I don’t think it’s even controversial at this point that partisan politics and the two party system is a problem. If “did not vote” had been a candidate for eligible voters, it would have won by a landslide. People are not very satisfied with their choices to say the least. At the same time, the partisan divide is growing ever wider at an alarming rate, which has been damaging our ability to solve problems, eroding our government institutions, and segregating our society into increasingly inimical groups based on identity. This is probably not due to radicalization. Some research points to Americans being as moderate as ever, and there are even policy positions where the vast majority of Americans appear to agree.
One mathematical model predicts that political polarization is the natural result of the parties trying to maximize votes. The model assumes voters are satisficers, meaning that most people understand that there is no such thing as the “perfect” candidate and instead vote for whoever is “good enough”. Imagine someone selecting what meal to order at a restaurant. If they’re vegan, they’re going to reject any meal that has an animal product in it. They may even choose a meal they don’t like very much, especially if the options they would normally prefer have meat in them. On the other hand, someone with celiac disease is unable to eat anything with gluten in it, but may not care as much whether or not a meal has any animal products, even if they prefer meat. If these two people had to share a meal with a carnivore who loves bread, they very well may vote together and choose something that neither of them like very much to ensure that their primary needs are met. This is why people choose between the lesser of two evils.
Candidates are motivated to differentiate themselves from their rivals as much as possible in order to capitalize on the widest range of voters possible. This means it’s generally optimal to specialize and avoid overlapping policies on anything controversial. People who will only vote for someone who supports or opposes a specific policy will back the candidate who satisfies their needs regardless of their less critical preferences, whereas individuals with more complex or weaker preferences are forced to vote for whoever tends to agree with them the most in general. It doesn’t make sense to attract candidates on issues that are marginally important to them if it’s at the cost of core issues that make or break votes, and it doesn’t make sense to compromise on issues to which your competition has already maximized their appeal. Once the candidates get to the point where there is no overlap between their constituencies, they reach what is called a Nash Equilibrium. Essentially, neither candidate can become more similar to the other without losing votes, and their individual platforms stabilize.
Imagine you and your sibling are each planning one meal you hope will maximize the number of people who will be able to eat at your party. Most people are going to be fine with a wide array of meals with mild preferences one way or another, while others will have very specific dietary requirements. Imagine your brother has decided on making his meal a meat lover’s pizza. You could try making a pepperoni pizza with gluten-free crust to appeal to those with healthier sensibilities, but you may not get as many takers as you expect. People who have a mild preference towards meat and cheese are already pretty satisfied with the meat lovers pizza, whereas people who see gluten-free as gross or trendy will reject your food out of hand. If you make a meal that has no allergens, no animal products, and is healthier relative to your brother’s meal, you get everyone who has a preference towards healthy food as well as anyone with a dietary restriction. Your brother could try adding a spinach topping on his pizza in the hopes that he broadens the appeal to people who have a preference for vegetables, but it won’t be enough to sway anyone who’s already going for a kale and cucumber salad. It’s more likely to alienate people who hate spinach and want a pure savory flavor.
An obvious solution to this dilemma is to provide people with more choices. This is essentially the argument for voting third party. If someone feels dissatisfied with the positions of the mainstream parties, they can turn to an alternative that better represents their values. If enough people find themselves more compatible with the values of a minor party, the major parties will be forced to adapt or lose influence. This works well in a system where a relative minority of votes can still result in some representation, but it breaks down in a winner-take-all system, like most elections are in the United States.
Let’s go back to the first example, with the vegan, the celiac, and the carnivore trying to decide on a single meal. We can imagine this being expanded to a hundred people voting on a meal to be served at a conference. Ideally, there would be a few meal options that would be served proportionally based how many people wanted each meal. 40 carnivores, 30 celiacs, and 30 vegans could be served 40 hamburgers, 30 tuna salads, and 30 spinach tahini wraps. However, when only one meal can be chosen for the whole conference, this becomes a problem. The vegans and celiacs make up the absolute majority at the conference, but if they vote individually the carnivores win by default. Both the vegans and celiacs find hamburgers to be completely unsuitable, but the celiacs are able to tolerate the wraps far easier than the hamburgers, so it’s most rational for them to vote tactically for the tahini wraps even though it’s not their first choice. They are not voting for the wraps. Rather, they are voting against the hamburgers.
In this case, voting for a third choice can actually be detrimental to your interests. This is what is known as the spoiler effect. Especially in a close race, voting for a third party can lead to a victory for your least favorite option. The most famous instance of this is when the Supreme Court ruled that George W. Bush won the state of Florida over Al Gore by a very narrow margin, making Bush the first candidate since 1888 to win an election despite losing the national popular vote. The Democratic party still blames Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for being a “spoiler” and losing this election. One study found that Nader voters were actually ideological centrists, and at least 40% of them would have voted for Bush if they hadn’t had the option to vote for the Green Party. However, because of how close the margins were in this race, it’s still probable that Nader voters would have given the edge to Al Gore and possibly won him the election. This is difficult to tell, however, since there were so many factors involved in this particular contest. As political scientist Gerald M. Pomper put it, “the choice… came not from the citizens of the nation, but from lawyers battling for five weeks.”
The appeal of a third party that represents the majority of American’s interests is alluring, but the results of voting third party in some cases can be dire. I felt compelled to vote for Biden this election because of the danger I believe Donald Trump poses to the stability of the United States. That being said, I still voted third-party in one contest. I know my candidate cannot win. That is not the point. The point is that I am not satisfied with the direction the mainstream parties are taking, and I want them to know it. There is no such thing as a wasted vote, because political parties build platforms based on what they think will win elections. Many people refuse to vote because they believe it implicitly reinforces the system that produces results they cannot accept. Voting is the bare minimum of participation in a Democracy, and if you don’t vote, politicians will ignore you. Even writing in a joke candidate like Harambe shows that you were willing to put in the effort to vote, but frustrated enough to make a pointless statement with it. The parties want to win over voters, i.e. people who vote. If you want your voice to be heard, vote. Vote. Vote. Seriously, vote. Right now. Why aren’t you voting?
Even if the major parties don’t take notice of the third parties (they do), there are still reasons to vote third party under some circumstances. It is actually entirely possible for a winner take all system like ours to have multiple parties. India has a very dynamic system with seven national parties, 64 state parties, and over 2,500 unrecognized political parties registered regionally across the country. This may be due to their exceptionally high level of diversity and federalism, meaning that Indian citizens tend be far more engaged in regional politics and issues related to local identities. One multi-national study found that federalism was by far the most robust predictor of minority party performance within the confines of a winner-take-all system. This is because it’s possible for a party with very little influence nationally to have a great deal of influence within a specific region.
It’s probably not possible for your pro-platypus platform party to gain traction on a national level, but if it has enough popularity within your community you can probably get your ticket elected to city council. Given that our current political parties only came into existence in the mid 1800s, it’s entirely possible that an especially popular party could usurp the major parties within a congressional district and win a spot in the national legislature. With enough of these smaller parties winning in districts around the country, the stranglehold the mainstream parties hold over our democracy could be mitigated. Multiparty systems have the advantage of forcing parties to build coalitions and govern based on consensus. Sections of the population that have traditionally felt excluded from the political process like minorities and the rural poor could have more influence over political discourse through the proliferation and management of local parties.
Perhaps the most critical benefit third parties provide for our current political climate is a space where people can communicate. Back when I was following a Facebook group in support of libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen, what I found incredible was how people from all across the political spectrum could come together and enthusiastically pursue common goals like Black Lives Matter or eliminating corporate welfare. I do believe that there are important issues that almost all Americans can agree on, and problems we could easily solve together. Our democracy only functions when we communicate with each other and explore a diversity of options. I have already written articles discussing the importance of learning cooperatively and breaking down barriers between people. Third parties have always had the potential to facilitate this in a way that our major parties, in many ways built on antagonism and obstruction, simply cannot.
Third parties are probably not going to solve all of our problems. Our voting system will still probably have fundamental problems accurately representing the needs and desires of the people regardless of how we try to work around it. That being said, it’s not going to be possible to change these deeply entrenched problems in our system without fundamental changes to the way we interact with our political systems. As I have discussed in another article, the most effective way to change our system is to start small, experiment with a variety of ideas, implement robust and scalable designs, and finally carry out the program on a broader scale. Building coalitions between people on a local level is the foundation of this process, and starting a political party based on the unique needs of your community is not a bad way to start.