Even if you have associated with a given party your entire life up until this point, you just may find that your party’s positions no longer completely represent your values. Do you like the Democratic Party because of its social policies but dislike it because of its emphasis on a strong federal government? Do you like the Republican Party because of its fiscal policies but dislike it because of its positions on human rights? You’re not alone, and you have more choices than you have been led to believe. The tricky part is deciding what to do about it.
This will not come as a shock to many of you, but I am a big proponent of third party candidates. In my opinion, the perceived lack of choice when it comes to elected officials is the most troublesome aspect of American politics today. In this post, I will present my reasons why you should consider voting third party this election year. I will not endorse any particular candidate, but I may make passing reference to contrast the platforms of one or more candidates.
The Life Cycle of a Political Party
It does not take an advanced degree in psychology to understand why people form groups of like-minded individuals: to better protect themselves and to combat those with opposing goals. We are social creatures, and left to our own devices, we quickly form factions of others with similar goals. If I need your support to pass some legislation I’m passionate about and you throw me a bone, you would expect that I would return the favor, and so on.
To gain more support of the populace, the group attempts to absorb those with similar positions through compromise or through scaring them into a more centrist view. Whether by appealing to intellectual common ground or resorting to fear tactics, the group becomes more homogenous and simultaneously more centrist. When dissent arises within it, it smoothes out the rough edges and keeps its rank and file in line as best it can to preserve its power. It usually takes a catastrophic political event, such as a civil war, prolonged depression, or the departure of key figures for a political party to die outright. More often, it slowly evolves to suit the popular opinion of its constituents.
During a major election, political parties will understandably highlight and exaggerate their differences in order to gain more support. Once the election is over and the party has your vote, it will usually revert to a more moderate view. And even if it does in fact work tirelessly to fulfill its often impossibly optimistic campaign promises, opposing factions will counteract their efforts, and the result will once again will be only mild, if any, change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s how the system was meant to work so that the government in theory represents the center of popular opinion.
The Lineage of Political Parties
It’s important to understand the history of political parties in the United States. While our first president ran under no party and did not associate himself with one while in office, the two party system has dominated American politics ever since. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, and the founding fathers emphasized coming together for the common good over the divisiveness of conflicting factions in their writings. To be fair, though, that emphasis makes complete sense in the context mobilizing the colonists to revolt against the British and keeping the union intact during its fledgling years. Once we were firmly established as a nation and were less pre-occupied with whether to self-govern, attention turned to how to self-govern, and partisan politics naturally took hold.
It’s also important to note that while there are always universal themes, specific national policy issues vary as time goes by. The specifics of each party’s platform is dictated by the needs and popular opinion of its time period. The lineage of present-day dominant parties varies depends on which theme one uses to trace it. For example, if one were to trace the lineage of the Democratic Party solely based on its emphasis on a larger central government over the relative sovereignty of individual states in the union, it would go something like this: Federalist Party -> Whig Party -> Republican Party -> Democratic Party. I am not an expert in American history by any stretch, and the point here is not to get into a protracted debate about this or any other party lineage.
Rather, the point is that a party’s lineage is complicated and varies depending on what particular themes you are primarily concerned with. The main reason I wish to point this out is to combat the tendency of major parties to try to claim direct lineage from a given past political party or figure that for one reason or another holds nostalgic value. For example, the modern Republic Party is not the same party that “freed the slaves” under Abraham Lincoln, and to disagree is to simply ignore facts in favor of meaningless semantics. The meaning of the word “Republican,” or any other party designation for that matter, changes as the positions of its members change throughout history. Whereas “Republicans” of the civil war era were intent on preserving the union at the expense of states rights, “Republicans” of modern times are generally in favor of minimizing the role of the federal government. It is little more than cheap manipulation when a candidate invokes the name of a past political figure or party to claim his/her ideological lineage. Don’t fall for it. The comparison may be correct in a certain sense, but may also be flat wrong in other ways.
We are living in a different time than when Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton were in charge, and our situation presents `unique problems. Nonetheless, a working knowledge of how policy decisions of past administrations have played out is very important in instructing the way we move forward. So even though we should be careful not to associate our current situation too strongly with any point in the past, I still advocate looking to the past for guidance.
The Electoral College is Dumb
The Electoral College is, frankly, an aberration of democracy. States designate a number of ‘electors’ in proportion to their Congressional appointments. The ‘electors’ then cast their vote for the candidate who they feel best represents the votes of their constituents. The vast majority of states use a ‘winner take all’ system, meaning that all the ‘voting credit’ goes to the candidate who received the majority votes, and any minority candidate gets zero.
For example, let’s say the popular vote in Texas is 70% Republican, 25% Democrat, and 5% Libertarian. Whoops, Texas is just going to be a ‘red’ state, and all the electoral votes will be cast for the Republican candidate. To more clearly illustrate the problem, let’s assume there’s a third party with 49% of the popular vote in the nation. But let’s say that in each state in which it’s on the ballot, it loses out by 1% to the Republican Party or Democratic Party. Let’s say that state #1 votes 51% Republican and 49% 3rd party X. Let’s also say that state #2 votes 51% Democrat and 49% 3rd party X. Under our current system, all the electoral votes for state #1 go to the Republicans, and all the electoral votes for state #2 go to the Democrats. The third party gets zero electoral votes even though it won more of the overall popular vote than either of the other two parties by a landslide.
So why did we devise this system? I’m not really qualified to answer that question in detail, so I won’t. You can weigh for yourself the pros and cons of this system; for the purpose of my argument, the point is that it gives disproportionate power to majority parties, which to my knowledge is not really a matter of dispute. In my opinion, any positive effects it may have are overshadowed by the damage it does by ignoring cumulative popular vote, thereby silencing voices that should be heard.
Robama (or is that Obomney?)
Objectively, the Republican Party and Democratic Party are remarkably similar. The minor differences that do exist are often exaggerated by the proponents of each party in order to energize their base and preserve their power. But take a step back and look at the broad policies at work rather than the details of their implementation, and you will see plainly that there really is no radical difference between the way Republicans vs. Democrats will run the nation. If you watched the presidential debates, this should not have escaped your notice. The two candidates agreed on a lot and exaggerated minor differences.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that we should continue to engage in military interventionism abroad. Democrats want to cut some of the funding, but in reality their proposed cuts are nothing drastic. Having 600+ military bases in countries outside the United States, continuing operations to ferret out and kill terrorists, and habitually intervening with force and/or logistical support abroad all cost some serious coin. While Obama’s plan is to withdraw more troops more quickly and cut a little bit of funding, both he and Romney agree that the United States should remain the world’s police officer. Obama did not immediately withdraw troops from Afghanistan or Iraq when he took office. In fact, Obama has expanded the role of drones to eliminate targets, often at a high civilian casualty cost. He continued the ‘war on terror.’ So whether you vote for him or Romney, buckle up for more interventionist foreign policy.
Even though Republicans talk a good game about cutting federal spending, their cuts are not as drastic as they make them out to be. Romney may talk about cutting entitlement spending, but there will still be plenty to go around whether or not he gets elected. He wouldn’t dare cut too many entitlements from those he wishes to woo into voting for him. Likewise, even though some Republicans opposed the bailouts of large banks and corporations, on the whole they are in favor of spending money to prop up corporations through federal programs or tax loopholes. Both parties will also perpetuate the ‘war on drugs,’ which takes a tremendous toll on the penal system, the federal budget, and human lives.
Very few politicians are really going to do anything drastic if it makes them look bad for any reason. Very few people have the cahones to do what needs to be done if it means being unpopular in the short term. And there’s pretty much no way anyone that proposes anything radically different from the present status quo is going to get elected. Oh, you thought I was going to try to convince you not to vote for a major party candidate? Wait for it, I’m getting there.
Okay, So Why Vote for a Third Party Candidate?
America has had two major parties for most of its existence, but there have been some alarming recent developments to this paradigm that prevent third party candidates from influencing presidential elections.
In 1987, Republicans and Democrats jointly formed the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a non-profit organization that has been deciding who will be invited to presidential debates since 1988. The CPD is currently headed by a former head of the Republican National Committee and Bill Clinton’s former press secretary. I’m sure you’re beginning to get the gist of what has happened. The CPD made it a rule that to qualify for a presidential debate, the candidate must receive 15% or more support on 5 or more national polls. Due to this requirement, even presidential candidates that appear on enough state ballots to theoretically win the election are excluded from the nationally televised presidential debates.
It’s no secret that money wins elections. It’s really not much different now than it always has been in that regard. But when the majority exerts its money and power to prevent minority voices from even being heard, we are the worse for it. Our choices have been artificially constrained. While I would like to believe that the best candidate will simply win the day, this is far too naïve. It’s largely a matter of marketing, really. If your product isn’t out there for people to discover, it won’t gain any mind share no matter how good it is. I don’t care if Adidas shoes are 20 times better than Nike and Reebok shoes combined. If stores refuse to sell them, and television networks refuse to air their commercials, hardly anyone will ever buy them. If we do not hear the positions of third party candidates, we will not vote for them. That is what the majority parties want, and we need to recognize how damaging the joint stranglehold that they have on our country is.
If you like the platform of a major candidate more than any other candidate, I do not necessarily want to dissuade you from voting according to your own conscience. But if you’re like most Americans today, you are disgusted with both major parties right now. You think that partisan brinksmanship has gotten so bad that Washington is more like a cliquish high school than a model of democracy for the rest of the world. You don’t agree with either party completely, so you choose the party closer to your values because then at least the ‘other guy’ doesn’t get to be president. You aren’t aware of another candidate that you can really get behind, or if you are aware of one, you’re too afraid to ‘waste your vote’ on him/her. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? If you vote for a third party, you’re just giving one less vote to the major party you most closely identify with, thereby strengthening the other major party. I’m going to vote third party anyway. Here’s why:
This election, and any other election for that matter, is not just some game that I must win at all costs and then walk away from. I have to live with the consequences of my decision not just for the next four years, but beyond that too. Every vote for a major party that does not closely align with my values is a vote to perpetuate its power and further drown out the voice of other candidates that more accurately reflect my opinions. I’m choosing to take the longer view. No, my candidate will not win this election, and yes, that will give more support to the major party candidate I like less relative to the major party candidate I like slightly more. Nonetheless, my vote and the vote of likeminded individuals will be an influence for change. The more that people vote for their conscience rather than just to win, the more that others will realize that there are more than just two parties to choose from. Voting third party also sends a message to the major parties that you believe that their power hungry behavior and partisan brinksmanship is not in the best interests of our country. I would much rather vote for the right candidate and lose than compromise my values just to win.
The fact that a vote for a third party candidate splits the vote between the third party and the major party it most closely aligns with is in my opinion a good thing. Splitting the vote may mean that the greater of two evils prevails in the short term, but in the long term, it will usher in 3 positive results: First, it keeps the major party in check and lets it know that the third party’s constituents can be ignored only at its own peril. Second, it creates more awareness of the issues that the third parties champion. Third, it takes the country more in the direction of the major party’s opponent, which will only serve to disillusion and alienate its base. This in turn will likely force the pendulum to swing the other direction in future elections as the choice of candidates will be even more stark. In any event, the third party will gain momentum in a number of ways. Tactically, we need to take the longer view and not be so short-sighted in our eagerness for our ‘team’ to win the immediate contest. Win the war, not just the battle. We need to be prepared for things to get worse before they can get better.
There is a false dilemma in our country that is perpetuated each election cycle that you must choose a Republican or Democrat for the office of the presidency. Fear of wasting your vote on anyone else is a self-fulfilling prophecy; that is, the more people that feel this way, the more it is true. Are we so devoid of moral fiber that we subscribe to such a fatalistic view? Just because we can’t achieve an ideal quickly doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying. There are a good many things worth pursuing in this life even if they cannot be attained or cannot be attained expediently. Should a better government be any different? It’s like we’re all standing in a line behind the two major parties marching toward a place we don’t want to go, and I say to you: “I don’t like where these guys are leading us. Let’s get out of here.” And then you say, “I agree. I’ll leave if you leave.” Neither of us wants to go without the other, because if you go and nobody else does, your choice won’t amount to anything. And so nothing changes because neither of us will make the first move.
Well I’m going to stick my neck out on this one. If you want 4 more years of the same (Obama) or 4 more years of almost the same (Romney), stay in line. If you want something different, let’s find something else. We may not end up finding the same thing, but that’s alright. Our candidate(s) won’t win this election cycle, and that’s alright too. I’m willing to take that hit if it means things will get better later. And trust me, if enough people choose to put an end to this myth that not voting for a major party is a waste, things will surely change. It won’t happen overnight, but change will happen. If you like where we’re headed, then by all means, continue voting as you have. I am not trying to dissuade you from voting for your favorite candidate. Just the opposite: I’m trying to encourage you to vote your conscience no matter how unpopular you think your opinion is. On the count of November 6th, we jump … together!