A Better Choice
Every election is a crossroads, but the United States of America is coming up on a particularly eventful crossroad with the upcoming 2018 midterm election. Galvanized liberals, fearful conservatives and frustrated independents will be lining up to commit their duty as citizens and vote. Most of them will be voting for the Republican Party, the party of the incumbent President and the party that holds a majority in the House and the Senate, or the Democratic Party, which is running as the opposition.
But there is a problem that has not been fully addressed since the 2016 election. The 2016 election was, from its beginning, a rebellion against the political representations of the status quo. Hillary Clinton was immediately assumed to be the Democratic nominee, but Bernie Sanders’ campaign gave that assumption pause and wasn’t truly out of it until the California primaries. The Republican nominee field was much more crowded than the Democratic field, showcasing the familiar corporate establishment faces of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio alongside the Libertarian Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and the Evangelical Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But it was instead Donald Trump who surged at the beginning, and as the primary season grinded on his grip on bound delegates grew ever stronger, eventually leading him to the Republican nomination and ultimate victory in the general election.
What powered Trump’s campaign is similar to what powered Sanders’ campaign – a belief that the current status of politics in America was not helping the average American. What caused this distress? The most direct cause as a side effect of globalization. Globalization has been going on in some fashion since Persian Empire, leading through Alexander the Great, through the Silk Road, and through European Colonization of the Americas and Africa, which in itself was an attempt to access global markets in Asia. But globalization was taken to another level with the Industrial Revolution, and the application of capital to tie together technology and production would have substantial influence on the trajectory of history. Globalization was a heavy influence in the circumstances that led to the French Revolution, as heavy demand for textile production and metallurgy drew people from the countyside to the city, where they were more immediately influenced by food shortages and proto-socialist ideology, with dire results.
In the current day, post-World War II globalization steered heavy industry from the forerunners of industrialization that now had decent (and relatively expensive) labor laws– the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France – to emerging markets that did not have such laws in place. This resulted in two specific outcomes – a trade deficit for the industrialized nations with the emerging markets, and the disempowering of labor unions as the jobs they held were outsourced overseas for the benefit of corporation executives. The “average American” that Donald Trump drew into his fold was largely those who lost their union jobs and could not find an equivalent paycheck in their area. As industries moved away and towns slowly died from the lack of an economic stimulus, the denizens of these towns grew increasingly frustrated by those who they hold accountable – politicians, specifically Republicans and Democrats. Ultimately, the cause of the revolt of 2016 was a lack of faith that the Republican and Democrat establishment had the best interest of Americans at heart.
Why Republicans and Democrats? Because they are the effectively the only two real parties in the United States of America. There are alternative parties like the Libertarian and Green parties, but as they do not receive above 5% of the popular vote in the Presidential election, they do not receive federal funding for promoting their positions and politicians in the election cycle. In the past America had other political parties, but the overwhelming amount of Presidential elections featured two parties – there have only been 8 instances where a third party received more than 10% of the vote. Why is this?
The most immediate cause for third party irrelevance in the modern day is the Commission on Presidential Debates barring alternative parties from being put on a platform alongside the Republican and Democratic candidates - exposure is a necessary component of being voted into office, and as long as you are unable to promote yourself on the largest stage for the election, you cannot have a serious opportunity to be victorious. It just so happens that the Commission on Presidential Debates is exclusively staffed by Republicans and Democrats. But the cause of the Republican and Democrat duopoly on politics goes further back than that – it goes to the founding of the nation.
The United States Constitution outlined the method of election that we utilize in federal elections – single vote, first past the post with an electoral college to give greater per capita representation to less populous states as opposed to more popular states. The electoral college is by itself controversial – it was created as a compromise to settle concerns that states like Virginia and New York would overpower states like Rhode Island and Delaware in the federal government. As the United States was created as literal union of independent states, compromises such as this had to be made to achieve the goal of federation. The single vote, first past the post method is not one of these compromises.
Giving each voter one vote is a very simple concept. After all, in a theoretical republic composed of equals, one man’s choice should not be given greater weight than another man’s choice. This concept was in glaring conflict with the institution of slavery, the squelching of women and the initial requirement of land ownership to vote; but as time paced along these restrictions were lifted. First past the post is another simple concept – the candidate with the most voters supporting wins the election. But this system has a side effect – voters become more concerned about stopping the candidate they like the least from entering office rather than voting for the candidate they truly support.
This rationalization of voting for the lesser evil has deleterious effects on the republic. The maxim that “the lesser of two evils is still evil” springs to mind, but doesn’t cover the breadth of damage done by first past the post. The candidate that wins is unlikely to actually be the candidate that most citizens would vote for if all candidates had an equal chance at winning. Instead, the candidate that wins is most likely going to be the candidate that doesn’t have the most people opposed to their candidacy. This gamesmanship does not lead to a politician that the majority of voters would be satisfied with – it leads to a politician that was elected because he didn’t prey on underage girls, or a candidate that didn’t post crotch bulges on Twitter.
Inevitably, a two-party system arises as voters start voting against politicians and positions instead of for them. This is due to the spoiler effect – a third party that gains substantial votes in a first past the post system is extremely unlikely to actually win an election, but has the side-effect of crippling the major political party that has the most in common with it, and thus the most crossover voters. This subsequently leads to the party that would not be most voters’ first choice winning the election (Witte, 2012).
Despite George Washington’s warning about the formation of political parties, the first American political parties sprung up almost immediately after his presidency (Jamison, 2014). Parties in a duopoly generally form on opposite sides of a single issue, and then expand to cover opposing sides of other issues. In this case, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party were opposed on the concept of the strength of the federal government in relation to the state governments – a legacy from the compromises necessary to form the federal government. The Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties then expanded to take opposing sides on whether to support Great Britain or France in the Napoleonic Wars, whether to have a national bank or not, whether to empower cities or farmers, and whether to have a standing army or not. Even in these early days of the republic, the spoiler effect was a known phenomenon. The election of 1800 had both the John Adams-affiliated Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans plan to deny the other party an electoral vote by having an affiliated elector vote for a third candidate (Mancini, 2016).
This is hardly a system that gets voters excited to vote. Instead, it leads to voter dissatisfaction as voters continually see candidates drum the party line when in primary season, then shift to a more central position when the general election comes around. Issues raised and promises made inevitably do not get fulfilled because a promise made during primary season may be in direct opposition to a general election pledge. This feeds the antidemocratic belief that voting changes nothing, which lowers voter participation rates and causes a greater chasm between the popular will and public policies. The United States of America has a particular problem with voter turnout – out of the 35 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 28th in voter turnout, at 55.7% (DeSilver, 2017). If one were to rank only registered voters, the United States ranks 4th at 86.8%, but that belies the core problem – a gigantic amount of Americans are not registered to vote, and 69% of polled non-registered Americans stated a lack of interest in politics or not being inspired by a candidate was the reason for not registering (Pew Trusts, 2017). Inevitably this comes down to the Republican and Democrat parties monopolizing American politics, then not fielding candidates that American voters would get excited for.
Such a duopoly also exacerbates the tribalistic tendencies that instilled a sense of community and common virtue in humanity’s early days, but can unravel national unity in modern politics. Having multiple parties with multiple positions leaves room for discussion and moderation, which is a foundational necessity for a functional government. When every problem only has the solution that Party A supports and Party B supports, every other possibility gets drowned out. This leads to extremism as policies are increasingly enacted unilaterally without any support from the other side, which leads to reciprocated extremism if and when the other party is empowered.
This tribalist downward spiral is actively happening in our republic right now, and the corporate media structure that actively pushes agendas onto their viewers is largely to blame for the extreme exacerbation of this stress; the elderly can remember the days where the likes of Walter Cronkite and Ted Koppel dominated the airwaves and gave concise, straightforward and honest reporting for the American public to digest. When news wasn’t on, debates on public policy could be witnessed with the likes of William Buckley and Gore Vidal giving energetic, intelligent, and professional points of view about controversial issues. This was due in no small part to the FCC's fairness doctrine. Enacted in 1949, it mandated that media stations adequately cover events of public interest and give opposing views fair representation.
This changed in 1985. FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, who was on President Ronald Reagan's campaign staff, oversaw the release of a report that stated the fairness doctrine infringed on the First Amendment by restricting free speech rights - interestingly in this case, the right for a media corporation to restrict the free speech of a point of view that the media corporation might not want to promote. Acting ostentatiously in the public interest, the FCC doomed America to public discourse tainted by non-stop polemic ranting when the fairness doctrine was overturned in 1987 at the behest of the new FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick, who previously served as President Ronald Reagan's associate director of presidential personnel.
Ronald Reagan's presidency is a convergence point of two eras in conservative American politics - the Nixon era, where skullduggery, subterfuge and dirty tricks were modus operandi for the presidency, and the Limbaugh era, where fire-breathing rage against liberals trying to destroy America through greed, guilt and degeneracy was pounded into drivers on their daily commute and workers tuning in at their jobs. The machinations of Roger Stone and Roger Ailes cannot be overstated in this transition – they were both staffers for President Nixon, strategists for President Reagan and advisors for presidential candidate Trump. When Fox News was founded in 1996 with Roger Ailes as its first CEO, the vilification of political opposition was assured. American democracy has never been the same since.
The reciprocal cycle of tribalism must be broken before it breaks the democracy. Unfortunately, such a dynamic can only be stopped by the two entities that have the most to gain from the status quo – the Democratic and the Republican parties. Each party effectively has a monopoly on voters that do not want the other in power, and to relinquish that monopoly by changing the voting system will give up votes, which gives up power, which gives up money. What can change this?
Populism was the theme for 2016 – the full-throated refutation of “establishment” politicians is unlikely to recede, and the concerns that led to President Trump are unlikely to be solved because of his chronic inability to maintain a cohesive message and doctrine. Ambitious politicians will seize on this anti-status quo momentum; the question will be if they can make it out of the primaries. If such a reform-minded politician manages to gain the nomination and ultimately the presidency, the most effective improvement they can make is by implementing preferential voting.
What is preferential voting? Instead of voting for a single candidate in a race, a voter can rank candidates based on their preference. All first-choice votes are then tallied – if no candidate earns at least 50% of the votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped from the voting roll and that candidate’s first-choice voters then have their vote be tallied for their second-choice. If there is still no candidate that achieves the necessary vote percentage, then the candidate with the least amount of votes at this stage is dropped, with that candidate’s first-choice and second-choice voters having their votes transferred to their second-choice or third-choice candidate. This process continues until a candidate reaches the necessary threshold.
The preferential voting system is more complicated than the single-vote system, but its methodology achieves a much broader voter satisfaction by crowning a victor that the majority of voters, at the very least, can tolerate. The method of recalculating votes may be time consuming, but this can be moderated by automated vote counting on paper ballots – essentially a political scantron. If there is a question about the legitimacy of a vote due to political corruption or electronic hacking, the paper ballots can be manually counted to verify an election result. Detractors will indubitably say that such a change will be confusing to voters, with overtures to the hanging chads of the 2000 elections almost certain. To that, there is a simple counter - why do you think Americans are incapable of understanding a voting system that is already used worldwide?
Preferential voting is used in some form by twelve countries in federal elections, the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, the state of Maine and several American municipalities. Australia can hold itself high as the first country to adopt preferential voting - they enacted it in 1918 (Australian Academy of Science, 2017). It is difficult to gauge how much this influenced Australian turnout, as they introduced mandatory voting in 1926. But it was evidently not too complicated for Australians reeling from World War 1, as it is apparently not too complicated for the Slovenians, Sri Lankans, Hongkongers, Irish, Czechs, Maltese, et al.
If the United States were to enact such a system, it would likely cause an unraveling of the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrat party would likely split between the Social Democrats (represented by Bernie Sanders) and the more corporate-friendly Social Liberals (represented by Hillary Clinton), while the Republican party would splinter into at least three groups; the Free-Trade Libertarians (represented by Rand Paul), the Paternal Autocrats (represented by Donald Trump) and the Political Christians (represented by Mike Pence). This is the field that should be given to the American public to decide - a full spectrum of political opinions and positions, instead of the filtered, corporate parading that is spit at the voting populace through propaganda channels disguising themselves as bearers of truth in media.
Will this change happen? If it does, it is likely not going to be implemented in the federal level until there are a significant amount of states that use it for their own elections. American voters are likely going to want several state-wide American examples before the entire federal political landscape is upended. It must be restated that the Republican and Democrat party establishment will likely be suppressing potential candidates that would support this measure; this means it will be up to American voters to demand reform in clear and concise language that will counter the inevitable institutional backlash. It should thus be a paramount priority to reinstate the fairness doctrine for media so sensible discussion and debate can be available to the American public. This way, the necessity of broadcasting the methodology and benefits of preferential voting can be achieved through well-cited debates, which will lead to the necessary conversations in homes, pubs, community boards and party meetings.
Then, and only then, will sanity be restored in American politics.
Jamison, D. (2014, December 31). George Washington's views on political parties in America. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/31/george-washingtons-views-political-parties-america/
Mancini, M. (2016, July 28). 12 Facts About the Election of 1800. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/82871/12-facts-about-election-1800
Witte, J. (2012, February 28). Third Parties and the Spoiler Effect In the 2012 Election. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.fairvote.org/third-parties-and-the-spoiler-effect-in-the-2012-election
DeSilver, D. (2017, May 15). U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/
Pew Trusts. (2017, June 21). Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote? Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2017/06/why-are-millions-of-citizens-not-registered-to-vote
Australian Academy of Science. (2017, November 23). The mathematics of voting. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.science.org.au/curious/everything-else/mathematics-voting