And that's the problem with the two-party system: it's self-sustaining. People won't vote in large numbers for third-party candidates because "they can't win," but they can't win because people won't vote for them. They don't let third-party candidates debate because "they're not viable candidates" (the CPD isn't as open as it once was about its aversion to third-party candidates), but they're not viable candidates because they can't debate.
Let's remind the cynics that there was a time when the Republican Party was considered a third party, and it was just a little more than a century and a half ago. And how did our first Republican president get his name out there? By participating in debates! Now, they weren't presidential debates; Lincoln was running for Senate. He didn't even get elected to the Senate, but the notoriety he gained as a result of debating was enough to allow him to run for president and win. Yes, it helped that the Whig Party had self-destructed a couple of years before. Yes, it helped that the Democrats split over the slavery question and ran two candidates. But still, the case of Lincoln shows how a third party can become a major political force pretty quickly with media attention and a bit of luck. It also shows how, when you get more than two candidates (there were four in the 1860 election), it's almost counterintuitive how easy it is for the unexpected to happen. It would sound bizarre nowadays to say that the winning candidate for President got less than 40% of the vote, but that's how it happened then.
And when we hear the cynics dismiss third-party candidates as appealing to idealists and dreamers, let's remind them that the Republican Party was basically created as an antislavery party. Let's ask the cynics whether they would have criticized the abolitionists for being idealists and dreamers. Let's ask whether the cynics would have discouraged abolitionists from voting Republican.
The two parties have become more and more similar, for two reasons. First, because they still have to appeal (in most cases) to a majority of voters, and most voters are centrists on most issues. Second, because there's no accountability to the base. If more people seem to be voting Republican (as in recent times), then the Democratic leadership encourages its members to shift to the right. They assume that their traditional liberal base will still vote for them (so far they've been correct, but just barely), and in fact the base doesn't even really complain because they're told that the Democrats are at least better than the (one) alternative, and they're threatened that going elsewhere (i.e., voting for a third-party candidate) will lead to an even worse situation in which the Republicans win.
It's not true, though, and I'll tell you why. Say you're one of these people, folks I like to call "Obama cynics." How can you vote for a third-party candidate without giving up your cynicism? Simple--make a vote pact. The hard part is finding a "McCain cynic"--someone who doesn't really care for McCain but definitely doesn't want Obama to win. (It strikes me that there might actually be a good number of "Palin cynics" out there.) Once you find one, though, all you and your new friend need to do is agree that each of you will vote for a third-party candidate. (It doesn't have to be the same candidate, of course.) By making the vote pact you've canceled out the effect of Obama losing your vote, since McCain's losing one as well.
You'll want to trust the person you're making a pact with, so they won't go back on the pact to try and screw your guy. Some jurisdictions do allow mail-in voting, so maybe that's an option to keep you and your pact partner honest.
Coming up in part 4: a few more remarks on the dominance of the two-party system.
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