With the impending onslaught of the 2016 election campaigns, which by my calculations should be starting within the next hour or so, I feel it’s important we all sit down and have a lovely chat. About what you ask? Campaign contributions? Whether a Bush can actually win the presidency again? No to all of the above. We need to talk about the dreaded menace of third parties.
As any college student anxious to display their indie cred will tell you, third parties have a certain draw. Candidates appeal to our romantic side, the side that wants to believe a no-name person from Portland who advocates full legalization of weed can make it to the White House. That side of our collective psyche, while very romantic, is also being willfully naive. The draw of third party candidates comes in part because they are free of the media glare that forces them to water down ideology. Wait, let me rephrase that: Third-party candidates can say whatever they want because they will never get elected and no one is really paying attention.
Now, don’t go getting a bee in your bonnet yet. Regardless of the electability of any third party candidate, the system is rigged against them. We are a two party system, and although third parties are allowed to exist and be on the ballot, it’s really just a concession prize because they are never really in the race. Look at how we label them. We use the term “third party” to cover any number of political parties outside of the Republican and Democrat camps. No single group amounts to enough to be THE third party, because collectively they don’t amount to the level of influence needed to be a real threat to the two-party domination of American politics.
I’m not trying to go all conspiracy theory on you. Somewhere along the line, through a process of merging and shifting and general political evolution, our political system came to recognize the legitimacy of two parties and excluding the rest. This has meant all the money funnels into those two parties, all the media attention is blasted onto the candidates of those parties, and the race to the White House is framed around the platforms of those parties. Basically, they have the cash and the cameras, and the rest of us are just here twiddling our thumbs and getting angry every four years. It’s very much a self-perpetuating cycle.
The only thing people love to say louder and more often than “Vote! Always vote! Vote for what you believe in!” is “A vote for a third-party candidate is a waste.” And let me take your hand gently in mine and whisper sweetly in your ear, that is the truth. I’m your friend and I’m telling you this because I care about you. It’s a waste because of how our elections work, the rules that dictate who wins and how unimportant the popular vote is compared to the Electoral College. When you look at the single digit percentages any third party candidate is able to pull—and even that’s hard, given the lack of airtime and the psychology behind people voting for who they see most because humans are animals —you’re looking at a percentage of people who actively chose to make a political statement rather than voting for the person at the intersection of “most closely aligned with their views” and “most likely to win.” It’s never a large enough percentage to challenge the candidate least aligned with an individual’s views, but is enough to turn the race against the candidate who is closest to that individual’s views. Basically, voting third party takes votes from the tolerable candidate and ups the chances of the least desirable candidate winning that state’s delegates and eventually the White House.
I know that’s not jiving with the romantic side of your political brain, the piece of your heart that wants to vote for your values and not for whoever some very wealthy people who host conventions tells you is the best option. I get that, and I identify with that, and that’s why I’m not just going to dash your independent dreams on the rocks. I’m going to suggest you spend your energy fighting a battle that is less like bringing a kind of pointy stick to a drone fight.
Election reform. Go for election reform.
Why? Because the way elections work in this country make no sense and is horrible. This point was driven home during the 2012 election night coverage by Al Jazeera English, where people who didn’t grow up with the asinine labyrinth of votes and delegates and Wolf Blitzer holograms struggled to make it even slightly understandable. It’s a system designed to make sure we don’t get total say in who wins—how else is it possible for someone to win the popular vote and yet not become president? The Electoral College was put in place to protect the levers of power from people who cannot be trusted to make good choices, and guess what, chances are they had you specifically in mind when they set it up way back in the days of powdered wigs and wooden teeth. Raise your hand if you have been victimized by the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Trick question, we all have.
But what would election reform mean for third parties? Why am I telling you this? If we implement a system by which popular vote alone selects the president then we might be able to expand the political spectrum. With multiple round elections, those percentages third party candidates are able to land could make a big difference. If in the first round all candidates are competing in an attempt to land 50 percent of the vote, a few points this way or that would make the difference. In the next round, whittle it down to the top two candidates, but in order to get 50 percent they would have to build coalitions with those third party candidates who kept them from winning in the first round. Voting for a party would be actually voting for a party, not the system we have now that results in people largely voting against what they don’t want rather than voting for what they do want. See? That’s why I am telling you this. Because it could result in third parties gaining influence, if not landing in office straight away.
Standing up for issues you believe in is important, but do it using your energy wisely in order to set the pieces up in a way that increases the likelihood of a positive outcome. We’re not going to break the stranglehold Republicans and Democrats have on the political system overnight, and we certainly aren’t going to do so by acting like voting for the Green Party is more than a pacifying action that makes us feel in control. What could be more independent than recognizing that and making attempts to break the cycle?
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