Unstacking the Deck: The Status Quo, Third Parties, and You - WhoWhatWhy

Unstacking the Deck: The Status Quo, Third Parties, and You

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As you watch the debates and notice how confusing the claims and counterclaims are, it is worth noting that the confusion often comes from two men struggling to claim the same spot on the ideological spectrum. Who wants to tax the middle class fairly? Who wants you to have the best possible health care? Who supports tough action against Iran? Why, both of them.

We have had times in this country when the differences between two nominees were openly asserted and clear to all. Think Richard Nixon and George McGovern, or Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. We no longer have that—perhaps because the two parties know not to nominate anyone with too distinctive a set of views.

Because of this dynamic, we have candidates accusing each other of misrepresenting where they stand, or each one claiming to be the true advocate of a popular position, rather than presenting different, competing ideas.

Another reason for the lack of meaningful choices is the absence of viable, visible third parties offering dramatically different approaches. Not that they’re not out there—it’s just that because of the way things are structured, plus a near-total media blackout, you may not even know about Rocky Anderson, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Virgil Goode, or a handful of others also seeking your vote.

Significantly, the two major parties have been able to co-opt the issues of third parties—a balanced budget, “green” policies, and so on—without necessarily doing a lot about them. By simply adopting the language and slogans of these smaller entities, the big guys keep the little guys marginalized. And by not actually instituting many of the promised reforms, the leading candidates mollify their establishment backers.

Both nominees must be all things to all people. They must convince you that their only concern is ordinary people—“grandmothers”, “the middle class”, “homeowners.” It’s no accident they keep on telling us the stories of regular folks they met, as if they could possibly expect to do something in those peoples’ interests, while simultaneously visiting and staying at the homes of major donor bundlers from big corporations, law firms, investment houses, and the like.

The problems with the American presidential election system are well known—and include the primary calendar, which gives disproportionate influence to small states, and the Electoral College, with candidates able to secure all of the electors from a state with as little as a one-vote plurality. The result is that candidates have to invest a huge effort in low-population states early on, and then pump massive resources into media buys to tip several close races, mostly in bigger states. If our presidential nomination and general election processes were different, we’d see more interesting candidates, and hear more interesting and diverse proposals.

It’s not just the presidential deck that’s stacked. Our Congress is elected based on the single-winner system, by district, rather than under proportional representation, i.e. a share of the total vote received by their party.  Thus, candidates who wish to win know they have to join one of the two major parties—and in some parts of the country, they know they must join the dominant one, or have no chance at all. Shades of joining “The Party” in the old USSR. Only if the rules of the game were changed to permit proportional representation would we begin to see fresh ideas gain serious attention. Let’s say the Libertarians, or Greens, or Labor, were to run candidates in a proportional system. They very likely would win at least a few seats, and thereby gain a platform from which to offer a much wider array of choices– for example, presenting the public with health insurance scenarios from an all-private system to an all-public one, and everything in between.

None of this is to minimize some very real differences between the current nominees, including probable Supreme Court appointments, and on gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights, as well as fundamental differences on views about the role of government.

But it’s never a bad idea to imagine a much better system, and how we might invite truly bold leadership and creative solutions.

Here are some places you can go for information on other ways we could be electing our leaders:

The Center for Voting and Democracy  : instant runoff voting, proportional representation, a national popular vote, universal voter registration, and more

Common Cause: national popular vote, voter protection, and more

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9 responses to “Unstacking the Deck: The Status Quo, Third Parties, and You”

  1. Avatar tontonremi says:

    no vote at all


  2. Avatar Dan Allen says:

    Russ, thank you for yet another fabulous contribution to the record that we will not get anywhere else.

    Regarding the two-party system, the American electorate seems to be in a trance. The two-party system, with all its mainstream media trimmings, is like a watch held on a chain, swinging before our eyes, with the mainstream “news” pumped into our ears, dominating our perception of party politics. No matter how big any of our minds are, the media has enough streams running enough “new” information to keep any of us occupied 24×7, without allowing even a second to consider the advantages to the country in expanding the number and variety of major political parties.

    As I understand it, we cannot expect to snap out of the 2-party trance, until there is a mass movement along the lines of Arab Spring or American Civil Rights movements. It is only my guess, but I think America has a long way go down the scale of social instability before a mass movement to shake our system’s core is likely. In other words, I think we are stuck with two parties until our system breaks down more comprehensively than anything we have seen since 1932.

    It is good to educate ourselves on multi-party politics, but I feel we need to be realistic about what is required to change them, to avoid wasting energy on false hopes. We have been a 2-party place for a long time, with additional parties often serving as spoilers more than contributors. Even Teddy Roosevelt could not get elected as a 3rd party candidate. That was over 100 years ago. I don’t know if anyone has come closer since.

    A better strategy for influencing the country might be to focus on how to create factions within the two main parties that could ultimately gain enough support to put the parties behind our efforts.

    • Avatar commonsense says:

      Good points! However, unless you want to wait for decades, perhaps centuries nothing will happen without a dramatic change in the way things are done. Only a viable third party can do that. Conservatives united in a common cause to save the republic if there is still one to save! c-sense.us

  3. Avatar ts_3000 says:

    I understand the 3rd party candidate debates was organized by Free & Equal and a 2nd debate is scheduled on Tues Oct 30th. http://freeandequal.org/

  4. Avatar Rob Richie says:

    Great piece. For those seeing interested in the latest on the advocacy efforts for these reforms and a new nifty analysis of what it would like to have even modestoportional voting for Congress by statute, see http://www.fairvote.org

  5. Avatar Vivek Jain says:

    Saw your interview on RT’s Breaking the Set (it’s the last segment, starts at minute 19).

  6. Avatar Jimmy says:

    The fault lies with the people as well. This is the Internet age. People have access to a plethora of info on other views and candidates. They choose to keep voting in Repubs and Dems. They choose to believe only what the TV tells them to believe. They choose to continually vote for the lesser of two evils. On the other hand, I think most people don’t even consider the Constitution when they pick a candidate.

    How about we vote for the candidate we think is in closest proximity to the Constitution? Why is the Constitution never brought up in the debates? Why isn’t the central issue the Constitution when the candidates are discussed in the media? Is it because they both equally ignore it? When swearing the new president in, he or she takes an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution. That’s their job. Maybe we should start talking about it.

  7. Avatar Rob says:

    Good points. I think another step in the right direction would be to let people opt out of any government program they do not wish to participate in so they can create alternative, competing programs of their own instead.

    Of course, this would inevitably lead to a collapse of all government programs eventually. Some faster than others. People know this instinctively, which is why we’ve all been told that sensible people don’t make such reckless proposals, since they lead to a breakdown of the program in question.
    Their right of course, but the obvious, “elephant in the room” follow up question never seems to be asked. If the program can’t stand up to legitimate, competing alternatives, doesn’t that tell us that its only a matter of time before it collapses anyway? Why not let people form programs of their own making, and be able to choose the one they wish to participate in?
    Its not like it has to be that only one program, say in healthcare, prevails in a winner take all competition. Different people have different needs, which would be far better met by allowing people the freedom to create and choose what type of healthcare program best suits their needs. No one person, philosophy, or type of program has all the answers, which is all the more reason why we need to have freedom of choice. Something that the current political system suppresses at all cost to maintain a monopoly. We all know how political monopolies end. Badly!

  8. Avatar Orangutan. says:

    Who’s Afraid of an Open Debate? The Truth About the Commission on Presidential Debates