Why disappointment and dissent can’t break the two party system

Former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson is running for president as the Libertarian Party’s nominee, but are third parties relevant in US politics? Flickr/Gage Skidmore

On Election Day in 2012 many Americans will vote against a candidate they hate, not in favour of a candidate they like. This is often the case. During the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Reason magazine ran the headline “The good news is one of these guys will lose”. A South Park episode the week before the election conveyed what a lot of people felt about the choice.

This year it is easy to see parallels between Mitt Romney and Kerry. Both men are wealthy, aloof patricians from Massachusetts who were unloved by their party activists but were accepted as the most “electable” candidates in their primaries. For Republicans now as for Democrats then, the main task is beating the hated president. In the words of Rush Limbaugh, Romney “may as well be Elmer Fudd as far as we’re concerned. We’re voting against Obama.”

For progressives, there are some uncomfortable parallels between Obama and Bush that go beyond the fact many of his opponents don’t consider him a legitimate president. While Obama revoked the use of torture and redirected military power from Iraq to Afghanistan, in many ways he has continued and extended Bush-era foreign policy violence.

Obama has taken the “targeted killing” of individuals - including American citizens - to unprecedented levels, and has personally authorised unmanned drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in six countries. The people who die in these strikes are not always terrorists, though the administration counts all military-age male casualties from drone strikes as “combatants”. People in the targeted areas of Pakistan and Yemen reportedly live in a state of constant terror from drone attacks, which are never as precise or “surgical” as the US government claims.

For some progressives it is not enough that Obama is running against an opponent who would probably be much worse. Some will refuse to vote for him on moral grounds. Why is there no plausible third-party candidate for progressives to vote for? And why doesn’t the Tea Party have a candidate of its own on the right?

The experience of Ralph Nader, who recently told Politico that Obama should be held accountable for war crimes, helps to explain the persistence of the two-party system in America.

Nader originally rose to prominence as a consumer rights activist and environmentalist in the 1960s. He gained notoriety in 2000 as the Green Party’s “spoiler” candidate who may have cost Al Gore the extremely close Presidential election, though his exact effect on the election is disputed. Nader calls the term “spoiler” a “politically bigoted word, as if we’re second-class citizens.” But in US Presidential elections, it is hard to think of third-party candidates as anything else.

In any country the prospects of minor parties are helped or hurt by the electoral system that translates votes into power. In a proportional representation system such as Germany’s, 10% of the vote for a party like the Greens equals roughly 10% of the representation, and the chance to play an important role in a coalition government. In a single member district system such as Australia’s lower house, the Greens can get the same amount of votes and have nothing to show for it. Unless some of those votes are very geographically concentrated, they rarely have enough to win any given seat.

Republican Ron Paul may have attracted a strong protest vote had he run as a third-party candidate. EPA/Larry W Smith

Even in our system, or Britain’s, the Greens can occasionally get a seat and some legislative bargaining power. In a US presidential election, only the winner of the national majority of electoral college votes gets anything–the presidency. This does not deter hopeless candidates from running, but donors prefer candidates who have a chance of winning, and voters are reluctant to “waste” their votes if they have a even a weak preference for one of the major candidates over the other.

This is why the most successful third candidate in recent years was an eccentric billionaire who was hard to place on a standard liberal-conservative spectrum. In 1992, Ross Perot appealed to voters who didn’t like politics and who saw little difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Voters with stronger ideological leanings are haunted by the possibility that by protesting against their own side, they might be helping the other side win. Ron Paul, an anti-war Republican who also enjoys some support from the anti-war left could probably mount a strong third-party campaign in protest against bipartisan warmongering. But on election day, progressives would worry that a vote for Paul is really a vote for the Republicans and their heartless domestic policies. Libertarians would fear that a vote for Paul is effectively a vote for Obama and his creeping socialism.

This is why a strong third party remains a distant pipe-dream in American politics, even when there seems to be strong grassroots demand for it. Voters are not brainwashed, but they do know how the system is rigged.