Why we need to hold our two major parties to a higher standard than the “lesser of two evils”
George Washington famously warned against the danger of the Union devolving into a two-party duopoly in his farewell address . Now, 224 years later, many of the fears of Washington and the Framers have become reality. The two major party establishments have been largely successful in creating a perception that votes are wasted if the candidate they are for will not win the election. In this post, I will argue that the two major parties use this claim to intimidate the would-be independent vote into supporting major party candidates, suppress voter turnout (whether intentional or not), and consolidate their own power.
Here’s my tldr. Independent votes are not wasted if:
a) abstaining from voting for one of the two major parties creates an incentive for them to adopt some of the positions of the third party
b) the votes show the rest of the country that there is enough latent support for third-party candidates to challenge the perception that a third-party candidate will never win (this effect could cascade over time, especially since belief in the possibility of victory begets more votes)
c) minor parties reach the thresholds needed for funding, media coverage, inclusion in debates, etc.
The third point may require a bit of clarification. Current FEC rules are set up so that minor parties that receive five percent of the vote in presidential general elections are eligible for grants that are worth a significant amount of money—an amount that increases based on how much of the popular vote they win, up to twenty-five percent . We will discuss the 2000 CPD decision to establish a fifteen percent threshold for inclusion in presidential debates later.
This post will be divided into three sections. First we will discuss why the two-party system is undemocratic. Then we will discuss the historical success of third-party campaigns at realizing their agenda. Finally, I will give my assessment of the reforms that are needed in order to end the duopoly on American politics.
The Yoke of Duopoly
The Democratic establishment is guilty of not answering to its base. Just Monday, the DNC platform committee voted down Medicare for All and marijuana legalization: two issues that have popular support among the Democratic base. For reference, an estimated 88 percent of Democratic voters support MFA (not to mention 68 percent of Independents), and yet only 22 percent of the platform committee voted for it . Meanwhile, 78 percent of Democratic voters (and 78 percent of Independents) support legalizing Marijuana . Around 31 percent of the platform committee voted to include legalized marijuana in the platform .
How can the DNC get away with it? Maybe it is because many of their supporters only hold them to the lax moral standard of being “the lesser of two evils” for fear that voting for a minor party is a “wasted vote”. To these voters, it doesn’t matter if the Democrats are out of touch with their own base, centrists, and the majority of the country. It only matters that they are not the opposition. As we shall soon see, making the “wasted vote” argument could make you look ignorant of history.
Pinning our hopes on the Right (or at least on Donald Trump) seems equally naive. This is a man who has obstructed justice, and who on Thursday suggested postponing the election amid concerns that he is polling significantly behind Joe Biden. To me, those do not sound like the actions of someone who would support decentralizing the power of his own party.
Historical Success of Third-Party Campaigns
It is hard to argue that recent independent votes have been wasted, most notably because they have succeeded in a), i.e. causing the major parties to adopt new policies in order to appeal to the bases of independent voters.
Ross Perot ran in 1992 and won about nineteen percent of the vote: way more than enough to be the deciding factor in the election. (It’s worth noting that this election, which had a compelling independent candidate, had the greatest turnout in history at the time, and that the record stood for another 12 years until a wave of post-9/11 patriotism inspired larger numbers of Americans to do what is arguably their civic duty).
Also of note is that 35 percent of voters in 1992 said in exit polls that they would have voted for Perot if they thought he had a chance at winning . This suggests that Perot could have won the election if the polls had more accurately reflected the size of his base. More fundamentally, it shows that the “wasted vote” mindset is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Perot’s popularity with the voters (particularly with those who would otherwise be Republicans) forced the RNC to adopt some of the policies that his supporters mobilized in favor of. The 1994 “Contract with America” marked a pivot in the Republican agenda. They promised to champion many of Perot’s signature issues (e.g. balancing the federal budget, tax cuts, and welfare reform). Shortly after this shift in policy, the Republicans won big in the midterms. This suggests a successful absorption of Perot’s platform, and it should not be lost on us that he was essentially a co-victor in these midterms.
It is also possible to trace the influence of Ralph Nader on the left—specifically the environment. Sure, Al Gore was already known as the poster boy for the environment by the time he ran in 2000, but Nader took that zeal a step further and advanced the narrative that Gore wasn’t all he claimed to be when it came to the environment, saying that “The best case Al Gore has made for being an environmentalist in the campaign is that he is not George W. Bush.”
In particular, he slammed Gore for not including environmental protections on international trade agreements, something that is now a much more mainstream position embraced by Democrats.
Nader denies being a “spoiler” for the Democrats. To assess the truth of this, one would need to know how the votes would’ve swung had he not run. This is, of course, not knowable, but an exit poll by the Voter News Service suggests that about 45 percent of Nader supporters would’ve voted for Gore, 27 percent would’ve voted for Bush, and the remaining 28 percent would not have voted .
I bring up this exit poll for two reasons: first, it suggests that the presence of third-party candidates on the ballot increases voter turnout. Second, if we extrapolate these rates to all the swing states, we find that Gore would’ve won enough would-be Nader supporters to secure Florida and New Hampshire, thereby winning the general if Bush and Gore were the only candidates on the ticket .
We have had a candidate who may have decided the election as recently as last election. Gary Johnson’s base was also more than large enough to swing the 2016 presidential election. If just 40% of Independent voters (most of which were Johnson supporters) had voted for the unsuccessful Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, we would have a (drastically) different president.
The actual 2016 electoral college results (left) versus the results if 40% of Independents had voted for the losing Democrats (right)
We’ve established that independent voters are a cohort large enough to swing elections, and that just a fraction of that cohort would have been more than enough to swing the election as recently as 2016. So why is this highly consequential base of voters not represented on the debate stage? (Hint: You won’t have to read far ahead for the answer).
In 1987, the Democrats and Republicans formed a coalition to assume sponsorship of the debates. At the time, they were unequivocal that third-party candidates would not be included . However, Ross Perot’s popularity in 1992 forced them to include him in the debates that year. (As we know, he went on to win 19% of the vote).
In 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates (yes, the same one that is sponsored by Republicans and Democrats) enacted a requirement that a candidate must be polling at a minimum of 15 percent in order to qualify for the nationally-televised debates. Since this requirement was enacted, no third-party candidate has qualified for the debates. Even Bernie Sanders admitted that the requirement was “probably too high” .
Alternative voting systems
It seems to me a multi-party system would be an improvement. If the goal is to create a system where any idea with grassroots support has a chance and in which the diverse opinions of constituents are fairly represented, a multi-party system seems to be the natural goal. The problem with majoritarian, winner-take-all, geography-based voting is that it under-represents minorities that are not geographic, whether that minority be racial, economic, or idealogical.
Multi-party systems exist in many foreign countries, and they usually go hand-in-hand with something like a runoff voting system, proportional representation, or some form of ranked-choice voting combined with one or more of the above systems. Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, India, and the UK are examples of worthwhile case studies. (Although you can pick any of the European countries that are often used by Democrats as models of what the U.S. should be out of a hat).
Bernie did endorse ranked-choice voting, which would have taken power away from the Democratic establishment. However in 2016, it felt as if it didn’t matter how many caucuses and primaries Bernie won because the superdelegates would shut him down. Sure, they weren’t necessary to defeat him in the end, but the vote was close enough that the perception of his chances may have been the difference. We’ve already documented how the wasted-vote mindset was a self-fulfilling prophecy in the case of Ross Perot, and it is possible that this was the case with Bernie in 2016 as well.
In 2020 the DNC ran a coordinated campaign of endorsements to shut Bernie down. This came after making largely symbolic changes to the same primary process that came under criticism in 2016. Indeed, in 2020 superdelegates still would have had the power to vote however they choose and were not required to vote based on how their constituencies had voted as they are in the RNC.
As long as the Democratic establishment is able to control the primary process to the degree that they have in past presidential elections, it seems that a democracy reform candidate is unlikely to come from the left. This would require a candidate to win the support of the establishment on a platform of redistributing power away from that same establishment.
Sure, Biden has talked about democracy reform, but the fact that he has omitted ranked-choice or other alternative voting systems in his platform could be evidence that he’s in bed with the DNC leadership.
Decentralizing the balance of political power is something I am surprised hasn’t been a greater focus of independents. To me the duopoly seems like the greatest barrier keeping them from winning seats. What’s more, polling suggests that there is grassroots support for general democracy reform . And ranked-choice voting is gaining momentum .
Opponents of ranked-choice argue that it will decrease voter turnout, and that it would not result in the victory of an independent candidate in a presidential election (at least not in the short term).
I think the former argument comes from a belief that voters are intimidated by a larger number of candidates to select from. However, it is worth noting that this claim does not explain the comparatively higher voter turnout in many European multi-party systems that have different voting systems than the U.S.
The latter argument ignores points a), b), and c) discussed the beginning of this article, as well as the prospects of independent candidates in non-presidential elections.
In conclusion, how you vote is your decision (although, unless this post becomes way more popular than I expect, who the president will be is not). If you are in a swing state and you just want to minimize the probability of the opposition taking or retaining control of the Oval Office, by all means.
But eventually, we will need to hold the major parties accountable—hold them to a higher standard than simply being “the lesser of two evils”. We need a candidate who is not subservient to the either of the party establishments that will run on a platform of democracy reform. They don’t even necessarily need to be from a third party to dismantle the duopoly (although they would likely need to fight their own party leadership to secure the nomination).
We need candidates who will marshal the large number of inter-partisan Americans who support ending the duopoly on American politics.
Lastly, much of the inspiration for not only this article, but also for my entire blog has come from my friend and mentor Nicholas Dwork. Nick has his own blog that is worth checking out: https://ndworkblog.wordpress.com/.