Minority Opinions

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Party Pairs

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Consider the history of the U.S. political parties.  Except for a short Era of Good Feeling and an even shorter period around the founding of the country, the nation’s short history has been dominated by exactly two major political parties, with a few minor ones here and there.  There have been shake-ups and reorganizations, but they always settle into the same pattern.  Since the Civil War, the dominant pair has even retained the same pair of names.

There’s a good reason for this, of course.  Basically, it boils down to the fact that voters aren’t stupid.

When three candidates are nominated for a single position, in most elections, each voter is expected to choose exactly one of them.  The one who collects the most votes wins the seat.  This leads to an uncomfortable choice for those whose favorite candidate is least likely to win, but whose least favorite candidate is most likely to win:  Should such a voter vote honestly, knowing that the vote is likely to be wasted, or vote for the middle candidate, in an effort to prevent the least favorite from winning?

This situation isn’t as rare as it might sound.  In fact, if the Tea Party fields a candidate in the upcoming presidential campaign, its members and sympathizers might very well face such a choice.  Should they vote for their own, or should they instead back the Republican candidate?

A similar event happened in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln became president with less than 40% of the popular vote.  Had the Northern and Southern Democratic voters been less divided, they could easily have overtaken Lincoln in the popular vote; it’s even slightly possible that they could have taken enough electoral votes to change the course of history.

In fact, any attempt to introduce a new political party serves only to weaken the standing of the most closely-aligned major party.  Unless it can collect enough membership to become one of the top two, it fails; not only is its own position weak, but that of its opponents becomes stronger.  In contrast, when a single party emerges as a clear leader, any weaker parties have an incentive to merge, just to topple the opposition.

Granted, the two-party system tends to produce a pair of parties close to the center of the political spectrum.  The left and right, the liberal and the conservative, aren’t really so very far apart; if they were, either could gain an advantage by moving just a bit closer to a reasonable compromise, picking up the voters in the center.  Radical movements can make waves in the news and entertainment industries, but tend not to perform quite as well in the ballot boxes.

Unfortunately, the two-party system also tends to tap into some of the worst parts of our human nature.  Perhaps we can blame campaigning for the first part:  With only two candidates really in the running, each one has as much incentive to highlight the opponent’s negative qualities as his own platform and positive qualities.  There’s not as much need for you to vote for me; I just need you to not vote for the other guy.

Even worse, each party can start to harp on values, making the other party seem evil in comparison.  At its most insidious, a party’s value system can permeate social groups, making those with different moral and/or economic priorities extremely uncomfortable.  When said social groups include churches, the moral dimensions frequently get inflated beyond all sense of proportion, at the cost of economic or even constitutional concerns.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to topple the two-party system.  It will be tricky, but I believe it’s possible.  The key is to change how we vote.

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Written by eswald

2 May 2011 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Politics

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