Before I begin with my points, I want to emphasize this: We are allowed to fight against a system and still operate within it. It is perfectly acceptable to believe our society needs a revolution, and still allow your life to function in that society you believe is flawed. That is allowed.
Ok, now back to my post. Basically, here is the point I want to make: our political system is inefficient, undemocratic, and repressive. And what’s worse, that is exactly how the Parties want it to be.
I started this post with a stylized quote from George Washington’s Farewell Address (dated 19 September 1796 on the transcript). The exact quote from the Address, which the image above touches up a bit, is this:
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Washington is expressing his fears that a few people will take advantage of people’s divisive and argumentative natures to form groups promising to fight other people’s ideas about government. And then the political conversation will not be about what is good for the nation/the people, but what is good for the party, so that the party can find success in the system. And once those few people take control of the political process, they will take control of the government. Then they will eliminate the opportunities for others to gain power, so they will not threaten the original few.
I don’t believe our democracy should have to put up with phrases like “You need to join a Party to win an election”, “Voting for independents or third parties is a waste of a vote”, or “I don’t really care who runs, I just want the Democrats/Republicans to win”. Political Parties have one end in mind: gain and maintain power. And to that end, they view elections as a means. They care only about what is advantageous to care about; everything else falls by the wayside.
The more people (who are easily persuaded to follow Party doctrine) who are elected to office, the more powerful the Party will be. This means more power to determine tax policy, trade policy, diplomatic relations, monetary policy, and economic decisions; all necessary to gain and maintain power for those in charge of the Party: the elites, “the few” as Washington put it. And to gain and maintain those powers, the political realm has been stripped down to two major organizations (Democrats and Republicans), and the political process has been simplified to checking a R or a D on the ballot on Election Day.
And here’s the thing: Both parties like it that way. With this system, each Party only has one opponent. They never have to enter into coalition governments. They can force members to conform to their standards or risk being excommunicated by the Party and thus barred from participating in politics. The Parties hardly have to compromise. They can polarize for generations and still remain in power.
And the Parties have convinced us that it is best this way. “We only need two parties; one for the conservatives, one for the liberals.” “The Parties are big tents, they just adopt whatever platform a third party has to offer.” The Parties, as Washington predicted, are trying to hide the avenues to power from our eyes, so that we do not threaten their power by challenging them.
Or perhaps that even if it’s not the best way, they have convinced us that an alternative ain’t coming soon. Not with processes needed to get recognition in politics:
- Many states require parties/candidates to meet certain criteria to be on the state ballot. Minimum funds raised, minimum signatures collected, minimum votes counted, which many small parties or independent politicians find difficult, if not downright impossible, to meet. And all the time they spend just trying to get on the ballots, the major Parties spend already campaigning. Phil Huckelberry, co-chairman of the Green Party’s ballot access committee is quoted in a USA Today article as saying “The time, money and energy spent getting on the ballot is more than the time, money and energy spent once we are on the ballot in most of these states”.
- Single-Member, Simple Plurality electoral systems (which make up the majority of elections in the United States) favor a two-party system, because they do not allow voters to choose multiple candidates (like a 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, etc.). They thus have to strategically vote for candidates, who they may not even like that much, just to ensure that the candidate they really don’t like isn’t elected.
- The process of redistricting in state governments gives Parties the power to determine election victories years before the elections even happen. Gerrymandering is a pervasive problem throughout the United States, meaning districts all around the country are created specifically to be non-competitive.
- The Electoral College requires a candidate for President to get a majority of votes, but those votes come from a vast majority of states which delegate them winner-take-all style. So even if minor parties make a strong presence in the vote share, if they don’t win a majority in that state, they don’t get any vote in the Electoral College. (“Only two states, Nebraska and Maine,” explains the US National Archives and Records Administration website, “do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those states, there could be a split of Electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes.)
These processes, created by the major Parties, were specifically designed to entrench the two Parties into the political system.
Gallup’s September 2014 Governance Poll (n=1017) reported that since 2007, a majority of Americans (at some points as high as 60%) believe that a third party is needed because the other two parties are doing an inadequate job at governing. The margin of error of 4% only calls into question two data points: Fall 2008 and Fall 2012, times when the rhetoric supporting the two-party system is on full blast, broadcasting across the nation all day long.
The American political sphere has two major Parties, each taking action to gain and maintain power for themselves, sometimes at the expense of the people themselves. They have bastardized democracy. It is supposed to be “The People Decide”, but now it’s “The People Decide*”.
*Among the pre-approved list of candidates from the powerful Party elites
There are only 3 minor parties recognized in more than 10 states: the Libertarian Party (34 states), the Green Party (21 states), and the Constitution Party (12 states). My home state of Missouri only recognizes 4 ballot-qualified parties. Even if a list of minor parties was reduced to just parties that are ballot-qualified in at least one state, there are still 39 total.
I believe that if we want to return to a democratic process, we must do something (seemingly) radical in American Democracy: give power to the people. We must make it easier for smaller parties to get on ballots, raise money, and express their messages. We must unlearn the idea that two parties is enough. We must unlearn the idea that nothing will change. We must heed the 200 year-old warnings of George Washington in his Farewell Address. We must relearn that it’s the common public that constitute our government, and it’s the common public the government serves.
So how do we accomplish that?
We must get our voice heard. We must vote. We must vote for candidates who share our values, not our labels. That means voting for a minor party if they truly represent your views. We must advocate for a new system that appreciates diversity, inclusivity, respect for the people, and the value of their voices. We must support those people who wish bring about radical change. We must disrupt those conversations founded in the ideas that the two-party system was inevitable and is irreversible; because they are not and those conversations are destructive. We must be open about supporting minor parties. We must be open about being critical of major Parties, not for the sake of being critical, but because they actually take actions contrary to democratic and American ideals.
That is what democracy is about. American democracy is a sham. Right now, we have an oligarchy. Rule by the few. Specifically, two.
For now, we must live with the two-party system. I may hate it, but I will participate in it. It will not be overthrown over night, but it will be overthrown.
-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)