“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country”
Abraham Lincoln said these words in an annual address he gave to the 37th Congress of the United States, in 1862. Do you know what he means? He means that there are certain dogmas, certain principles that we accept as incontrovertibly true. They are principles of a world that now lives in the past, they are principles that were once sufficient. But the world is changing, and for the circumstances that we now endure, the dogmas of the past are inadequate. They’re no longer enough. We must disenthrall ourselves from these principles, the time has come for us to question them, and to stop accepting them as being just the way that things are.
Lincoln gave this address one month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Rather than talking about slavery in the literal sense, I hope to discuss how we can emancipate ourselves from a different type of slavery. In a sense, as American citizens we are slaves to the Democratic, and the Republican parties. Given that there are two of them, you are provided with the illusion that you have the freedom of choice over those principles which govern you, and to which you are required to pay homage. But there is no choice. It was quite clear during the 2016 presidential election, as well as in many of the 2018 midterm races, and it’s likely that prospects for the 2020 election cycle will be just as bleak. The choice is not in the hands of the people to decide who is best fit to govern, the choice is between which of our two candidates is the lesser of two evils. And do you know what? We have nobody to blame but ourselves, because we accept it. We have the power to change things and we don’t. We accept that there are two parties, and that there are only two parties that matter, and that is just the way things are.
There was a time when the two party system in America was sufficient, but it is no longer the case, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that it is. In this modern interconnected, technological, globalized world with all of its infinite complexities, are we really so naïve as to think that there are only one of two ways of dealing with our elaborate problems? It seems a bit of an oversimplification. As of May 2018 there were 32 distinct ballot-qualified political parties in the United States, and there were 230 state-level ballot-qualified parties, but since George Washington left office 220 years ago, we have been dominated by this two-party system, and for the past 160 years, those two parties have remained unchanged. The outcome of every single national election since Buchanan, has yielded either a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. In all fairness, those two parties have evolved and adapted their own internal structures, and their own political platforms over that time. But the fact remains that there are only two of them.
It is not uncommon for an American voter to be told that voting for a third party, is ‘wasting a vote’ that could have been given to one of the two major parties. People that say this, are not ignorant, they are right. Under the current American electoral system, they are absolutely right, and here is why:
The United States electoral system (with a few state exceptions) operates under what is called ‘Winner Takes All.’ For those unfamiliar, the United states votes indirectly for our President, through a body called the electoral college. States have different numbers of electoral votes based on population. The most populous states, such as California have as many as fifty-five electoral votes, while some of the less populous states such as Wyoming and the Dakotas have only three.
The problem however, lies in that whichever of our two major candidates wins the plurality of popular votes in a particular state, wins all of the electoral votes of that state. So hypothetically, if a Democratic candidate were to win 49% of the popular vote in Texas (always unlikely), Texas in theory would not cast roughly half of its 38 electoral votes to the Democrat, and roughly half to the Republican opponent in order to accurately represent its population. The Republican would win all 38 of Texas’ electoral votes. If there are more than two candidates, the ‘winner’ does not even need to win a majority, only a plurality (less than 50%, but more than any other candidate). Hypothetically then, a candidate favored by far less than half of the population of a state could still win all of its votes. This same system is used to cast votes for Congressmen, if you were curious.
Do you see the problem? The obvious problem here is that a large portion of the population is not represented, and their votes are wasted. What this leads to is the dreaded wasted vote theory. People who vote, feel the need to vote strategically. So rather than voting for a candidate whom they may actually favor, they instead vote for the major party candidate out of fear of wasting their vote, because they believe the smaller party candidate has no chance to win. And they are right.
This lack of voter support of third parties also suppresses their formation, and discourages viable smaller party candidates from running to avoid being spoilers. As a result people are often not voting for who they favor, but rather they are voting against who they despise the most. This is a real problem, and an inherently undemocratic one.
So the trouble is not that we all aren’t banding together in protest to vote for Libertarians, Socialists, or Tea Partiers, the trouble is that the system is broken. And we can not simply mend the broken system by throwing votes to a different set of dominating parties. We need a new system. There are various other functional electoral systems which are particularly popular in European States. Proportional Representation, or Mixed Member proportional representation for example are systems which allow votes to be more proportionately distributed, although problems still prevail. We won’t get much into that here, because America is not a European State, and it is impractical to compare it to one. The point however, is that there is more than one way of voting, and more than one way of voting democratically.
A proposed alternative is Ranked Choice Voting, or Instant Runoff voting as it’s sometimes called. How it works is that you are given a choice of all of the candidates running for office on the ballot, and you rank them, as your first, second, third choice and so on. The candidate with the least votes, is automatically eliminated, and the votes are distributed appropriately to the second choices of those who favored him or her. This continues until someone has the majority. Im attracted to its simplicity, but it is only one viable alternative solution which would leave us all better off.
Why would it be better? Only one person can hold the presidency after all, so regardless, a large portion of the country is always going to be disappointed with the outcome of the election from an ideological perspective.
The reason this is better than the current system is because it is effective in providing voters with more options for viable candidates, that actually have the capacity to win. It doesn’t discourage third parties from forming, or discourage third party candidates who better represent minorities, from running in state and national elections. It encourages higher voter turnouts, and stifles the wasted vote problem. It encourages diversity of political viewpoints, and candidate backgrounds. It does better to encourage majority support rather than awarding an arguably undeserved victory to a candidate winning only a plurality of popular votes. The candidates that emerge, whether Democrats, Republicans or others, have incentive to alter the current status quo for acceptable political behavior. It encourages candidates to appeal to the general public more authentically based on policy, rather than simply attacking their opponents to attract more votes in their direction. Thereby, it also discourages the wasting of millions on negative campaign ads, that would be rendered far less effective under this electoral system, reducing somewhat the vast influence of special interest groups on domestic politics, putting accountability of elected officials back into the hands of the people. It should reduce party partisanship by bringing candidates more towards moderate views which appeal to a larger number of people, views that are more effective toward creating compromise across party lines.
In summation Electoral reform would emancipate us. We are slaves to a broken democracy, but we are still a democracy. It is unrealistic to expect the powerful party system to dismantle itself voluntarily, for the purpose of diminishing its own power. Change is necessary, but a change of this magnitude has to come about on its own. It is our responsibility as citizens to hold accountable those who govern us.
In 2016 citizens of Maine voted in favor of ‘Question 5’ in which the people elected to be the first State to make this change to our electoral system, and hope for implementation by the year 2021. By means of ballot initiative, there is no reason why many of the rest of us can’t be voting on the same legislation by the next election cycle. Linked below are the 26 states that allow individual citizens to introduce initiatives on state ballots, and how to go about doing so. It takes but only one individual to start a petition, and to start a movement.