by Jerry Frescia
www.zmag.net, February 28, 2006
Again and again progressives step forward
to remind us of how bad the Democratic Party, or at least its
leadership, is. The point of the lament is to encourage the support
of third party candidates and parties.
This type of analysis is troubling, not
because its analysis of the Democratic party is incorrect, but
because the analysis leaves unexamined the institutional arrangement
that makes a vibrant 3rd party at the federal level impossible.
Never in American history has a third party captured the presidency.
The Republican success in 1860 was anomalous in that one of the
two major parties was simply torn apart by the divisions that
issued in the Civil War soon after.
The possible election of Bernie Sanders
as an Independent senator from Vermont is also anomalous. Vermont,
in terms of population is essentially a congressional district.
Sander's Independent Party is not a national or oppositional
party. In fact, it may be in virtue of Sanders' distance from
progressive third parties - the nominal independence from politics
- that wins him broad support in a small state.
So here is my point: our political institutions
were designed to give the appearance of public participation while
preventing its substance. The two party system is part of that
design. Encouraging third party participation makes sense only
if it is one element in a campaign to establish democratic institutions
in the US. With that in mind, let's take a look at the three central
institutional features of our political system that insures at
the federal level that only two parties will ever have a real
chance of governing. They are the Electoral College, single-member
districts and plurality elections.
On four occasions in US history, the candidate
with the most popular votes did not win the presidency. This is
a feature of a republican form of government, a government that
is intended to "check" popular participation and "leveling"
or democratic impulses. The mechanism by which this is done is
the Electoral College. The Electoral College also insures that
the number of parties seriously competing for the presidency will
always be and only be two.
Each State's allotment of electors is
equal to the number of House members to which it is entitled plus
two Senators (with the District of Columbia getting three). But
here is the key element for our purposes: in order to win the
presidency, a candidate must win a majority of electors.
By requiring that a candidate win a majority,
the Electoral College guarantees that third parties must do one
of three things. Let's assume a third party arises and is incredibly
strong (the Perot candidacy that for a time was pushing 20 percent
nationally), but has no realistic chance of wining a majority
of electors straight out. Its first choice is to press forward,
win a significant percentage of electors and deny either of the
two major parties a majority victory. In this case, the election
would be decided by the House of Representatives, already dominated
by the major parties. Option 1: third party looses everything.
The second option, again assuming a strong
third party, is to coalesce with one of the major parties in order
to get something. Arguably the most powerful progressive political
party was the People's Party during the late 19th century. In
1896, they had anywhere from 25 to 45 percent strength in twenty-odd
states. Clearly unable to win the presidency as a third party,
they felt compelled to coalesce with the Democrats and saw their
more radical labor and socialist elements purged in a losing effort.
Well, there you are. Option 2 puts you back inside one of the
The third option arises when a third party
is not that strong, say a Nadar candidacy of 2000. We know what
happens there. A weak third party, by taking votes away from the
party closest to it ideologically will, in effect, help elect
the major party most unlike themselves. Option 3: help the other
Single-member districts simply mean that
in any given district, the winner takes all. That is, if the Republicans
get 42 percent in a congressional district and the Democrats get
36 percent and the Greens get 22 percent, the district will still
be represented by a single member, in this case the Republican.
This is not terribly democratic as you can see. The majority of
voters (Democrat and Green or 58 percent) garner zero representation.
Third parties loose, everything.
Single member districts, of course, stand
in contrast to proportional representation which permits third
parties to gain a foothold in proportion to their strength. Prior
to 1842, we should note, single member districts in the House
of Representatives did not exist in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi,
Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island. In these
states, the entire congressional delegation was elected at large
by means of what was called a general ticket. A return to the
election of state delegations at large might lend itself nicely
to proportional representation. In any case, we can see that the
current arrangement is not carved in stone.
At the city level, proportional systems
of representation have encouraged greater popular participation.
In New York City from 1936 to 1947, proportional representation
resulted in the participation of the American Labor Party, the
Liberal Party, the Communist Party and the Fusion forces. In addition
to a number of blacks, two Communists were elected to the city
council. That did it. Business forces restored the two party system,
the only true "democratic" form of party participation
as they put it.
Plurality elections mean that the candidate
with the most votes wins. Unless the third party candidate is
about to out poll the Democrat or Republican, supporters of third
parties get no representation. Zero. Moreover, with this in mind,
we are often told that voting our conscience is tantamount to
throwing our vote away or electing "the other guy."
For example, if George Bush, Bill Clinton and Noam Chomsky were
to run (and could) for governor of California, the odds are pretty
good that Noam would come in third. And there would be a very
intense debate over whether or not we should vote for Clinton
or Noam. This is the curse of plurality elections.
However, there are numerous mayoral elections
where "majority election" rules obtain. Majority elections
(sometimes called the "double primary") require a second
ballot if no candidate gets a majority in the first round. This
scheme encourages third parties because you are encouraged to
vote your conscience in the hope that your party might at least
come in second, in which case there would be a second ballot or
runoff between the top two vote getters. And if the progressive
party didn't make it that far, then one could choose the lesser
of two evils in the final round. Majority elections have resulted
in many progressive candidate and third party victories at the
There are many different ways of organizing
elections throughout the world. The electoral system in the United
States has been shaped to both reduce popular participation and
advance business interests. The impulse to create third party
oppositional politics is natural, positive, and will persist
until space for oppositional politics is created. However, to
assume that our system is democratic and that the creation of
oppositional politics turns only on a matter of will as opposed
to a reform of our institutions is to advocate moral victory and
None of our rights have been handed down;
they have all been won through resistance. So let's call the bastards
on their professed support for democracy. Dump the electoral
college, push for proportional representation and adopt majority
elections, already in practice around the country at the local
level, for federal office. Third parties yes, but not without
a corresponding demand for democratic elections here in the US
Reforming the Electoral Process