The Constitution does not mandate America’s de facto two-party system; it does not mention political parties at all. Yet while the identities of the parties– in both name and platform– have changed over time, the United States has been a two-party country really since before day one.
There is much to be commended about the two-party system as it exists in the U.S. today. The conglomerate, dynamic nature of the parties means that the they evolve by competing with each other to attempt to absorb new movements and the votes that come with them. (Cf. Democrats and Greens with Republicans and Tea Partiers. The question of what happens once that absorption takes place– the assimilation– is a subject for another post.) It really is not so dissimilar from multiparty, parliamentary-style democracies, the difference being that those systems wait until after an election to form a coalition government, while the American system forms would-be governing coalitions before the election.
The third parties that persist in a two-party system like America’s without absorption generally are of two kinds: 1) the very unpopular or 2) the fundamentally opposed to both major parties. An unpopular faction will not be absorbed because it either is merely unpopular in the numerical sense or it is unpopular in the ideological sense. An unpopular faction is unlikely to coalesce into a functional political party for a variety of practical reasons.
The second variety of third parties mentioned is all that really remains for third parties under today’s two-party system. Because the major parties cover virtually the entire spectrum of substantive interests, the only thing left for a third party is to oppose both parties at some fundamental level, and that’s what America’s two most viable third parties– the Green and Libertarian Parties– are doing. Dissecting why the Green Party persists is a subject for another post. This post, unsurprisingly, will focus on the Libertarian Party.
I’ve already written at length here about libertarianism and some of its challenges. See, e.g., here, here, and here. With next week’s presidential election looming, the immediate question is whether it makes sense to actually vote for a third-party candidate. Most Americans profess concern with the notion that their vote “count.” People most concerned that their vote doesn’t count tend to be those in states with large populations and states that heavily favor the major party other than the one they support. This year, with the broadening popularity of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, some are wondering whether a vote for Johnson would be a wasted vote. The unstated basis for that view is the logical assumption that Johnson will not win the election.
That is a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. There’s no way Johnson can win if nobody votes for him, whatever their reasoning; conversely, if enough people ignored that assumption and voted for him, he would win. Still, though, that is unlikely to happen either, because there don’t appear to be enough people who would even consider supporting Johnson regardless of their expectation of his success.
I think the real underlying sentiment among voters is that they want to pick a winner. In other words, they want their votes to “count” in the sense that they want their votes to achieve something. If there’s no reasonably likely way the candidate will win or even come close, people will see a vote for that candidate as a vote that was “wasted.” The vote had no hope of achieving anything.
Johnson has embraced the “wasted vote” concept:
“Wasting your vote is voting for somebody that you don’t believe in,” an impassioned Johnson said. “That’s wasting your vote. I’m asking everybody here, I’m asking everybody watching this nationwide to waste your vote on me.”
His statement includes an important response to the “wasted vote” critique that seeks to redefine the concept: “Wasting your vote is voting for somebody you don’t believe in.” He realized he needed to add a practical goal, though, to help people see their votes as votes that would “count” in that second sense of achieving something, even if it wasn’t an outright victory for their candidate. He has done that by setting a goal of securing five percent of the popular vote nationwide, an achievement that would entitle the Libertarian Party to public campaign funding (something the major parties now have rejected, with President Barack Obama setting a record by raising over $1 billion) and a spot on the ballot in every state in the 2016 election. This is a goal the potential achievement of which Johnson believes his potential supporters will see as sufficient to consider a vote for him as one that will “count.”
Everybody likes to pick a winner, and everyone wants to be on the right side of history. Letting the perfect become the enemy of the good isn’t always practical. But maybe it’s worth reexamining our approach to voting if we find ourselves voting for a candidate other than the one we want to win the election.
Johnson may not win this election. He may not even make it to five percent of the national popular vote. (After all, the most successful third party campaign, Ralph Nader’s 2000 effort for the Green Party, only secured 2.74% of the popular vote. Right now, Johnson is polling at six percent nationwide.) What he already has done, though, is initiated a compelling discussion about reconceptualizing how Americans vote. All he needs now is five out of every one hundred voters to agree that that is a conversation that should continue.
“Come waste your [vote] with me”