In this essay I revisit the question of why our political system is in such a mess, and what might be done about it. (If you are happy with the way things are going, you might as well stop reading now.) I looked at this situation not long ago, from a somewhat different angle .
We Americans live in a country dominated by the super-rich, who are steadily tightening their grip on the levers of power. They are served by low level managers, police and military commanders, and higher level government officials. The system is democratic in form. There are legislators, mayors, governors, the president, etc. all elected by the general population.
There are two major political parties: the Nice Party, and the Tough Party. Wealthy people are the major funders of both of them. The Nice Party purports to serve middle and lower class people, its leaders making speeches generally advocating good things for those people. The Tough Party advocates a minimal role for government except for the military and police functions. It opposes help for the poor, tries to pare down, or phase out, social security, opposes government roles in health care, and advocates privatization of many government functions, including schools and prisons.
Both parties advocate financial policies beneficial to large corporations and to wealthy people, the Tough Party to a somewhat greater extent than the Nice Party. Similarly, both parties favor an aggressive foreign policy backed by a very powerful, lavishly funded, military establishment, with hundreds of military bases all over the world, and massive internal security agencies (NSA, CIA, FBI, etc.). Again the Tough Party is somewhat more aggressive in these matters. Where they differ significantly is on issues that wealthy people are not generally united on, such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty, and gay marriage.
Nice Party politicians often make speeches, or issue statements, favoring progressive causes such as energy conservation, improving schools at all levels, strengthening labor unions, reducing the military budget, improving medical care for all, and eliminating poverty. But, when in office, they don't seem to be able to accomplish anything significant in these areas. They blame their failure on Tough Party opposition.
When election time comes, the Tough Party nominates candidates strongly espousing the party's views as sketched above. Their rhetoric is strong--they pull no punches. The Nice Party candidates speak more softly, stating all sorts of nice intentions.
There are a number of small parties espousing a wide range of views, but none of them represent real threats to acquire significant power in the short term. They are largely ignored by the media, which is firmly under the control of the super-rich. The media seldom mention parties other than the Nice or Tough.
Those who advocate supporting a minor party that opposes militarism, and favors civil liberties, medicare, and the economic interests of the vast majority of Americans are warned that, if they persist in voting along those lines, rather than voting for Nice Party candidates, the Tough Party will gain more power with terrible consequences.
But, when the Nice Party is in office, somehow things don't get any better. In fact, in many respects, things get worse, because, when bad measures are proposed by a Nice government that would have outraged most Nice supporters if proposed by a Tough government, there is much less popular opposition, since Nice Party voters are reluctant to criticize those that they voted for.
In each election cycle, the positions of the Tough Party get worse, and those of the Nice Party follow suit, tho continuing to be not quite as bad. In many cases, the Nice Party positions are very similar to what the Tough Party positions were one or two cycles back.
Both the Nice and Tough parties are heavily funded by the wealthy, both directly and thru corporations. Perhaps even more important, the mass media, almost entirely owned by the same interests, virtually ignores the other parties.
Increasingly large numbers of people are unhappy with both major parties; they are potential supporters of other parties that espouse ideas more in line with their beliefs. The problem is that it would be extremely difficult to build a new political party from scratch that would be able to win elections during its first few years of existence. Most people feel that a vote cast for a candidate who has virtually no chance of winning is a "wasted" vote. It is worth giving some thought to the validity of this feeling.
It might sound reasonable to define a wasted vote as one that has a negligible chance of affecting the outcome of the election. But does this really make sense? In any real election involving say, over a hundred thousand votes, the probability that one vote could decide the outcome is nil . So, since your vote won't decide the outcome, regardless of whether you vote for the candidate who wins, or for one who gets 1% of the total vote, it follows that your vote will, by this definition, always be wasted!
Consider now a small collection of votes, say several hundred, all cast for one particular minor party candidate. That collection might actually determine who wins. I.e., if this set of votes had been cast for one of the two major party candidates, that candidate would have won. In a very close election, these votes might tip the balance. E.g., a small set of votes for a good candidate who has a negligible chance of winning might lead to the election of a bad candidate who is worse than another bad candidate who would have otherwise have won. Voting by a large enough number of people for good candidates with no real chance of winning may lead to the election of the worst of the two leading (bad) candidates. This is the essence of the argument against voting for third party candidates.
The above reasoning has been widely used to guide the votes of a great many Americans, particularly since the end of WWII. Rather than voting for a party that truly reflects their views on most important issues, a great many of the Americans who vote (sometimes fewer than half of those eligible cast ballots ) have been voting for the major party that they think is least opposed to their views, even if there are minor parties whose platforms closely mirror their views.
How has it been working out? Given the substantial rate of progress in technology, we would expect that the lives of average Americans would have improved substantially over the past several decades. Are the prospects for young Americans getting better as time goes on? Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that, while the top 0.1% of Americans have been experiencing greatly increasing prosperity, the great majority are deriving little or no benefit from technology advances. Economic inequality has increased greatly over the past several decades. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the proportion of people in the middle class has been shrinking. In addition we are seeing a wide variety of serious problems that can plausibly be cited as being aggravated by untrammeled greed. These include climate change, pollution of all kinds, depletion of water supplies and soil. Furthermore, while there have been important advances in medical science, the cost of medication has been rising steeply, and enforcement of regulations to ensure that new medications are both safe and efficacious have been greatly weakened. The two-party system contributes greatly to this state of affairs as, on all issues involving money in any way, both parties clearly act in the interest of the super-rich.
The basic problem is that beefing up a good third party in order to make its candidates contenders for high positions does not seem to be feasible in one election cycle. E.g., it seems very unlikely that a third party could elect a new senator the first time it tries. Unsuccessful efforts to do this may help elect Tough party candidates. It appears that we are trapped in this downward spiral. But maybe not! This defeatist analysis is based on short-term thinking. We can't turn things around in one election cycle, but we don't have to. It appears that, rhetoric aside, there is very little difference in the damage done by the two major parties. Wars have been started or expanded, economic inequality increased, environmental damage done, by both Nice and Tough party governments (actually more wars have been started by the Nice Party). A key factor is that, when a Nice Party government commits some atrocious act, there is less opposition than when a Tough Party government does something very similar. Many Nice Party supporters, who would loudly complain about Tough Party acts, are silent when those they voted for do similar things. This has freed up Nice Party governments to do such things as facilitate environmentally risky oil drilling operations in the far north, launch a major campaign against whistle-blowers, greatly increase drone attacks, and assassinate Americans. The Tough Party would probably have hesitated more about such acts, due to fear of large scale public opposition.
Apart from the tactical or strategic factors discussed above, many people reject the idea of voting for a third party on emotional grounds. Those who, for their entire adult lives, have voted for one of the two parties (probably the one their parents supported) find it difficult to do otherwise. There may be a sense in which they would consider not voting for that party to be a disloyal act. This is in addition to the concern that such a vote would be making a victory by the party they consider to be the worst more likely. It takes some gumption to cast a vote for a candidate likely to lose, in order to pave the way for a future victory.
But, it is important to realize that a vote is not a bet. There is no reward for voting for the winning candidate--or penalty for voting for a loser. Actually, even the immediate consequences of a substantial third party vote would not all be bad, regardless of the outcome of the election. If the Tough Party wins, the Nice Party, while howling about "spoilers", will have been shown that failure to provide a real alternative to the Tough Party is a losing policy; their survival would depend on their becoming a real, as opposed to a fake, opposition party. Should the Nice Party win, the Tough Party might learn that they must moderate their extreme positions or face extinction as a contender. In both cases voters would learn that voting in accordance with their beliefs will not cause the sky to fall. This would encourage more people to use their votes to move the government in the direction they wish it to go. A substantial third party vote in one election could initiate a band wagon effect leading to victories in subsequent elections.
But, given the increasing role of money from the wealthy in politics, can the good guys win? One idea is to pass legislation, or even to amend the constitution, to restrict campaign contributions to modest amounts. The problem is that this would amount to asking those now in power to take action that would facilitate their own defeat. Fortunately, there is a more practical solution.
A return to the past might be the answer. Rather than relying on costly TV ads, and other forms of expensive mass advertising, the way to win might be to return to low-cost, person-to-person campaigning. Neighborhood political rallies, meetings in people's homes, handing out leaflets on the street, telephone trees, parades, and picnics do not require tons of money. Furthermore, these methods, more of a person-to-person approach, would probably be more effective. It would be a great way to exploit the fact that there are a lot more of us than there are of them. This approach can be supplemented with a dose of hi-tech campaigning via the internet, which is also relatively inexpensive.
 Stephen H. Unger , "Why Good People Vote For Bad People", Ends and Means, March 24, 2015
 Wikipedia, "List of close election results"
 Michael P. McDonald, "2014 November General Election Turnout Rates", United States Elections Project, 12/30/2014
Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
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