All Tomorrow's Parties: the 2016 Election's Hard Choices

Ralph Nader has established a legacy of advocacy for over a half-century that can be matched by few, if any, activists in progressive politics. From his explosive 1965 expose. Unsafe at Any Speed, that challenged American automobile manufacturers to improve the safety of their cars, to the “Nader’s Raiders” that investigated government corruption, and on to activism for the environment, and greater public participation in elections, Nader has a record that is impeccable among the American liberals.

Or does he? As some of the Democratic presidential primary battles between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders became more heated and contentious, a charge has been made in some quarters that Senator Sanders’s continued participation in the race – or continued criticism of Secretary Clinton – could harm her ability to win the general election.  Nader has become frequently trotted out as a whipping boy with the claim that his campaign under the Green Party ticket cost then Vice-President Al Gore the election to George W. Bush in 2000. While that assertion has been widely disputed, the implication is that once a front-runner in a major party appears to be anointed, all other challengers must shelve their campaigns and back the nominee in order to prevent a less-appealing candidate on the other side from winning.

Although there is nothing in the Constitution to support the notion, many Americans have come to believe that the Democrats and Republicans are the only proper parties one may vote for. If one votes for an insurgent independent candidate, or a minor party, then that citizen is merely wasting their vote. The theory goes that since an outsider or 3rd party “can’t win” you must take your best pick of the major parties. On its face this is an illogical argument because if citizens get behind a non-major party nominee, she could potentially win an election.

In no other area of American life would we accept a choice of “A” or “B”. Even in the pre-cable and pre-satellite television era we always had more than 2 choices. Nobody would be happy if there were only 2 makes or models of automobiles. For that matter, the Frito-Lay website currently lists between 15 and 20 varieties of Doritos that could be at your supermarket. And we have supermarkets because the markets our ancestors had simply lacked the choices that consumers seem to want. Yet, when it comes to the political “marketplace” it seems like having an array of choices is nothing but a fanciful dream. This is in spite of the fact that there are plenty of nations in the world – some with less civil liberties and press freedom – that routinely have robust multi-party elections.

There are many problems with the argument put forth by the backers of the “lesser of two evils” approach to voting. The biggest of these problems that can be put on display are the two choices in 2016. Donald Trump and Clinton are said to have the most unpopular favorability ratings in a presidential campaign since polling data began. [1]

On the Right, it has become downright awkward and uncomfortable to watch Republican Congressional leaders, party officials, and big-money donors try to distance themselves from the latest rants, fact-free statements, and social media posts from Mr. Trump. Their continuous claim is that it would be worse if Mrs. Clinton were to be elected. On the Left, dejected supporters of Senator Sanders must weigh whether Clinton’s record and platform is close enough to Sanders that they could in clear conscience transfer their loyalty to her.

Author: Ted Eytan 
While the more cynical of us may say they never like the choices being offered to us, 2016 will clearly go down as a year where vast numbers of the American electorate will truly be unhappy with the party nominees. A close look at the 2016 campaign so far indicates that a more flexible and dynamic system could have had at least some voters happier in that they could support nominees they felt they had some agreement with.

Consider the cases of the two insurgent campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump has never held elective office. While the enormous amount of attention he has basked in over the years through his business and television careers made him first consider running for the Reform Party’s nomination in 2000, his only notable previous campaign (so to speak) was the execrable conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a United States citizen.

It is hard to deny that Trump has been (unbelievably) successful in his campaign so far. His participation in the Republican primary elections and caucuses brought record turnouts and the most votes cast for one GOP candidate in its history. Leaving aside the tenor, content, and (multiple) positions he’s taken on issues in his campaign, there is a constituency for his message. But is his message in line with the Republican Party’s ideology and priorities?

The slew of primary rivals he faced, and party leaders he has come into conflict with, suggest not. The creation of the “Never Trump” movement, although not successful (so far) displays how much unease there is with ‘The Donald’ carrying the mantle of the “Party of Lincoln.”

Bernie Sanders can’t really be described as an “outsider,” considering that he has served for a quarter of a century in the world’s most prominent legislature. Still, within the Beltway, Sanders’s support for Nordic-style democratic socialism, and the fact that he has managed to hold his seat as an independent for many years do make him a unique figure.

While Sanders has frequently voted with the Democratic left, and caucused with them, his independent stature has both helped and hurt his campaign. Sanders, like Trump, has tapped into a large pool of voters who weren’t comfortable with politics as usual or moderate voices. Sanders has been able to marshal progressives, particularly young and enthusiastic activists, who feel the Democrats aren’t sufficiently fighting for issues of concern to them. Meanwhile, Trump has tapped into the resentment of working-class Americans who fear globalization and a changing national culture.

Both Sanders and Trump have brought in voters who might not have voted at all otherwise, and would have been lukewarm at best toward more traditional standard-bearers. While Trump’s outsider battle comes down to how much fealty he has to “movement conservatism” and his ongoing penchant for making controversial statements, Sanders has had to convince traditional Democrats that his message is mainstream enough to win in a general election.

The Democrats most loyal backers, such as union members and racial minorities, have generally been most skeptical of Sanders. Some of these loyalists back a candidate like Clinton because their position as established voting blocs within the party lend themselves to supporting an established candidate.

Sanders does rub some Democratic Party leaders the wrong way because his previous independent status makes him appear to be a party-crasher. There may also be a class difference with union members and minorities far more concerned what would happen to their personal situation (as opposed to more youthful Sanders backers) if a “socialist” campaign for president were to fail.

People who have spent years attending the often mundane but necessary regular local party meetings, stuffing envelopes for Democratic candidates, and attending conventions may justifiably feel ambivalence toward a candidate who has never, until now, wanted to be a member of their party in all of his previous years in public service. Interestingly, it is not even clear now whether Sanders has, in fact, become a Democrat, notwithstanding all the rigors of the campaign. [2]
Alarmed citizens and political operatives have attempted to float the possibility of an independent candidate into the race comprising the upcoming unappetizing showdown between Clinton and Trump. The U.S. has lacked a competitive multi-party voting system, primarily because the major parties stack the deck against other competitors from effectively entering the marketplace by creating onerous ballot access laws, and a “winner take all” voting system that encourages centralization instead of the creation of coalitions among various factions. Having burdensome access laws means that a new or small party, or unaligned candidate, will often deplete scant resources simply to get on the ballot, leaving little funding left to mount a competitive campaign against the giant machines of activists, donors, (and, these days) the political action committees appended to the major parties. The end result is a “vicious circle” in which parties don’t get votes because they can’t easily introduce the public to their campaigns and ideas. When the public doesn’t take notice of them, they lose. When they lose, the public looks at them skeptically.

But, in fairness, some outsider candidates and third parties lack sensible or non-extreme platforms to the extent that no amount of cash infusion can turn them into a winner. The Libertarian Party is often ignored but will have their candidates on the ballot in each state. Not only are some aspects of their platform hard for many Americans to swallow, but it is also a party that featured a nude man dancing on stage for a brief interlude during the LP’s nominating convention. One would believe that Gary Johnson and Bill Weld – both experienced governors – will keep their own clothes on during campaign, but the fact that they are receiving as much attention as they have has probably more to do with the weaknesses of the Democratic and Republican presumptive nominees than any strengths they possess. The Green Party’s likely candidate again will be Jill Stein. Her positions on issues are very close to Sanders, but it is unclear whether the Greens will be on the ballot in each state, which will make it even more difficult to have her campaign considered credible to the media, let alone the voters.

What if 2016 witnessed the implosion of the major parties?

It makes no sense for a Republican party to continue to exist in its current form where large numbers of its supporters are having an existential crisis over the party’s nominee. For nearly 10 years now, establishment Republicans have been fighting with the moxie of the Tea Party movement. If one wants to dig deeper, there are also coalitions of libertarians, religious conservatives, and paleo-conservatives, who all too frequently have strong disagreements such that one wonders how they will be able to stay together in one party. The only rallying point they seem to have agreed on for most of the past decade was to oppose Obama.

Similarly, the Democrats have centrist, liberal, and leftist branches that have probably coalesced with a little more amity toward each other than the Republicans have in the same time frame. But the current campaign has exposed deep fissures. There has been strife over delegates, super delegates, the caucus system, and who makes the party’s election rules. Sanders’s calls for party officials to be changed, and for the reform or elimination the super delegate system seems a little brazen given that he actually received 40% to 45% of Democratic votes in the primary campaign, and trailed Clinton by more than 3.7 million ballots. [3]

In a more flexible voting system Sanders could decide to run independently. But in the system we have that would be a dangerous choice. Unless there was also a break on the Right, the Republicans would win, because voters who were generally left-of-center would split that side’s vote. Of course, there very well could be a division in the GOP if party leaders find that they cannot reconcile themselves to Trump. They could run their own candidate, thereby dividing the right-of-center vote.

Author: RAHurd 
The main factor that seems to be keeping the parties together is the dread that, if they fracture, the other party will win. The major parties have essentially become “too big to fail”.

A quip made by some wags is that liberals and conservatives will decide to vote for, respectively, Clinton or Trump for the “sake of the kids.” But why? Why are we tolerating a broken two-party system in which millions of Americans, like never before, are simply not satisfied with the presumptive nominees? 

For a country that has loved buzzwords like “creative destruction,” and has the sort of economy where fresh new ideas can shove the old out quickly, we are still in the horse-and-buggy era when it comes to political choices, while other nations are speeding past us in high-performance automobiles.

Author: Alex Hanson
In many democracies, factions of one party may break away to focus on particular current issues, or leading politicians might create a new party around their candidacy. Imagine a scenario where Bernie Sanders created an ad-hoc movement around his message, or ushered in some sort of social democratic party in which other like-minded activists ran campaigns similar to his. Clinton might still run under the established Democratic Party. Someone like Marco Rubio would receive the nomination of the Republican establishment. Trump could bankroll an ad-hoc candidacy around his campaign to appeal to the populist right and some Tea Partiers. Sprinkle in the other minor parties and there would be real choices in November. Perhaps we’d even see a reduction of the awful strategy many voters employ today of the “lesser of two evils.”

The eternal problem with voting for the “lesser” of evils is that one is still supporting “evil” even if that’s only a figurative evil. Having more choices means that voters may finally get to cast a ballot for a candidate instead of voting against the one they like less. We may see a rise in voter participation and less cynicism about politics overall. If there were additional options there could also be a flowering of civic participation in local communities as well. One thing is certain: the opinions of 300 million Americans are never going to be adequately represented by a mere two parties. 

The only way to get to a “free-market” in American politics is to enact a number of reforms that will be difficult to attain, and may even require Constitutional change. First, activists of all persuasions need to attack ballot access requirements nationwide. Lowering the burden of how many signatures are required to qualify for a place on the ballot is critical. Giving candidates more time to file and parties less burdens for legal recognition would bring in new challengers, encourage more civic participation, and cause new voices to emerge.

We would also have more choices if we held national primaries, rather than the current system we have. The states that hold the initial caucuses and primaries tend to not be representative of the American mosaic, and other states that want their voters to have a critical say have moved their own primaries to an earlier date. Instead of all the jockeying around to gain influence, let’s have all voters go to the polls at the same time. One beneficial outcome would be to significantly shorten what is now an extremely long and exhausting campaign season.

We also need to take the responsibility of determining electoral districts away from state legislatures. The majority of districts are created by the very politicians that benefit from gerrymandering and other tricks that unsurprisingly keep them and their cronies in office. Some states are giving the responsibility to independent or bi-partisan commissions that, hopefully, will form districts that aren’t demographically red-lined and are more likely to be competitive. This movement can also lead to more real choices developing on the political menu.

There is also a critical need to change the way campaigns are financed. Publicly financed campaigns would have a beneficial impact on the corrosive power of special interest groups, and influence of wealthy donors.

Another reform to consider would be the introduction of a different voting system utilizing such ideas as proportional or ranked voting techniques. There are a plethora of approaches but all present the opportunity to weed out unpopular choices and give less well-financed candidates an opportunity to gain a seat.

The Electoral College has repeatedly come under fire. The Electoral College is justified on the ground that it balances the results from populated states with those of a smaller population. But the greatest concern about the Electoral College in current practice that it promotes less choice, because, in all but two states, an entire state’s electors are awarded to the winner. The Electoral College survived a serious challenge for it to be abolished in the 91st Congress (1969-71), but there have been other attempts to reform it or replace it since. [4]
The 2016 presidential election campaign has been remarkably unpleasant so far, and the prospects are that it will only get worse. But I’m convinced that a nation that can give us 20 varieties of artificially-flavored tortilla chips can also develop a system providing more political choice.

Kirk G. Morrison, MLIS

Mr. Morrison is a librarian in Connecticut, and is interested in issues of social justice, and in rebuilding social capital in communities nationwide.