This post will assuredly offend some of my friends. It may well infuriate at least two or three of them. It already KINDA pisses me off, because if I heard it coming from someone else I’d be a little irritated at the tone myself. But in the spirit of this (now revived) blog, it bears writing, so I’m gonna write it. See Entry One for further clarification on my editorial standards.
It shouldn’t come as news to anyone that the United States is in the middle of an absolute shit-show of a Presidential election. Never in my lifetime have we witnessed anything at this level of galactic absurdity. As of this writing, nearly forty percent of the electorate are supporting a reality TV star for the motherfucking Presidency of the United States of America. The opposing candidate, while eminently qualified, is as shady as any member of this country’s political class. But she also has a vagina, and that apparently makes what she does ten times worse than what her male colleagues get away with, like, fifty times a day.
That being said, it is an indisputable fact that, barring extreme and/or dramatic circumstances, ONE of these two individuals will be elected to the Presidency in November. That is a given. Water is wet, the sky is blue, the sun rises in the East, and the American government is a two-party system. Period, point blank, end of story.
Some of you, however, can’t seem to get that through your thick skulls.
Look, I get it. I really do. Ask anyone who’s known me long enough. If we could rewind the timeline a couple of decades and ask young Paris what he thought about having a third party in American politics he’d talk your ear off about it. Thankfully we can’t, because he’d likely say a lot of other things that would embarrass the shit out of current Paris, so we’ll just leave this metaphor where it’s at.
The point is, I well understand the frustrations associated with the two-party system. There’s never a viable candidate that comes close enough to YOUR point of view. Both parties are shot through with corruption on a seemingly insurmountable level. They’re not as far apart politically as everyone seems to think they are, and they’re mostly under the influence of outside interests with deep pockets. The Republicans and Democrats are most distinct only in which economic factions tend to rent them out, with the exception of Wall Street, which lines pockets on both sides. I even understand the appeal of more flippant criticisms. As the great statesmen Jesse “The Body” Ventura once said: “The advantage of a two-party system is that it gives us one more choice than Soviet Russia.”
So third-party voters, I’d first like to say that I understand. All of these are valid points.
But it’s about high-time you got the fuck over them.
Before we get into the uselessness of modern American third parties, it’s worth having a review of how we got to a two-party system in the first place. Third party advocates are quick to point out that there’s nothing in the Constitution about political parties, and that George Washington himself warned against the dangers of such organizations in his farewell address. Both of these are true statements. It’s also true that there’s nothing in the Constitution about capitalism, the forty hour work week, or the Air Force; all things that most of us consider intrinsic to the American system today. Also, George Washington warned us about the dangers of getting involved in other countries’ business as well, which we fucking do all the time now. The point is these ships have sailed. They sailed over two centuries ago. They’ve sailed so hard they’ve had time to circumnavigate the globe, grow into full-blown fleets, and over-fish the ocean.
The two-party system began to form roughly five minutes after the first real presidential campaign started. Washington was essentially worshiped by that first generation of Americans, and for all intents and purposes ran unopposed. Thus was not the case for the next two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The United States first political parties (the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists, respectively) formed around them, and the American two-party system has been all but enshrined ever since. So yes, political parties aren’t outlined in the Constitution, but they’ve been with us for almost as long. Even when a new party arises, it has only done so by replacing an old one that’s falling apart internally. The Republicans, for example, rose into the power vacuum left by the implosion of the Whigs immediately before the Civil War.
So in short, the names change, the positions change, the voting base changes, but the existence of two primary parties that actually hold political power has been a staple of the United States basically for as long as it has been a country. Third parties, where they’ve been able to exist at all, have essentially formed around certain hot-button issues, and dissolved when those issues were either taken up by a major party or simply ceased being something people cared about. Read anything written about the Anti-Masonic Party if you want a good example of this.
This is usually the part where a typical third party advocate will interject with the “corruption” argument. The two parties hold power, they will attest, because of “unconstitutional” ballot-restriction laws in every state, passed by Republicans and Democrats to make sure no one can interfere with their cooperative tyranny over the freedom-loving American people. And while it’s true that certain laws on a state level are probably unnecessarily restrictive to aspiring third parties, most of them are simply serving to prevent fringe movements from wasting everyone’s time (as though the political process weren’t enough of a waste of time already).
The ACTUAL reason for a two-party paradigm in the American system has more to do with structure and mathematics than political corruption. This can best be explained by a principle that poly-sci types call “Duverger’s Law”. The short version of this principle (which even Duverger himself admitted wasn’t absolute in every political system, to be fair) is that a government set up like the United States’ will always give rise to two, and only two, dominant political parties.This is because any smaller grouping would lack the power to actually accomplish anything in a lawmaking body.
To see what that means, consider Congress. Distasteful, I know, but bear with me. For either house of Congress to pass legislation, it must be voted on by a “clear majority”, essentially more yeas than nays. If our one-hundred member Senate, for example, were divided into three roughly-equivalent parties, it would be mathematically impossible for a single party to pass any bills into law. Two of the three parties represented would have to form an alliance on every bill to grab the majority. The end result would be one of two things; either a single party that was disproportionately powerful, swinging its vote back and forth between the other two and basically deciding all by itself what became law, or three parties so ideologically separated from one another that cooperation would be impossible and deadlock insurmountable. If there were more than three parties, the chaos would only increase.
Duverger noted that it’s not just politicians, but voters who understand this. Banding together into systems of duality is basically the only way anyone can be on a winning side. To be certain, the end result are parties whose platforms are so vast and occasionally fickle that’s it’s nearly impossible for the average voter to agree with either of them on every single issue. But without this structure, you wouldn’t be able to vote for a candidate who could, even in theory, get a goddamn thing done.
And it’s not as though people haven’t tried to insert third parties into the modern age. Which brings us, rather amusingly, to one H. Ross Perot:
For those readers too young or stoned to remember the early 1990’s, Perot was a Texas billionaire who very entertainingly funded his own independent presidential campaign, running against George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. He spent millions out-of-pocket on a campaign ground game. He purchased half-hour blocks of prime time television to lay out his economic plans. And if a thirty minute political ad sounds boring to you, then by god young’n you don’t know how batshit-insanely entertaining Ross Perot was.
The guy was charismatic, affable, and basically an endless wellspring of watchable television. The press loved him. His former employees adored him. At one point he jumped out of the race and then back into it, claiming that the Republicans were planning to destroy his daughter’s wedding by accusing her of lesbianism. It was gloriously insane. Not even Bill Clinton playing sax for Arsenio could eat up the media bandwidth this dude mustered.
And the result was palpable. Voter turnout that year was at 55%, a number that wouldn’t be surpassed again until 2004. Excited by the prospect of a viable third party, formerly disenfranchised voters flocked to the polls. Nearly one out of every five of them voted for H. Ross Perot.
And unfortunately, this is where another aspect of Duverger’s Law came into play. Without the traditional inroads into voting populations that the other parties had, and with a campaign primarily driven by television, Perot’s support was simply spread too thin. Neither the GOP nor the Democrats were fractured in any way. The end result was that, even with 19% of the popular vote, H. Ross Perot did not gain a single vote in the Electoral College. There has, to date, never been a better funded, better organized, or more successful third-party bid for President of the United States. And it failed utterly.
“So what?” some of you are probably saying. A third party vote isn’t about winning. It’s about protesting the current system, or voting one’s conscience, or promoting a candidate who can insert an issue into the conversation that the other two candidates are ignoring. And those are all fair points. Myopic, but fair.
The purpose of this post isn’t to admonish you for acting as “spoilers” to the main election. It IS theoretically possible for a third party to draw enough voters away from a main party candidate that it can affect their chances, especially on a state-by-state level. There are some who feel that without Ross Perot in the race, for example, that disaffected Republicans (most of his voters, the reasoning goes) would have cast for Bush Sr, and we’d never have had a President Clinton. Some also point out that if Ralph Nader hadn’t drawn close to a hundred thousand (presumably Democrat) voters in Florida, then Al Gore would have beaten Bush Jr. in 2000.
This, however, is not something that concerns me in this election. For one thing, Hillary Clinton is currently slaughtering Donald Trump at the polls, despite what commercial media (and Trump himself) would like you to believe. For another, even the two examples cited above are questionable, at best. A huge chunk of Perot’s voters were either registered independents, or had never voted in an election in their lives. It’s unclear if they would have shown up to the polls at ALL, let alone voted for Bush. And assigning blame to Ralph Nader for losing Florida is, quite frankly, Democrats whining. Nearly a quarter of a million registered Democrats voted for Bush in Florida that year, so if they want someone to blame, go talk to those people and leave Captain Auto Safety alone.
No, my concern is that you, valued third-party voters, seem to be really passionate about the electoral and political process. And honestly? I’m kinda sad when you decide to vote yourselves out of it. Neither Jill Stein nor Gary Johnson are going to be President of the United States, period. And as troubled as your “conscience” might be voting for Hillary or Trump (and believe me, I get it), your precious little feelings aren’t what the American political system is about.
You want to protest the system? Move to alter the Constitution, and see how many of your fellow Americans would prefer a Parliament. Or take to the streets and protest. Write a blog. Start your own podcast, whatever. You want to insert an issue into the political discussion that wasn’t there before? That’s what primaries are for. Half of Hillary’s talking points wouldn’t be on the table without Bernie Sanders right now. You think anyone in this race is gonna waste airtime discussing Johnson’s ridiculous foreign policy notions, or Stein’s “Mother Earth” environmental policies? Not fucking likely, guys.
If you want a voice in the American political system, it goes through one of two parties. Simple as that. Those parties are as much a part of how we do things as the Supreme Court or the National Guard, and have been ever since Adams and Jefferson’s bromance went through its rocky phase.
Maybe, just maybe, after this embarrassment of a race is over, the Republican Party will remain fractured enough for a third party to rise up and take it’s place. And if that happens, more power to them. But when that process is over, you know what we’re gonna be left with? Two parties.
So in conclusion, I’m sorry that none of the mainstream candidates speak to every little issue you think is important in precisely the right way. But you know what? Every fucking voter in America is in the same situation, especially right now. So how about growing up a little, realizing representative government is a cooperative endeavor, and joining the rest of democracy for once? Maybe if enough of you obnoxiously vocal motherfuckers scream this hard behind a real party’s platform, something might actually start to change.