeding up the process of two-party system degradation, that specifically arose most prominently with the Trump presidency. With President elect Joe Biden, the fate of populism and its effect on the two-party system now remains uncertain.
In sum, the degradation of the two-party system has been assisted with media and technology undermining gatekeeping, polarization between the two parties, and populism in the Trump era. It will be interesting to see how the process could slow down or unexpectedly speed up with a new presidency over the next four years.
Citations Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. , 2018. Print.  Graham, Matthew and Svolik, Milan, Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States https://ssrn.com/abstract=3354559 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3354559  Robert Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics 2018, pp. 1-20  Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. The University of Chicago Press, 2020.