Dysfunctional Two-Party System
by Brad Rubin


First, I basically agree with the thesis that the two parties are monopolizing power between themselves, and that they both run the country together, with slight differences in philosophy and emphasis, but their most important priority is maintaining their joint power. On the other hand we have to acknowledge that, due to the inherent sloppiness of human affairs, the fact that no two people are really the same or would do everything the same way, that there are differences between electing different individuals to powerful positions. It's hard too imagine, for example, that Al Gore would have been so stupid as to get us stuck in this sickening and counterproductive (in the war against the jihadists) quagmire in Iraq, and that alone was enough reason to vote for him. Even if John McCain had been elected as a Republican, he undoubtedly would have done some things differently, so it is not just an issue between parties, but between individuals as well.

Nevertheless, the point that the two parties mostly run the country together from a narrow spectrum of policy options and actively shut out other possibilities is well taken. What most people don't realize is that this is not an inherent feature of democracy. Of course, the parties would like every one to believe that, but it doesn't have to be so. Take the election system that we use in which everyone can vote for one and only one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes (ignoring the distinction here between popular and electoral) wins. This is known as a "plurality" or a "first past the post" election system. It has the drawback of creating spoiler candidates - so that a vote for Nader means in effect that one is helping to elect Bush, or at least not to defeat him. This forces voters to choose the least unpalatable of two alternatives, rather than to vote with the most weight for the candidate whom they most prefer. Thus, it helps to shut out or reduce the impact of alternative points of view, which is just what the two major parties want.

In fact the thesis that first past the post systems generally (but not necessarily always) lead to two party systems was first propounded by the French sociologist Maurice Duverger in the 1950s and is sometimes called Duverger's law. Duverger asserted that such systems tend to delay or prevent the emergence of new political forces and to accelerate the demise of weakening ones. This thesis has certainly been borne out in the United States.

What most people in this country are not aware of is that this is not an inherent feature of democratic elections. There are other ways of organizing elections which allow voters to more fully express their true preferences, and thus to enhance the possibility that more weight will be given to alternative points of view. There are for example, systems in which instead of being able to vote for just one candidate, voters instead rank their preferences. One system like this is called "instant run off", others belong to a family known as Condorcet systems. Instant run off is the simplest of these. In this system, for example, if my first preference is Nader and my second is Kerry, then I would rank Nader as 1, and Kerry as 2, and Bush might be 3 by default. If any of the candidates has a majority of first place votes, then that candidate would win the election. If no candidate had a majority of first place votes, than the candidate with the fewest first place votes would be eliminated, and the second place votes of the people who voted first for that candidate, would be applied as first place votes to their second choice. If there still were no majority, then the process would be repeated, with the weakest candidate succesively eliminated until someone had a majority.

This would make it much easier for many people to express a preference for Nader first and Kerry second without having to fear that they would be inadvertently contributing to the election of Bush by doing so.

I have seen arguments against instant run off as opposed to other ranked systems with a somewhat different algorithm for deciding the winner, but the main principle that I want to get across is that the way we do elections in this country works to shut out alternatives and should be changed. It is a basic issue of voter rights, and something that far too few people are aware of. There is one page on this on the voteNader site. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_Runoff_Voting #Voting

The constitution has been ammended several times to grant or protect the voting rights of various groups: minorities, women, etc. It was just too obvious that whole groups of human beings could not be excluded, no matter how hard the old guard fought it. But what we have here now is a much more subtle situation. It requires people to think in a more intellectual way about the whole issue. The educational system clearly is not preparing them for it, and the commercial/media/advertising complex helps to serve the interests of the current system by keeping people dumbed down.

Only when enough people organize to take action and insist that the system be changed will it be possible.

Brad Rubin
Ridge, New York





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