Government Myths #6 & #7

posted Jun 11, 2005

This is the final posting of the Government Myths series. As you might imagine, the urgency of the series decreased as we left the election season.

Unfortunately, I have already seen the first glimmerings that we are entering the next one (ugh!), as I've already seen stories about who is considering running. Things seem right on track so that by the 2012 election, 2016 at the latest, the campaign for the next election will immediately start after the swearing-in ceremony.

But down to business...

Myth #6: Third Parties Are Useless And You Waste Your Vote With Them #

The US is not formally a two-party system, and the third parties are not extraneous to the process. It's just that their job isn't really to get elected, they function as a certain type of very active advocacy. Since the meta-coalitions really have no "core platform" that they must stick to or face dissolution (though they may forget this periodically), they can always absorb some other position that will get them votes. This is evidenced by the fact that the Republicans and the Democrats have almost completely flip-flopped a few times in their history; it is the fact of their opposition on the most popular issues that stays constant, not their positions.

Every person who can vote, but votes for neither party, represents a failure of both parties to reach out and satisfy that voter. The existance of every third party, and the votes that party recieves, represents a collection of issues that themselves speak strongly enough to a set of some voters that they actually gave their vote to this third party.

These facts do not exist in isolation; these third parties are all watched by the dominant parties, and positions are "stolen" from them as needed. The Democrats have lifted several positions from the Green platform (although I am not clear on the chronology of the formal Green Party entity). The Republicans have lifted several positions from the Libertarians. The influence of the formal parties called "Green" and "Libertarian" is minimal. The influence of the voters who gravitate towards those alternate interests is quite significant.

It is this "borrowing" of the issues that keeps the third parties from replacing the current dominant two, on the whole. Still, their existance serves both to emphasize the importance of their respective views, and to serve as an final backup to the complete implosion of one of the dominant parties.

(It is worth pointing out that amoung the consequences of the ideas I discuss in this series is that any such implosion will be almost completely a structural failing of the party, not an ideological one. The leadership will be weak, or make poor choices, or some deep scandal may destroy the party as an organization... but the party is an effect of people ideologies, not a cause, and none of the ideologies will be destroyed as a result. One of the perennial failures of dominant parties is to misinterpret their dominance as a sign of approval of the party, rather than the current platform.

And yes, I am pretty explicitly talking about the current Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats remain in general turmoil, but their causes have not gone away, and the Republicans, even speaking as one who voted for them, seem to be headed for very classic and misguided arrogance of this type. And the wheel turns...)

Myth #7: The Two-Party System Has No Redeeming Characteristics #

This is frequently accompanied by a call to change our voting system to something more like another country's system, having the result of changing our system to look more like a conventional coalition system.

I can't say whether our two-party system is superior or inferior, which is why the myth is phrased like it is. All I can say is that there are some distinct advantages.

The advantage mostly centers around the ability of the system to remain centrist, and the extreme difficulty of extremist positions to come to any significant and prolonged power. Under other systems, the "Wacko Paranoid" party, a party beloved by and populated with untreated paranoid schizophrenics, firmly against black helicopters, government mind-control rays, and its own nefarious existance, might be able to win some seats, and due to the way any seat can become a tie-breaking seat, wield wildly disproportionate power at certain times.

Under the US system, even if a meta-coalition courts the "Wacko Paranoid" vote (and let me defuse the obvious partisan jokes by saying with assurance that both do), the "Wacko Paranoids" will be just another aspect of the party without a distinct seat or representative, and they will not wield undue power due to freak circumstances.

Of course, if you are sympathetic to one of these wacko positions, and nearly anyone who thinks independently is sympathetic to at least one of them, this might look like a bad thing since it keeps the Greens or the Libertarians or your choice of positions from having any direct power. Well, remember that it works the other way, too; whatever wacko party you intensely dislike (and again, almost all independent thinkers have at least one) are kept out of direct power, too. Sure, the Dems, the Repubs, maybe both, really suck, but be honest: There really could be worse people in power, no?

It is easy to be short-sighted and think "Gee, if only our system worked this way, my views would be better represented." But face facts: If your viewpoint can't dominate or even significantly influence events in the current system, it isn't going to do that well in an alternate democratic system either. You might get a formalized chair and have a better defined influence, but so will your enemies and they are just as likely to win. As a society, I think it makes some sense to apply a centrist averaging to the whole process.

This also explains why the Presidential election matters. Sure, both Presidents are ultimately fairly centrist, and if your defining issues are extremist relative to the rest of the society it might be disappointing. In fact, everybody agrees that the two candidates are more alike than different. The reason for that is that the ways in which they are alike are basically the mainstream of society, which is to say, if you try to field a candidate that is not also alike in those same ways, they are likely to lose a lot of votes, as evidenced by the continued failure of the alternate candidates.

The ways in which the candidates differ are the issues that are contentious in the mainstream, and are chosen to maximize the votes they will get. It is true that this to some degree disenfranchises the extremists. My personal sympathy lies with the Libertarians, for instance. But I have to admit that on the whole, this is probably a good thing.

Even if we did have an alternate system, by and large, it will not suddenly result in the glorious ascension of your preferred ideology to power. All it would really do is destabilize our existing system, and inject more random luck into the system. On the whole, that's not a win.

(This is the final post in the Government Myths series.)


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