Fair warning before we get started: I’m talking politics in this post, particularly American politics, as you have probably derived from the title. While I’m not trying to promote any particular party (and in fact, am focusing on why the two-party system is a horrible, horrible thing), there’s still going to be plenty of talk about politicians and political views. If that’s not your cup of tea, things will be back to a weekly round-up by next post, I promise. If it is, read on and enjoy all the political fun.
If you spend any time at all reading political news, it probably doesn’t surprise you that American politics is in pretty horrible shape. The approval rating for Congress is horrible, it’s one of the least productive in history, and there are plenty of other reasons this Congress is pretty crappy. (And we haven’t even covered the numerous scandals over these past several, oh, decades.) How the hell does this Congress, and for that matter, politicians in general, keep getting re-elected?
Well, the simple fact of that matter is that things are highly biased, or hell, let’s just say it, rigged, in favor of the major parties in general and the incumbents in particular. Getting onto the voting ballot generally requires the support of a major party and/or huge numbers of backers, the rules for getting onto such a ballot are created by those people who are currently in office (and crazy enough, would like to stay in office) and there are completely insane congressional districts drawn specifically to ensure that a particular party wins that district. Heck, when comedy sites like Cracked are complaining about the U.S. democratic system, there’s clearly some problems.
But here’s the thing: these are symptoms of the problems with Congress, and the US political system in general, not the underlying issue. Even if we made sure that congressional districts were drawn according to strict computer algorithms, anyone with a modest number of backers could get on the ballot, and (crazy thoughts) added term limits, there would still likely be only two main political parties left, two major competitors in each election, and either a Democrat or Republican elected to every major position in the country. This is because of one simple factor that keeps the United States a two-party system (and gives said parties the ability to control the electoral process): the first past the post system.
The REAL Reason American Politics Sucks
The first past the post system sounds pretty simple: every eligible person gets one vote, and the candidate with the most votes, wins. It’s pretty simple, and in your high school class elections or similar simple elections, it works pretty well. If the political system worked the same way that the Founding Fathers thought it would, purely involving individuals elected based on personal traits, with each vote being completely independent and no political parties existing, perhaps it would be for the best.
But that’s not the case. Imagine this situation: you’re an environmentalist, with an upcoming election in which there are three candidates running, a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green Party member. You’d probably be happiest with the Green Party candidate winning, of course, with the Democrat being your (distant) second choice and the Republican your last. So you just vote Green and everything will work out, right?
Here’s the problem: even if most of the voting public leans toward liberal parties, if they end up splitting their votes between the Democrats and the Green Party, the conservative Republican candidate can end up winning with a minority of the vote. That’s what many people suggest happened in the 2000 election, after all; a relatively small number of people voted for Nader, a few more states’ electoral votes went to Bush, and there were eight years where environmentalists weren’t exactly too thrilled.
So you, and the vast majority of other environmentalists, look back on that situation, hedge your bets and vote for the candidate you feel is more likely to win, rather than the one you personally feel is a better representative of your views. Similarly, Libertarian and Conservative party members end up voting for Republicans at the polls, trying to avoid another Ross Perot and Clinton victory.
The two main parties end up getting the bulk of the votes, even if other candidates would end up being much more popular, because people are trying to avoid the spoiler effect of voting for candidates who are unlikely to win and ending up with candidates they like even less than the candidates that get their vote. (Also called ‘lesser of two evils’, or ‘why the hell are these the only candidates we have available?’) This why for nearly its entire history, the United States has been a two party system (and one prone to negatives like gerrymandering and other issues), due to the first past the post voting problems.
Luckily, there are other methods of running a democratic system besides first past the post, which can help avoid these problems. The alternative vote (aka, instant run-off) prevents spoilers by allowing voters to rank their choices. Instead of worrying about spoilers and voting for the lesser of two evils among the main candidates, Green Party, Libertarians, Conservatives, and other third party supporters can vote for their favorite candidate without worry that they end up with a candidate most people dislike, as their votes end up counted for their second (or third, etc.) choice if their favorites don’t win. Mixed member proportional voting allow voters to vote both for a local candidate and a political party, with the additional representatives added to the ruling body to make its overall representation more closely represent the desires of the voters. These are hardly the only methods besides first past the post that eliminate some of the issues involved (they’re simply the only ones I have entertaining and educational videos to explain, although methods like approval voting are still out there).
So, the simple solution is to amend the Constitution so that we use another method to elect our leaders. That just requires getting 2/3 of the House of Representatives (which can’t do much besides try to repeal Obamacare) and 2/3 of the Senate (which can barely break most filibusters) to pass andamendment (or get 2/3 of state Senates to hold constitutional conventions to propose said amendment) and then have 3/4 of state legislatures ratify said amendment. Of course, seeing as all the Representatives in the House and all but two Senators are members of the two major parties, the parties that would have fewer members in Congressional seats should one of these methods be enacted, it could be an uphill battle, but I’m sure we can get it done! Right, my fellow Americans? Right…?
Perhaps we should just work on fixing (or eliminating) that electoral college for now…