“The major difference between Democrats and Republicans is the velocity in which their knees hit the floor when the corporations come knocking on the door,” said Ralph Nader on September 8, 2008, leaving it up to the listener to decide which one might be faster. Earlier, we heard Gore Vidal on August 26, 2004 say, “[W]e have only one political party in the United States, the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat.” And earlier still, Noam Chomsky, during a lecture at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua in March 1986, said, “To a large degree, the U.S. is a one-party state, where the ruling party has two factions that compete for control of the government.”
Is this idea that the United States has only one major political party a relatively new idea? Is it essentially an idea of the left-leaning elements of society? I am afraid not. Socialist Frederick Engels opined in 1871 that, “Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. And nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt end — and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it.”
And Alexis de Tocqueville said as early as the 1830s, “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.” A Frenchman less than a hundred years after our country’s founding already declared political discourse dead, and things have only gotten worse.
Why are these two parties, and only these two parties, a problem? “The two-party electoral system performs the essential function of helping to legitimate the existing social order. It channels and limits political expression, exhausts political energies, and blunts class grievances.” [Parenti: 199] We as Americans are forced to express a Republican or Democrat idea as our own if we want any sort of representation. And as their ideas are quite similar, the boundaries of acceptable thought are pretty narrow. And what of “blunting class grievances”? The poor turn to the Democrats thinking they will find relief, only to have the party leaders instead ship jobs to Mexico and pander to big business. Those who want smaller government turn to the Republicans, despite that party only expanding on the federal level. But our grievances are “blunted” if we think that casting a vote for one of these two will somehow get our voices heard. (Class grievances of the rich are blunted from either party, as neither “side” has hesitated to give the wealthy access to anything they may want.)
“The two-party system is a marvelous ruling-class device. You offer the people a candidate who violates their interests and who is dedicated to the preservation of plutocracy, then you present them with another candidate who promises to be even worse.” [Parenti: 202] Writing from the left, Parenti is clearly suggesting that Republicans are even worse than Democrats, hence voters may choose Democrats. The reverse also happens: voters are pushed to vote Republican when they fear the Democrats are socialists or worse (whatever they think “socialism” means). President Obama, branded a Marxist and socialist by those on the right, actually largely follows the policies of Ronald Reagan, a man the Right claims to adore. The difference of parties is quite small, but by exaggerating the slight differences, the American people are forced to choose sides in a fight that does not really help them regardless of outcome, and further polarizes society in an us versus them mentality.
How Did This Two-Party System Begin?
Today, it seems like the two major parties have been around forever, and any other party never had a chance. But this is not at all the case. In fact, our first president (George Washington) did not belong to any party at all. And those after him belonged to parties such as the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, the Federalists, and the Democrat-Republicans (a name that no longer carries the same message it once did).
The 1820s brought in the Democrats, a “party of the people”, that was largely popular for decades and consistently carried the White House, with one Whig exception, until 1860. The election of 1860 heralded in Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. The Republican Party had only been created in 1856, but carried wide support in the northern states for its anti-slavery views. Ironically, the anti-slavery party today is generally seen as opposed to blacks and other minorities. But neither party today has a platform that resembles its views from the 1800s.
The 34th Congress (1855-1857) has been seen by some as a transitional period in which the decay and decline of the Whigs was offset by the shifting sands of the pre-Civil War political landscape, which swiftly produced a new “Democrats versus Republicans” major party alignment. The Senate at this time had one Know-Nothing, 39 Democrats, 21 Opposition (Republicans, Whigs and Free Soil combined), and one independent. With the opposition consolidating into the Republican brand, being outside the Democrat/Republican split quickly felt very lonely. The Whig Party collapsed due to slavery — the party had support in both the North and South, but could not take a stand on slavery one way or the other without losing half of its voters.
Others say 1864 really marks the beginning of the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans. From the beginning, the Republicans have been Northern and pro-business, the Democrats Southern and more populist. This divided the nation pretty evenly: the North pushing for post-war rebuilding and economic prosperity through the 1920s, with the South being largely an opposition bloc, still bitter over the Civil War. Republicans held control of the White House for about fifty years, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s eight years. The Democrats were able to hold the South in part through Jim Crow laws keeping the blacks out of the voting booth. Again, the roles have switched today, with Republicans seen as having a larger Southern following (Johnson, Carter and Clinton notwithstanding) and Democrats being a big city and coastal party.
Republicans spent their time in office accumulating a following, while Democrats remained the strong opposition. When the stock market crashed, the Republican ideal crashed and the Democrats were able to ride in with Roosevelt. To keep their heads above water, the Republicans were pretty much forced to redefine themselves, not as the party of privilege but as the party of individual and states’ rights, and of tax cuts and reduced government spending. Polls ever since have consistently shown about 70% of Americans identify with stated Democratic values, but the Republicans occasional win the White House by offering folksy candidates people vote for, even if they do not accept their values.
Over time, the money and power consolidated in these two parties, and that is how we got the mess we are in today.
Political Power and Business
As the opening quotations suggest, there is a sense that the two major American political parties have long been servants of American business rather than the American people. What Engels realized in his day is no less true now. In fact, many would argue that it is more true. While the Republican Party is generally seen as “big business” and the Democratic Party as “big government”, the fact is that the differences are relatively slight. A decade ago we saw this with President Clinton, who pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and gave more power to the private banks. Today, President Obama has kept the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in place, while cutting funding for much-needed Pell Grants. Both parties believe in promoting private enterprise to the detriment of the average American citizen. Under President Bush, we saw a great expansion in federal government, as we have in previous Republican administrations, at least as far back as Richard Nixon, who created several new agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Council on Environmental Quality. Nixon also launched the War on Drugs, which has cost taxpayers millions in funding for police, prisons and courts that deal with relatively harmless criminals.
Michael Parenti sums up the similarities, with accusations that should rile up both liberals and conservatives. “The Democratic and Republican parties are both committed to the preservation of the private corporate economy; huge military budgets; the use of subsidies, deficit spending, and tax allowances for the bolstering of business profits; the funneling of public resources through private conduits, including whole new industries developed at public expense; the concoction of palliatives for the less fortunate segments of the population; the use of repression against opponents of the existing class structure; the defense of the multinational corporate empire; and intervention against social-revolutionary elements abroad.” [Parenti: 203]
We could ask, why is this support for corporate America bad? The answer depends on who you ask. The liberals might say that while some people will stand by and support the private sector over the needs of humanity time and time again, the majority recognize there is a basic need to provide for their neighbor. We may not be in the era of “robber barons” but the threat of monopolies and such is no less great. And conservatives that express the greatness of “free markets” may support corporations, but they may have a hard time swallowing the idea that billions of tax dollars every year should go to fund them, bail out failing corporations, or provide for private research and development. Some of the most “successful” corporations in the world, such as Boeing, have escaped bankruptcy for one reason only: the federal government gives them millions in subsides every year. Your tax dollars fund airplanes even if you have never flown on one.
The real problem comes in when we see that even those who recognize that the two parties are not looking out for their best interests are inclined to vote for one or the other anyway. Numerous reasons exist for this: the belief that a third party cannot win in our society, the belief that one or the other party may provide them with some of their desired goals, or the belief that it’s better to vote for what they perceive as the lesser of two evils. This goes both ways: liberals will vote Democratic to keep “fascist” Republicans out of office, and conservatives with vote for Republicans to keep “socialist” “baby-killing” Democrats out of office. The actual party platforms may not be as welcoming as the prospect of keeping another party’s platform out.
Who Are The Party Faithful?
Although I think numbers are declining, with more “independents” today, people traditionally identify with being either a Republican or Democrat. But do they really support their own party? Would a Democrat look at the party’s platform and fully endorse it? Would a Republican? Those not blinded by their membership would likely agree that both parties have something to offer, and both have areas they are not very strong in. Unless blindly patriotic, did all Republicans support every George W. Bush decision? Do all Democrats support Obama’s decisions? I think the answer is no.
Libertarian Mark Brandly sums it up perfectly, saying, “Choosing between two candidates is analogous going to Walmart and being presented with two shopping carts already filled with items. Everyone will leave the store with the same cart of goods. Each cart contains products that a person may want and products that one wouldn’t choose to have, but the voter is not able to take anything out of either cart.”
Greens may vote Democratic, and Libertarians may vote Republican. That is not even their preference, but they do so anyway, throwing away their convictions to accept a candidate they dislike. Why? Because they fear “the other guy” even more. We even see this on a primary level. Obama voters may have picked him because they feared Hillary Clinton, who many see as a shrew or bitch, despite not even being aware of her voting record.
And when Obama faced McCain, it was the “socialist black guy” against “the old man with the hot but stupid redhead who will take over when he has a heart attack”. Does anyone recall McCain’s proposals? How about Obama’s? Both promised “hope” and “change”, and when viewed side by side agreed on more issues than they disagreed. As Brandly points out, “The deceit of [the Bush] administration during his eight years of reign was readily apparent to unbiased observers, and we see the same characteristics in the Barack Obama administration.”
So who was Bush’s successor: McCain or Obama? Brandly continues, “Federal debt nearly doubled during Bush’s reign and it appears that it may double again under Obama. Both presidents supported massive healthcare bills that increased federal spending and federal control over the healthcare industry. And, importantly, both presidents support loose monetary policies and the Federal Reserve system, the primary cause of the current economic crisis.” My point in quoting at length? Obama voters did not get the change they wanted from Bush, they got almost the exact same president (only now with a more historic skin tone). Would McCain have been any different?
So why not vote a third party? Aside from “fringe” candidates from the major parties, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, who have little chance in winning a primary, voting for a third party is the only way to pick someone who really stands up for what you believe in (or at least comes closer to this goal).
The Problem With Third Parties
We now know that voting for the Green or Libertarian Party ends up “hurting”, or at least helping the candidate we do not want. We saw how Al Gore voters in 2000 voted for Ralph Nader and helped push George W. Bush across the finish line. Likewise, George H. W. Bush voters were lured in by Ross Perot in 1992, which may which helped get Bill Clinton into office. (This is debatable, though, as Voter Research & Surveys conducted exit polls of Perot voters’ second choices, and they concluded that only about 51% would have picked Bush second. This would have only shifted the electoral votes in Ohio, and Clinton would still have won 349-to-189. While it is hard to compare hypothetical situations to real events, we should at least be aware that calling Perot a “spoiler” is contentious.)
Voting third party ironically has the outcome of voting for the opposite of what you wanted. Yet, if we don’t then it reinforces the monolithic power of the one-party system.
But even if voting third party was viable, it’s not easy to get good candidates there. Getting third parties on the ballot is difficult, with expensive filing fees and the need for signatures. In Pennsylvania, third-party candidates had to acquire 36,000 signatures from registered voters within three weeks, and in Maryland the number was 55,517.
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 helps the two major parties (each received about $30 million in 1980, for example, and this has not decreased), but minor parties only get funding after an election, if they get 5% of the national vote. To win an election, you need money, but to get money you need to win an election. “Money is no guarantee of victory but it is something of a necessary condition. It is not certain you will win an important office if you have millionaires on your side, but it is quite likely you will lose if you don’t.” [Parenti: 212] (The Federal Election Commission is also composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, with little chance of changing. And even if an independent or third-party candidate were made commissioner, it may cause more harm than good by inadvertently creating a majority by one of the two major parties.)
Solution: Instant Runoff Voting?
Many have proposed instant runoff voting as a solution, or at least a step in the right direction. I agree.
Instant runoff voting (IRV) or the alternative vote (AV) is a voting system used typically to elect one winner by ranked choice voting. As a form of preferential voting, voters mark candidates in order of preference with the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. When IRV is compared with First-past-the-post in single-person elections it eliminates vote splitting, reducing concerns about tactical voting. Tactical voting occurs, in elections with more than two viable candidates, when a voter supports a candidate other than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome. Using the example of Ralph Nader in 2000, it is safe to assume that he would have received more votes if voters did not see Al Gore as a more viable choice and more likely to beat George W. Bush. With IRV, a vote for Nader would not have increased Bush’s chances of winning. (One could debate whether or not Bush actually “won” the 2000 election, but that is now a historical matter and of no current importance.)
The winner of IRV is decided as follows:
1. In the first round, votes are counted by tallying first preferences (in the same way as plurality voting, or First-past-the-post).
2. If no candidate has a majority of the votes, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are counted at full value for the remaining candidates according to the next preference on each ballot.
3. This process repeats until one candidate obtains a majority of votes among the remaining candidates.
Instant-runoff voting has been used on-and-off in the United States in various jurisdictions since 1912. More recently, since 2002, IRV has been adopted in a number of U.S. cities, with several of these adoptions pending implementation. As of December 2010, IRV elections have been held in more than a dozen jurisdictions: San Francisco, California; Oakland, California; Berkeley, California; San Leandro, California; Burlington, Vermont; Takoma Park, Maryland; Aspen, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pierce County, Washington; North Carolina; and several local elections in North Carolina, including in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Solution: Range Voting?
Instant Runoff Voting, while favored by many, has also come under some criticism. Indeed, no system is perfect, and the goal is to try to improve what we have. What is better than IRV? Some people would say range voting (or score voting).
The promoters of range voting say it is simple and even a Kindergartner can understand it. Unlike IRV, where you rank your choices, range voting has an even more precise method: scoring each candidate 0 through 9, or “no opinion”. With this method, your vote not only says that you prefer candidate A over B, but also by how much. Perhaps you do not want a Democrat “third”, you want him or her to be “0” and a Republican to be “9”. It is a more precise voting method than IRV.
Of course, there are potential flaws. Partisan Democrats and Republicans will be voting with plenty of “9” and “0” votes, leaving the sway up to independent or centrist voters. This could be good or bad, one supposes, and matters a great deal on how well the voters know their candidates.
I admit I am not very knowledgeable about range voting, but think an investigation into this is worth time for voters and legislators. If IRV or range voting produces better results, they should be considered. And among them, the more precise is the better system. “All or nothing” voting works, but does not fully express the will of the people.
Further Suggestion For Democracy Promotion
What are other ways we can strengthen the will of the people, or the will of the individual, and knock down the power of the political party system? The possibilities are endless, but here are some thoughts to ponder.
Suggestion One: vote party platform rather than personality. This has the problem of requiring people to read, but it may be the more fair way to vote. Rather than vote for who you want a beer with, vote based on key proposals and ideology. Has anyone read the Democratic platform for 2008, a 57-page document that includes such things as resolving the Puerto Rico issue by 2012 and increasing the sovereignty of the Mariana Islands? Not to be outdone, the Republican platform is 67 pages, though that includes larger font and some colorful photos. I care about the issues and I have not read either document. Had I done so, I could probably find more that President Obama has not followed from his platform than otherwise. By voting platforms, we could hold elected officials more accountable, and perhaps get third or fourth options with new ideas.
Suggestion Two: A coalition government? This will probably not happen, based on the way our system is set up. In many other countries, the percentage of seats in Congress (or Parliament or whichever title they use) is determined by the percentage of the vote that party carried. Democrats and Republicans would still get most seats, at least at first. But if third parties were given a national stage, they may have the publicity they need. Senator Rand Paul, for example, is a libertarian-leaning Republican. He likely only belongs to the party in order to get funding. He could now run again as an independent and win. If the voters support his ideas, why didn’t he run independent the first time? Again, funding. He would have no chance in Hell, hence why the Tea Party joined the Republicans despite some stark differences.
Suggestion Three: Scrap parties entirely? One of the biggest problems is the very existence of parties. Parties bring too much money into a campaign, and divide voters into two camps, neither of which they necessarily like. Many local elections offer a multitude of candidates in the primary and reduce that number to two or three in the general election, without any party affiliation attached to the candidates’ names. Why not do this? Had Obama ran as a Republican and McCain as a Democrat, but with both not changing their campaign promises at all, how would the voting have changed? We need to get the focus on issues and not parties. A Republican in Massachusetts may be more liberal than a Democrat in South Dakota, so why have parties at all if even those in them are not a single unit?
Suggestion Four: Make the president weaker, allow no-confidence votes. While this does not necessarily affect voting or parties, if the president was subject to no-confidence votes, he (or she) would have to follow the people’s wants, at least a bit more. The Congress shifts every two years rather than four, so while we couldn’t vote out the president, if our elected officials did, that would send a similar message. We have used impeachment, but as we can see from the few times it has been used, it ends up being expensive and has no practical result. Clinton continued in office, and is today more popular than ever. The only president to step down was Nixon, who was never impeached. Impeachment, at least from history’s examples, is a useless way to approach presidential wrongdoing.
Brandly, Mark. “How to Win an Election”, Mises Daily. http://mises.org/daily/5036/How-to-Win-an-Election February 16, 2011
Chomsky, Noam. On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures South End Press, 1987.
Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few, Fourth Edition St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Shebar, Alex. “Nader challenges audience”, Cincinnati Enquirer. September 8, 2008.
Vidal, Gore. “State of the Union, 2004”, The Nation. August 26, 2004.