In my op-ed last week I suggested that, instead of voting for presumptive Democratic nominee (and lesser-of-two-evils) Hillary Clinton, Latinos should vote for a third party. As expected, this promptly led to more than a few readers pointing out that under America’s two-party system, at least in presidential elections, voting for a third-party candidate amounts to throwing your vote away.
That’s true, but it doesn’t haven’t to be.
After all, Democrats and Republicans haven’t always dominated American politics. In fact, they haven’t always existed. America’s very first president didn’t even belong to a party, going so far as to warn against them in his Farewell Address:
The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another.
Despite President George Washington’s admonition, a “spirit of party” would lead to the founding of the country’s first two political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, in the early 1790s. Today’s Democratic Party wouldn’t appear until 1828, formed by conservatives who had broken away from the defunct Democratic-Republican Party. The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by Northern abolitionists and reformers. For all intents and purposes, the last third-party candidate to become president was Abraham Lincoln, nominee of the nascent Republican Party in 1860, winning 40 percent of the popular vote. (The 1860 election also marked the last time the Republicans would be considered a third party.)
The last major challenge to the two-party system came in 1912 when former president Theodore Roosevelt, failing to receive the Republican presidential nomination, formed the Bull Moose Party in order to run against the Republican incumbent. Though Teddy came in second place with 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, he got whooped by the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, who won 42 percent of the vote and 435 electoral votes. The Bull Moose Party dissolved less than four years later.
So why are third parties so unsuccessful in the United States? After all, progressive Latinos could theoretically form their own party (maybe team up with blacks and other spurned groups) and yet the best they could hope to achieve is to spoil the presidential election for the Democrats by splitting the party’s base and handing the White House to the Republicans, as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did in 2000.
To understand why it’s so hard for third parties in America, you need only recognize that there are two types of political power: the top-down money kind and the bottom-up people kind. America’s two-party system exists to ensure the U.S. government is steered by top-down money power. Despite what the nation’s founding documents so eloquently proclaim, despite what Honest Abe wanted us to believe, what we have is not a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” unless the people in question are business executives and corporations.
If we want to do away with a government run by top-down money power, we must replace the winner-take-all electoral system with one that provides proportional representation.
The founders didn’t plan for a two-party system, but their plan created one nonetheless. Most districts in the United States have a single representative elected by a plurality of votes, meaning the person who gets the most votes wins. No matter how popular a candidate or platform may be, if that candidate doesn’t win more votes than the other candidate, the people who supported the candidate’s campaign won’t have their interests represented in government.
When you consider the fact that nearly all of the signers of the Constitution were part of America’s new aristocracy—a small minority of wealthy, white, male landowners, slave masters, merchants and lawyers— it’s easy to see why they would prefer a system that makes it easy to ignore the interests of other people. Arguing in favor of the Constitution in 1787, future president James Madison made it clear why the United States should be a republic and not a democracy:
Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property …. A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.
As the founders saw it, were America a democracy (as it pretends to be), the common folk, those not in power (the poor and working classes, blacks, women, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, gays) would decide that too much power and wealth was concentrated in too few hands, at which point the people would decide to distribute that power and wealth more equitably across society. Which is why, when the founders were debating what form American democracy should take, they decided only white men who owned enough property had the right to vote (except in New Jersey, for a while): disqualifying at least 80 population.
Eventually, begrudgingly, all U.S adult citizens over the age of 18 would be allowed to vote, unless convicted of a felony (except in Maine and Vermont). Still to this day some political actors look for ways to restrict the franchise by enacting voter ID laws and limiting the voting period. American citizens living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. colonies are barred from voting for president and denied full representation in Congress.
Then there’s the Electoral College, which stipulates that a presidential candidate receive all of the electoral votes of a state, even if the popular vote in that state is close. Critics commonly point to the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot, the independent candidate who received zero electoral votes despite winning 19 percent of the popular vote. Eliminating the Electoral College altogether would ensure that the candidate who receives the most support from the American electorate wins the presidency outright—unlike in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, thus allowing George II to ascend to his father’s old chair.
Proportional representation voting, as implemented in nearly every Western country, including the beatific nations of Scandinavia, helps solve many of the failings of our current winner-take-all system. Because the number of seats a party receives in Congress and state legislatures is attached to the percentage of popular votes it wins, proportional representation voting makes it easier for third, fourth and even fifth parties representing minority interests to become part of government.
And unlike under a winner-take-all scenario wherein those who voted for the loser receive no representation whatsoever, leading many would-be voters to stay home on an Election Day if they think there’s no chance of their candidate winning, proportional representation encourages everyone to vote because every vote actually counts. Put another way, in the United States your vote only counts if your candidate wins; if he or she loses, your vote is practically meaningless, a waste of time. Citizens under a proportional system tend to vote at much higher rates, as they know their votes will go toward deciding the final ratio of representation in government.
Lest you think proportional representation voting is some newfangled concept cooked up by leftist radicals, let me assure you this idea is very old, older than America itself. Future president John Adams, at the time a well-known Boston lawyer and delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote a few months before the Declaration of Independence that government “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. … It should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it.”
Perhaps the most forceful argument in favor of proportional representation came from the famed utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, in an 1861 essay:
In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately …. Man for man, they would be as fully represented as the majority. Unless they are, there is not equal government.
Above, I talked about doing away with “a government run by top-down money power.” Doing away with the current electoral system amounts to the same thing, or at least represents a crucial step toward that end. The winner-take-all method and the Electoral College are merely tools of the wealthy class to exert its influence over society. Our two-party system ensures that nothing changes no matter who is in power. After winning the 1884 election as the anti-corporate candidate, President Grover Cleveland promised America’s robber barons that “a transfer of executive control from one party to another does not mean any serious disturbance of existing conditions.” Almost 30 years later, nearing the end of the women’s suffrage movement, Helen Keller affirmed “our democracy is but a name,” explaining that to vote in America “means we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats.”
Despite how wide apart the Democrats and Republicans may seem at times on social issues, both have consistently been stalwarts of the economic machinery creating the social conditions that Democrats pretend to want to reform and Republicans pretend to not see. The raison d’être of both parties is to safeguard an economic system that exploits the people at home and abroad, to cater to U.S. business interests, all while convincing their respective bases that they are parties of the people and for the people. It was true with Bush II, who oversaw a collapse of the financial market that hurt the white working-class nearly as much as it hurt other sections of society. And it’s now evident by the Obama administration, which has ushered in a few minor social reforms to appease progressives, but whose economic policies protect the nation’s wealthiest one percent, expanding the gaps in wealth, income and ultimately political power.
At the end of the day the average American voter —poor, struggling, with little to no hope of ever moving up in life— doesn’t vote for the candidate or party that will end the widespread want and exploitation. He votes for the one that promised to give him just enough relief to accept it.
So I’ll say it again: Latinos don’t have a party. Neither do blacks, women, immigrants, Native Americans, gays or any other group begging for crumbs at America’s economic table. They don’t have a party capable of effecting any change at the national level, anyway. While the group sitting at the table (you know who they are, as do they) are the only ones with a party protecting their interests. They have two parties in fact. Whether it’s a Democrat in the White House or a Republican, they can rest easy knowing they’re being taken care of at the highest levels of government, always.
That’s why both parties regularly receive generous donations from the big banks and corporations on Wall Street. That’s why Hillary Clinton, trying to present herself as more or less as pro-working class as Sen. Bernie Sanders, is expected to receive hundreds of millions in campaign contributions from the likes of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Time Warner and their executives.
Rights are never given without first being claimed. Those abused and neglected by the American electoral system must claim the right to have their voices heard in government and to have their interests addressed by government. They must push for an end to the winner-take-all method and the electoral system, which do nothing except reinforce a two-party system that perpetuates their own subjugation.
Until those changes are made, Latinos —along with blacks, the working class and others— will continue to be forced choosing the lesser of two evils. And left with such a choice, all voters are left with in the end is still an evil.
[Featured image: DonkeyHotey]
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.
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