Why presidential elections are a bad place to fight the two-party system


I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem, and it got me thinking about third parties. Here’s the analogy: the problem with third parties in US politics is that the law of physics under which they operate create impenetrable barriers for a three-party equilibrium.

To be specific: first-past-the-post victory conditions, for single-member districts, layered on top of the Electoral College (state-by-state) presidential system, all doused in a healthy draught of Madisonian federalism. Bring all this together, and you have a set of institutions that are structurally hostile to third parties.

And yet, for some reason, the ‘two party duopoly’ is almost always blamed on things like media refusal to acknowledge third parties, the cynicism and/or stupidity of voters, and efforts by the existing parties to isolate and exclude other alternatives.

Now, to be clear, all those things do matter. But they are mostly the effects, not the causes, of our political system. The media tends not to treat third parties as viable because, given the institutional setup I just described, they aren’t viable, except under truly extraordinary circumstances.

The problem: ‘third parties’ aren’t really parties

We run into trouble on this point, largely because our indeterminate language fails to really capture the nature of the conflict. For the average third-party-curious voter, parties are primarily ideological coalitions, organized around a package of issues. So, if the two main parties fail to reflect your particular package of values, you defect and seek out another option.

The problem is: given the structures of our political system, that’s not what parties are.

Sure, the two main parties have ideological positions, and those do generate the terrain on which most partisan separation takes place. But those values aren’t the core functions of parties. The core function is, quite simply, to win elections. Obviously, winning elections in a country full of people with deep political and moral values means that parties have to become vehicles for the expression of those values. But they must constantly balance those interests with the baser objective of maintaining a coherent organizational structure upon which to mobilize future action.

To put it as bluntly as possible: that’s what it means to be a party, given the underlying physics of the American political structure. But that’s precisely what existing third parties refuse to do, and for obvious reasons. After all, they are organized (to the extent that they are organized at all) around dissatisfaction with the transactional structure of the existing parties.

This simple fact generates a huge amount of conflict among partisans of both models. Much of the ‘throwing away your vote’ rhetoric lobbed in both directions stems from a failure to understand what the other side even wants.

Third parties and the three-body problem

So what does this all mean for third party debates?

Well, put simply: the barriers to meaningful third party participation in politics have almost nothing to do with top-level votes for president, but have everything to do with the nitty-gritty details of the electoral process.

Since there is no plausible equation for a stable three-party system in our existing physics (the three body problem), those third parties that do successfully intrude into an election are certainly capable of producing chaos, but the terminal result is always ejection. Usually of the upstart party, though it’s always theoretically plausible for one of the existing two parties to collapse.

But, and this is crucial, even if the upstart party somehow knocks one of the others off the perch, it won’t really change anything. Because the reasons why parties act like they do (as transactional entities—with all the corruption, side-dealing, and collaborative elitism that this entails) has nothing to do with their ideologies. It’s a function of basic two-party equilibrium. No matter how radical a new entrant might be in its conception, victory inevitably drives out that radicalism. You only need look at the Republican Party of the 1860s, which went from Radical Reconstructionism to an elite-driven Corrupt Bargain in under a decade.

Much like The Santa Clause, if you kill one of the old duopoly, you merely end up taking its place.

These are the two possible effects of third party voting in a presidential race: 1) a bee-sting campaign, which inflicts pain on the target but also kills the bee, and 2) a Santa Clause campaign which fails to resolve the underlying problem of two-party dominance.

The mutable physics of two-party systems

However, none of this is to say that the situation is hopeless.

Because, it turns out, the physics of the political universe aren’t locked into place. While it takes a lot of work, they can be changed. It just requires reorienting your attitude toward the problem. Fighting this out at the level of the presidency is like trying to put out a burning building with a squirt gun. But if you go further upstream, far less pressure is necessary to shift the course of events.

And here is a place where Madisonian federalism becomes an advantage. Because our system as a whole is exceptionally difficult to move. But each individual polity does have the freedom to set its own election laws. Which means there’s room for experimentation at lower levels. And election reform at the state/city/town level is absolutely doable, and has the potential to spill up, if people genuinely prefer it.

There’s plenty of options here: proportional representation systems with multi-member districts, single-transferable vote models, systems that let you indicate all acceptable candidates, etc.

None of these systems are perfect, either. But they are at least real alternatives, in the sense that they create room for third parties to function as ideological agents without being crushed by the weight of our institutional structure.

So who should you vote for in the presidential election?

Vote for whoever you like!

I’m not making a categorical argument against third party voting. A ballot for Johnson or Stein (or someone else) DOES have real effects, and you might well decide that those effects are positive ones. A few examples:

  • You might want to send a message, playing the role of the bee whose sting can punish those who moved away from your issues.
  • You might hope cultivate a viable party, capable of replacing one of the current kings of the roost. This was at least a plausible scenario for Johnson in the winter and early spring. It hasn’t turned out that way, which suggests that we’re not too likely get a new Santa Clause anytime soon. But if ever there was a time for an external revolt, Trump is likely the guy against which to act.
  • You might simply feel that your vote simply reflects your personal convictions, and you have to go with whoever is closest to those convictions.

Now I don’t happen to agree with any of those approaches, but they are reasonable, grounded positions. My only argument here is that ‘striking a blow against two-party-ism’ is simply not one of the plausible outcomes of a Johnson/Stein vote.

So if you can tolerate one of the major party candidates, but are hesitant to vote for them mostly out of disgust for the duopoly, my advice is to find other more useful avenues for expressing that frustration, and cast a vote for one of the major parties in the meantime.

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