A Two Party System

I have seen some rumblings in op-eds that we should try to organize “the center” and come up with some kind of third party for the middle. The Republicans and Democrats are too partisan and are not representing the interests of the center. Or something like that.

These people do not seem to have taken a class on elections when they were in college, because if they had they would understand that any efforts at creating third party would probably hurt their true interests.

This is because we have a largest-vote-getter, winner-take-all system. It pressures people to divide into two camps. Think of a political spectrum as a line.

like soylent green, the line is people

Any point on the line agrees mostly with the points closest to it, but disagrees a lot with the points farthest away.

the faces are your feelings

Yes, that seems simplistic since there are so many topics on which opinions can vary, but in this kind of system that has no bearing. We don’t elect a hundred presidents each to deal with an exclusive issue, we elect one.  Some opinions shake out into groups and divide themselves along the line, like the common “liberal” groupings of supporting environmental regulations and abortion rights (issues which have basically nothing in common) to the “conservative” preference for lax environmental regulations and restricted abortions.

trees and women vs money and babies, what a contest!

Some people will have different collections of views that won’t really fit into these kinds of groupings and probably just sit out the elections. (This is part, only part, of the reason why voter turnout is low – in 2008, a very exciting election for the country that lasted two years, almost 40% of eligible voters did not vote.) If there was some kind of second dimension of voting, a few more people might show up.

the women and money party is accused by all sides of killing baby trees

But you won’t get higher turnout for that reason unless we have multi-member congressional districts where we divide up seats by proportional vote counts. That way, if you don’t like the two parties you can vote for a third, but your vote isn’t wasted because your district can have three different seats! However that does not necessarily make your government easier – the representatives have to create coalitions of all the smaller groups in order to pass legislation (because you still need 51% of the representative body to agree). Go ask Israel how happy this system makes them.

Anyways, back to the spectrum. Let’s say you start with two parties dominating the left and right sides of the spectrum.

is there alcohol at either party?

Life goes on a certain way such that a lot of people, who have been involved in the past, get pissed off at their party/ies, and, thinking they are brilliant, decide to create a third party. Normally it will gain very little support and pretty much be invisible on the spectrum, because most people either don’t vote or are very invested in their party.

their nominee was always willy wonka

However, let’s say a third party gets some traction. People start affiliating with it. It grows. The key point here is it exists at a spot on the political spectrum. A spot where a big party already sits. Therefore, all those people who sit in the areas right around the third party will leave the big party. This doesn’t necessarily just go for one party either, it can peel from both.

instead of a donkey or an elephant, tinky winky

Now remember, we have a “biggest-vote-getter-wins” system. So when candidates plop down, the one that can control more of the spectrum than the others will win. A BLUE candidate will win the biggest slice of this electorate, no matter where he, the PURPLE, or the RED candidates are. This is because the people just under halfway between the candidates can go against their party and pick the candidate who better represents their views.

are they, ahem, red or purple faced at their loss?

So even though the third party gained people from both sides, one of the original BIG parties essentially got divided into two pieces that are each smaller than the other BIG party. This will make it mad and lead to a consolidation back into two big parties.

ahhh, all better now

This is why this country has had two dominant parties pretty much during its entire existence. When the third party grows and becomes the new dominant big party, it can take a while and involve lots of turmoil (ask the Whigs). But there are a couple good recent examples of a third party candidate messing it up for people with similar interests (ahem, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot).

Now, for those of you who protest and say, “but we each have our own vote, and if the third party candidate represents me more, I should choose it!” Well, I can relate. I turned 18 in November 2006, just after the elections, and my first vote was not in the 2008 presidential but in a small special election at the local level. There was a Democrat and a Republican, establishment types, and a young Green Party candidate. My dad made the above case to me (the green will just take away from the dems and we’ll end up with the republican!), but would I listen? No. “The green candidate is much better on the environment!” I voted green. The republican won.

My little individual solace was in the fact that the republican didn’t win by one vote. So it wasn’t all my fault. It was the couple hundred others who broke Dem for Green with me.

The lesson here is: if you generally agree with one party but want to create a third party, DON’T!!! People WILL vote FOR YOU. But you will NOT win. Instead, the side you DISAGREE WITH MORE will win.

This is why the Republicans have tried hard to fold the Tea Party factionalizing into their umbrella. Otherwise, the red half would divide for at least one election, handing a win to the blue half. This is also why the two parties fight so hard over “the center” or “the independent voter.” The two big parties control almost half of the board, so the difference is right at the edge in grabbing those middle voters.

Really, this is basic PoliSci. You learn about the political spectrum and the median voter theorem and all that in the introductory courses to political science. It is not the parties that cause this situation of two dominant parties, it is our electoral system. You want robust third, fourth, and fifth parties? Change the system to proportional voting. But it still won’t make you happy – you have build a coalition at some point, either in the party or in the legislature. Unless, that is, we decide that bills [don’t] become law when only 40% of those voting [dis]approve (HA! HAHOhohohohoh oh the US Senate).

So what if there’s some issue that neither party is addressing effectively? Well then start organizing around that issue and inundate everyone with it somehow until it gets addressed. Which you would have to do anyways, because there will always be some issue that’s not being addressed, no matter who’s in power. It’s just that, in this case, it’s an issue you happen to care about. So if you are really really really into fishery regulations, then by golly start raising awareness about how we’re going to run out of fish because they’re being overfished, until you can’t go anywhere without seeing fish!

you just got SCHOOLED

As for the problem that the two big parties squabble like siblings in the backseat (“MOM HE POKED ME!” “SHE POKED ME FIRST!”), I don’t have an answer in this post. But I can say that a third party is definitely not going to solve it.

Frank Rich makes a similar argument to mine but with fewer Paint images, and addressing a specific group of people trying noobishly to form a third party.

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