Third parties in American politics: usually divisive and always ineffective

One of the well known facts about the US is what is known as the “two-party” system, a system in which only the two largest parties, now Democrat and Republican, have any hope of winning an election. For a nation that claims to be the exemplar of democracy, how is this situation justified? In the current regime there are fewer choices of political affiliation than brands of cereal. What the hell, USA?

Outside the States, the American electoral system is well known to be a disaster. Contrary to what is often told about the American electoral system, the US is not a “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system, a voting system in which the candidate with the largest plurality of voters wins the election. This system is in itself flawed, because it leads to a two-party system because of the spoiler effect, polarizes the electorate, and often lowers voting outcomes. These results ¬†are often known as Duverger’s Law, named after the French political theorist, Maurice Duverger, who systematically analyzed this phenomenon in his study of the French political system, which, incidentally, is also presidential in nature. The countries that have pure FPTP systems, just as examples, are Canada and UK as well as many so-called “third world” countries.

On the other hand, the US uses a FPTP system combined with a regional primary/caucus system and an unaccountable electoral college to elect nominees for the major political parties. Despite the flaws of pure FPTP system, the American system is dynamically more flawed that British or Canadian counterparts, because not only does it have the flaw of possible minority rule and restriction of political parties, but it also exaggerates the potential for restriction of the franchise (suffrage) through arcane primary regulations, undermines democratic elections through an unaccountable electoral body, and increases the possibility of minority rule because of the unusual overrepresentation of “swing” states over other states.

The more pertinent question, however, is why do Americans tolerate such a flawed system even when there are clearly more effective alternatives? This is one that only an American can answer. The answer is not American exceptionalism. This notion is not widely accepted among the local population. One of the assumptions is that the US is a Western nation, but as previously mentioned, this assumption is flawed in numerous ways (See America and the Western Membership Fallacy). This fallacy naturally extends qualities of European countries, the most developed on Earth, that are not characteristic of the US, often with a blatantly racist overtone. The quality that is relevant here and missing in the US is education of political systems in the public school system. Americans learn the American constitution, American political theory, and that’s it. If an American asks you for the name of the British president, do not be offended or alarmed at the obvious ignorance of basic political theory, but instead, realize that these are things largely omitted from the education of Americans. Even attempts to educate Americans are challenged by the neofascist wing of the Republican party, the so-called “neoconservatives”, just looking at constant threats towards Howard Zinn’s Education Project, a far cry from former Republican president Rutherford Hayes and his clear desire to maintain an educated public. In his 1877 inaugural address, Hayes supported public education, because, in his words:

But at the basis of all prosperity, for that as well as for every other part of the country, lies the improvement of the intellectual and moral condition of the people. Universal suffrage should rest upon universal education. To this end, liberal and permanent provision should be made for the support of free schools by the State governments, and, if need be, supplemented by legitimate aid from national authority.

What is clear is that both education and the political system will need to be reformed, but to do so will require new alternatives outside of current political norms. As Einstein noted, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them.”


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