The Quest to End Two-Party Rule: Part 3
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” – Sir Isaac Newton
In a Part 1 of this blog, I suggested that there were three aspects that should be considered as we engage in our quest to end two-party political rule: 1) an elaboration on the nature of the Opportunity (Part 2) that lies before us, 2) an identification of the Barriers to change that stand in our way, and 3) a list of possible Strategies that might be considered as we develop plans for successfully bringing about change. In this installment …
Voters have the ultimate responsibility for allowing the old party duopoly to remain so firmly in-place. Despite extreme voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties, however, fewer than 6% of votes were cast in 2016 for presidential candidates other than Trump or Clinton. That same year, 97% of US House incumbents and 93% of US Senate incumbents were re-elected. Over half of Texas’ legislative races in 2016 had a single candidate on the ballot. Nearly 2/3 had only one major party candidate, meaning that only 1/3 of Texas’ legislative races were effectively contested.
Duopolistic thinking is firmly entrenched in most voters. After the last presidential election, many Democrats even complained that those who voted their conscience for an independent or alternative party candidate somehow wasted their votes and threw the election to Trump.
Barrier #1: Voters continue to strongly buy into the “wasted vote fallacy” that there are only two viable election choices.
Millennials (aged ~22-37) make up a significant voting bloc, roughly 27% of the voting age population. Younger voters are less prone to identify with either of the major parties and, in general, are more open to change. But they self-report that only about half vote. This compares to around 70% of those older than 55. Some combination of apathy and disillusionment seem to be keeping so many young voters unengaged in elections.
Barrier #2: Younger voter apathy and discontent cause them to vote at levels significantly lower than older voters.
Gerrymandering, first-past-the-post plurality voting, taxpayer-funded primaries, one-punch straight-ticket voting, Federal Election and Texas Ethics Commissions appointed by those already in power, and statutory ballot access restrictions are only a few of the ways that governments lock in shared two-party political power.
Duopolistic control of the legislative and executive branches of government remains strong – and resistant to altering the status quo. Redistricting (done by political parties in power) ensures as many non-competitive districts as possible, effectively dividing up the spoils between the two old parties. This enhances the incredible advantages that incumbents of both major parties continue to hold.
For an excellent discussion of the history of ballot access in the US, read Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States by Oliver Hall, director of the Center for Competitive Democracy. It’s an eye-opener.
Barrier #3: Unnecessarily restrictive statutory barriers to alternative candidates and parties have been erected to protect the interests of the duopoly.
Modern campaigns have become amazingly expensive, especially in large states such as Texas. Because governmental actions increasingly impact commercial interests, many feel compelled to try and influence those actions by providing the financial and organizational support that has come to define modern political campaigns.
Because money is fungible (and always seems to “find a way”), fixing campaign finance (e.g., reversing the Citizens United US Supreme Court ruling) is likely to do nothing to improve our politics unless the two-party power-sharing duopoly is also dealt with.
The two major parties also have a “big data” advantage. Important campaign tools, such as lists of supporters and donors and historical voting records, are prohibitively expensive for independent or upstart political movements to replicate. As populations (and data) grow, the duopoly’s competitive data advantage will very likely increase, much as it has in the commercial marketplace with firms such as Google and Amazon.
Barrier #4: The duopoly parties vigorously guard the barriers to entry that stem from their huge financial and organizational advantages.
With special constitutional protections, the press has a role as our (theoretically independent) governmental watchdogs. Yet the media stand by as the duopoly parties dictate debate terms and collude to exclude competitors from even a modicum of coverage. And even as they deplore excessive money in politics, the press continues to treat candidates with small campaign budgets as insufficiently serious.
The mainstream media may be too enmeshed with the duopoly to change their ways. Their financial interests, if nothing else, may be threatened by “breaking the rules” effectively dictated by the two duopoly parties. Given the competitive nature of their industry, larger media outlets may simply be too easily manipulated to be sufficiently independent.
Barrier #5: Media that effectively supports and protects the duopoly through its coverage of election campaigns.
These are seriously difficult barriers to overcome – and there are many more that others have suggested. In the next (final) blog I’ll discuss a few strategies to begin thinking about.
Mark Miller Dripping Springs, TX
Miller serves on the Advisory Committee of the League of Independent Voters of Texas. Visit our our Board page for more about Mark and the rest of us at LIV.