If you were born after 1972, you’ve never seen a third-party presidential candidate receive a single electoral vote. Even in 2016’s “lesser of two evils” contest, third-party candidates combined to earn roughly five percent of the vote, the same number Ross Perot achieved on his own in 1992.
Our system is becoming increasingly stratified. Presidential election numbers make good illustrations, but they don’t define our political system. Independents and third-party members have been fighting to remain relevant in congress since 1856, and the situation has never been sadder than it is now.
Gridlock and Brinksmanship
Electing an independent candidate for president would be quite the show piece, but even in the days before American politics were dominated by the GOP and Democratic parties, a third-party candidate has never won the presidential election. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), a member of the Whig party, which had a significant following at the time, was the last president not from one of these sides.
Third-party representation in Congress, however, is less rare. Unfortunately it’s declining, and as the House and Senate have become overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans and Democrats, our political dialog has suffered. Less than 20% of Americans approve of Congress’ performance.
Rather than progress toward our goals as a nation, the two sides spend most of their 138 “in session” days playing tactics. Filibustering, for example, is the practice of talking for a prolonged period of time until the opposing party members simply leave. Recently, a more divisive strategy has become popular, that of shutting down the government. The people lose, Congress gets a day off.
Thinking Outside the Box
Some political scientists have called the current state of our political system “late-game representative democracy.” The theory holds that in a capitalistic society like ours, where the free market and politics are connected, the eventual outcome is that business and politics become one and the people no longer have the power.
Voter turnouts are at an all-time low, and in a representative democracy, the public is only as strong as their numbers. The winner-take-all approach of modern politicians forgoes old-world ideals that the good of the people should be top-of-mind for politicians even if it means giving up ground. In today’s politics, nice guys finish last
But what if we were to change the way the system works? Is it realistic to think that we might be able to re-shape our system in such a way that the exchange of ideas, rather than the advancement of political agendas, once again takes center stage?
Can the US Self-Right?
The truth is, that could already be happening. We have a struggling president and a Congress that can hardly accomplish anything despite the fact that it hypothetically aligns with Trump’s values. In the last election year, the vulnerabilities of at least one if not both dominant parties were laid bare.
The GOP appears dangerously out-of-touch with anyone but middle-aged and elderly white males. That demographic that is going to shrink, and have failed to convince voters that their minority candidates identify with minority issues.
The Democrats aren’t doing much better. Coming off of their weakest presidential candidate since Bob Dole, the party has struggled to resist splintering in similar fashion to the GOP, and has been criticized for their love affair with unreasonable government spending.
So will one of these two powerhouse parties collapse and leave a void that can only be filled with fresh ideas and grassroots politicians, eager to “drain the swamp,” as our president so daftly puts it?
The Swamp is Thick
No. Sorry, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Politics are, in many ways, generational, and thanks to medical science, much of the voting public is older and will vote longer than they ever have before. That means an antiquated, ultra-conservative GOP still has another 20 years of steam in it. They’ll figure something out.
A more realistic way out of the bicameral system would be to institute voting that doesn’t require candidates to battle it out in primary elections. Instead, once the candidates were established, a simple popular vote would be cast. A very similar system was, in fact, suggested during the drafting of the Constitution.
What would it take to make such a change now? Hard to say — those Congress members seem quite comfortable with their abbreviated work schedule.
Still, in a democracy, the people have the power. Even at the most basic level, the people are still supposed to have the power. The challenge is realizing that and acting on it.
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