This election, Americans are choosing between two incredibly unpopular candidates. According to surveys, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have 37% approval ratings. To put that in Rotten Tomatoes terms, they both have the same approval rating as “Bicentennial Man” and “Scary Movie 4” (and, perhaps ominously, “The Purge.”) Americans, by and large, are not thrilled to vote for the two people who have a legitimate chance at winning. The primary process of the two major parties has left us feeling at a loss. We’d rather vote for someone else—ideally Terry Crews, but frankly at this point we’d settle.
So we turn our attention to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, who like many third party candidates before them are fully prepared to suggest sweeping-but-impractical-sounding reforms to take advantage of our disappointment in the Republicans and Democrats. They have to overcome two hurdles—first, convincing voters that they’re well-qualified to be president, and second, convincing those same voters that a third party vote isn't “throwing away your vote.” Even in an electoral year like this one, when the two major candidates have worse approval ratings than Comcast and Time Warner Cable, third party candidates may be able to overcome the quality hurdle but not the viability hurdle. Let’s think for a second about why.
Here's the short answer: the twin effects of Duverger’s Law and the Spoiler Effect. I can explain to you how these effects work, but you’re better served watching this video, which features a monkey. As the monkey video explains, over time winner-takes-all voting systems like America’s tend toward a relatively stable two-party system. People of varied political convictions will gather together around a compromise candidate they don’t particularly like in order to defeat a candidate they really don’t want in office. There are exceptions, but in general this has proved a useful predictive tool for political scientists over the last half-century. These effects lead to a high percentage of people who feel like the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” does not truly represent their interests even when “their” party is in power. It also leads to a high percentage of people who are voting against more so than voting for. And that’s just the beginning of ways our electoral system is leading us to a grating tension between two parties.
The long and short of it is, third party candidates don’t just have the cards stacked against them because they lack the name recognition, funding, and legitimacy that comes from a major political party. They have the cards stacked against them because the very nature of our winner-takes-all electoral system pushes people to vote for the lesser of two evils. Perhaps counter-intuitively, if you want America to have a more vibrant, more diverse, more representative government, championing a third party candidate is not the best strategy. A better approach would be advocating a change in the rules of American democracy. I’m not running for president, but I am suggesting a sweeping-but-impractical-sounding reform to take advantage of your disappointment in the Republicans and Democrats: Let's get talking about how to change the rules of the game. As G.B. Shaw said, democracy is a device that ensures we will never be governed by better than we deserve. If we feel like we're being governed by much worse than we deserve, maybe we should tinker with the device.
Now, for my next reform, let’s take a second to reconsider The Purge…