This has been a hell of an election cycle, hasn’t it? We’ve got an outsider(read: utterly inexperienced and temperamentally unsuited), racist, sexist ‘conservative’ who loves the idea of building giant government programs and eliminating civil liberties, and a corporate-owned machine ‘liberal’ with a war-hawk record who loves the idea of building giant government programs and eliminating civil liberties. Well, there’s nothing to do about it, right? If you don’t vote for the bad one, the worse one might win!
Well no, actually, that couldn’t be more wrong…
A trick of the math
The reason we have such poor choices in the first place is the fact that Americans have been using that same short-sighted, tactical thinking for the last forty years. It’s not really surprising. Due to the plurality/winner-takes-all voting system we use, the math shows that over time, our system will tend to move toward a stable, two party system, which is exactly what it has done. There have been several arrangements over the last two and a half centuries, but for the last 150 years, those two parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. The thing is, that “stable” system inherently under-represents the actual will of the people, because there are vastly more than two positions on every issue. It can be mitigated by active participation in the political process by those who disagree with the two parties, and there are voting systems, like range voting and ranked-choice voting, that would eliminate this effect, but there are entrenched interests who would not benefit from those improvements…
The entrenched interests
Of course, once two parties have edged out all the other options, they work together to retain that advantage, so they can split up the entire political and financial pie without worry of anyone upsetting their nice, cozy arrangement with each other or with the corporations who fund them. While publicly they represent each other as the enemy, in private, they are best buds. This is why, no matter which one is elected president in any given election, no matter who “controls” Congress, we virtually always end up with the same results, constantly growing government, constantly decreasing personal freedom, constant war, constantly growing influence for corporations and other moneyed interests, all at the expense of the citizenry.
Sure, you see a few superficial differences on the social policy front, playing to voting bases. The Republicans land a “Defense of Marriage Act” with much social-conservative fanfare, making life much harder for married gay couples, and then its worst parts almost immediately get thrown out by the courts. The Democrats get through “socialized” medicine, and (surprise!), it actually involves forcing citizens under the threat of financial penalty to buy health insurance from a collection of corporations who conveniently donate millions to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans. Ultimately, however, these are window dressing. They rarely fulfill what they were sold to do by one side or the other, and ignore the big issues, where despite opposing rhetoric, they always follow mostly the same policies. The two major parties have formed a duopoly that has a stranglehold on our democracy.
Tactics versus strategy
They really can’t lose, though. In the media, they fight like cats and dogs, portraying each others’ candidates as apocalyptic harbingers of doom. They breed fear in the public, selling the idea that each is the only possible salvation from the other. They manipulate us into thinking tactically (“What’s the best of these two bad options right now”) rather than strategically (“What’s the best choice for our nation in the long run”). We see article after article in the media telling us that we must vote to defeat the evil one, even if we are certain the less evil one does not represent our interests well. In the rare years there are other practical options available, they say things like, “Voting minor party is a vote for Trump/Clinton”, “Voting minor party is nothing but white, male privilege“, “Vote like it matters, because voting minor party is throwing away your vote“, or “Minor Parties should focus on lesser elections, where they have a chance”.
Of course, everything about those arguments is intellectually bankrupt:
- Voting for one candidate is NOT voting for another candidate, by definition. There are two subtle lies in this argument. The first lie is the assumption that lost votes for the “less evil” constitute extra votes for the “more evil” candidate. Obviously, this one is wrong mathematically (since vote totals for one candidate are not a part of the vote totals for another) and practically, because of the next point. The second lie is the assumption that everyone voting for a minor party candidate would otherwise have voted for the “less evil” candidate, which is provably false. Most minor party votes come from people not registered as Democrat or Republican (a larger group of US voters than either Democrats or Republicans, FYI), and history shows they tend to break about evenly between the two major parties when no viable minor party candidates are available.
- “White, male privilege” may insulate some from the effects of “the evil one”, but facts are facts, and no one is benefited by the duopoly in the long run but the duopoly and their funders. This is, of course, based on the same “voting for X is a vote for Y” fallacy, but even granted that fallacy, consider: There is no question that minorities would fare somewhat worse under a Trump administration than a Clinton administration, but by how much, and for how long would those differences last? Leaving the two parties in power means you’ll be facing this same risk again and again, forever. Things will never get better if you don’t ever act to make them so. Isn’t it worth a little risk now to move toward an eventual better system?
- The vast majority of US voters live in states where statistically, no individual vote can affect the outcome, as one of the two major parties always wins. There are only about ten states where there is ever really a contest between Democratic or Republican winners, and those ten states only represent about 25% of our population. The other 75% of us will get what we’ve always got, regardless of how we vote. Ironically, despite the exhortations of these pundits, for most of us, the wasted vote is one cast for a major party candidate! The minor parties benefit from votes cast even if they don’t win, while the major parties don’t…
- Minor parties do focus on “lesser”elections. In fact, there are more minor party candidates running in this election cycle than in the last ten decades. The problem is that those minor party candidates have to get on a ballot, and in most states, that doesn’t happen automatically unless they do well in the presidential election (more on that in the next point).
There are more important things than winning in the short term!
- Ballot Access – Minor parties have to spend millions every election cycle petitioning for their candidates to even be on the ballot, so they have no funds for actual campaigning. In most states, if they get even 5% of the presidential vote, they can stay on the ballot automatically next time. This frees up massive amounts of resources for actually winning the next time around. In addition, they qualify for matching federal funds, and become eligible to use “SuperPACs”.
- Visibility – In races where minor parties make a good showing in the presidential race, their candidates for lesser offices at the federal, state, and local levels benefit from a huge advertising multiplication. This has already been seen, in the current cycle, for both the Libertarian and Green parties.
- Sending a message – Whoever gets elected won’t be there long, but sending a message that whoever is currently proposed by the Republicans/Democrats is utterly unacceptable has long term effects. If nothing else, it raises the visibility of the minor parties in the public consciousness, and gives you the peace of mind of not having voted for the “lesser evil”, who you still despise.
- Spoiling is a good thing, in the long run – Most times, minor party candidates do not split votes. They usually take more or less evenly from both parties’ support. But even in the case they potentially *do* ‘spoil’ for one of the parties (e.g. Nader 2000, although even here, there is little evidence to support the popular prejudice), in the next cycle, major party candidates pick up the issues/policies of the last spoiler to win back those lost votes, which means your issues might at least nominally actually be addressed by an elected representative eventually.
In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt abandoned the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party, championing political reforms, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights. He took twenty-seven percent of the popular vote, a higher percentage than any minor-party candidate in history, and in response, both the Democrats and the Republicans included most of the Progressives’ issues/positions in their platforms by the next Presidential election. During Ross Perot’s candidacy in the 1992 election, both Clinton and Bush adopted his views on deficit reduction before the election was even over.
We need to end the two party system and get money out of politics, which is what makes that system so deeply entrenched. This is the only real issue in American politics right now. The only way this can happen is if our elected representatives can be convinved to change the rules. I’m sure you can see how unlikely this is, when nearly 100% of our “representatives” are part of the duopoly we need to defeat. Our only hope is to stop buying into their carefully orchestrated fear-mongering and start as individuals voting for candidates that actually represent our desires in government.
If each voter votes their conscience, things won’t change immediately, it’s true, but slowly, one piece at a time, we can take back control of our government. The fact that there are not one, but two minor party candidates on the ballot in enough states to win the presidency, and that at least one state has proposed legislation to eliminate plurality voting is proof that change can come, if we constantly push for change every time we go to the polls. It only requires more of us to participate to be successful. We only need to elect enough representatives willing to change our voting structure to one that will not breed two-party dominance to make it a well visible issue. Once the legislation is in public view, the only way the two parties can oppose it is by admitting that they are trying to manipulate the system to their advantage.
If you truly believe that the Democrat/Republican best represents your viewpoint of all the possible representatives out there, you should of course vote for them. If you are voting tactically, without looking past this one election, you are nothing more than a tool of the people who want to control you.
THAT is wasting your vote!
In closing, consider this quote from Douglas Adams’ blisteringly funny satire, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish:
“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”