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The Unkillable Two-Party System

Governors and comedians unite to lock in the stupid status quo.

The unprecedentedly bizarre presidential election we have just survived taught us many unpleasant lessons. Among the most startling was the extent to which, even in a year dominated by voter revulsion at the two leading candidates, the two-party mindset nonetheless continued to maintain a powerful magnetic pull on the actions and reactions of so many people.

Consider Bill Maher's treatment of Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback created a national stir in August by refusing to stand for the National Anthem, explaining: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." There were follow-up controversies about Kaepernick wearing game socks that portrayed cops as cartoon pigs, about the correlation between anthem protests and plunging NFL TV ratings, and about his truly terrible performance on the field in two blowout losses. But what infuriated the HBO comedian to the point that he called Kaepernick a "fucking idiot"? This: After the first presidential debate, the QB noted that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are "proven liars" and suggested that the election was about "the lesser of two evils."

Also a "fucking idiot" in Maher's view: Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who unlike Clinton and Trump has positions similar to Maher's on civil liberties and war. But after The New York Times in September published a scare story about how Johnson-leaning millennials might throw the election away from the presumably entitled Clinton, supposedly independent-thinking comedians of all stripes had a unanimous message to their fans: Don't even think third party. Stephen Colbert called Johnson "laughable." HBO's John Oliver said the Libertarian was "around 80 percent sure that he's running for president." And all three comics were just as harsh on Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Fewer and fewer voters are buying into this dreary us vs. them shtick—the percentage of people who self-identified as "independents" at mid-September of an election year has increased since 2004 from 29 to 35 to 38 to 40, according to Gallup—but that still leaves three-fifths of the adult population with a Pavlovian impulse to mobilize against the Other Guy every time someone bangs the "most important election of our lifetimes" gong.

Human hearts, no matter how damaged, wrong, or plain cruel, can always be changed. More challenging is to uproot what might be called the ghost architecture of the two-party system, the hidden edifices that trap us in a political duopoly.

Ballot access laws, the bane to every third party's existence, are written, enforced, and interpreted by politicians with primary affiliations to the Democratic and Republican parties. In September, Florida's Division of Elections, which reports directly to GOP Gov. Rick Scott, ruled that independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin, who had been nominated legally by the Independent Party of Florida, would nonetheless not appear on the November ballot.

Why? Because, in a reversal of an order given five years before, the state suddenly decided that qualifying political parties had to be one of the 13 officially recognized "national parties" in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission, even though states obviously have the legal leeway to set their own election guidelines. "Now that the [major] parties are suffering in Florida and are less powerful," Ballot Access News guru Richard Winger told Politico, "the state feels it can change the rule with impunity."

Blocking out a candidate who takes most of his support from Republicans was a blatant attempt to protect the GOP in a state known for its election-swinging potential. Did I mention that Gov. Scott ran a Trump-supporting SuperPAC?

The two major parties, through their surrogates at the Commission for Presidential Debates, control which outside competitors get to participate in nationally televised discussion. Johnson was on 51 ballots and Stein on 45, with both polling higher than any third-party campaign since Ralph Nader in 2000. Neither made it onto the stage. Even in events not controlled by the two-party cartel, such as a September 7 forum organized by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, the two-party mindset was enough to keep Johnson on the outside looking in, even though he polled higher than Clinton among active-duty military throughout the campaign.

Like the drug war and alcohol prohibition before it, the infrastructure constructed by the Democrat/Republican duopoly will live on long after all enthusiasm has drained from it. Of the many urgent projects after the debacle of 2016, few are more important than clearing away the institutional allegiance to parties that have more than outlived their charm.

Photo Credit: Awakenedeye|Dreamstime.com

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  • Bob Boberson||

    The LP and the Johnson/Weld did little to help change this. Johnson's 3.3% of the national vote is not something to get excited about if you consider that he'd likely have gotten closer to 10% if he'd run a reasonable competent campaign and been articulate about libertarian principles. Instead we got "What is Allepo?", Gay Nazi cakes, favorable comparisons to Bernie Sanders and praise/endorsement of Hilldog. IMO the LP missed the opportunity of a generation, not to gain percentage points but to educate the masses about libertarianism. I just don't get how Cosmo's think that courting the left is a coherent strategy; look at Maher's/Colbert's, et al. quotes above. Does anyone really honestly think that those of that ilk will EVER be allies? Progressivism is the antithesis of libertarianism and always will be. Acolytes of progressivism are enemies, not potential allies. In the end Ron Paul ended up getting more electoral votes than GayJay/Geld.....what's that tell you Cosmos?

  • Chrissycrunch||

    I am so tired of hearing Libertarians complain about Gary Johnson. Did he have some screw up's? Yes, like both major party candidates and every candidate in the history of elections, he did. Stop waiting for some savior on a White Horse of Perfection to run in the election that changes everything. He's not coming. Instead, we will get brave people who risk ridicule of internet comment warriors, the media, and the two major parties. You think he should have done better? Well, in the words of Nathan R. Jessep, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Run yourself. Johnson has run for you two times now. You should say thank you and be on your way.

  • Bob Boberson||

    Well said. Evidentially we aren't qualified to criticize candidates unless we run for office in Chrissy's view. "What is Aleppo?" was a screw up (that while pretty dopey on it's face I could have overlooked) but Johnson and Weld went pretty far out of their way to sacrifice principle for broader appeal; and ended up with nothing to show for it. You win converts by selling the ideology; not by muddling the message. Like you said, 3% was not a historic gain, it was a missed opportunity.

  • dchang0||

    "Some screw ups" is nowhere near the real problem with Gary Johnson.

    His biggest problem was that he went in naively thinking the media would give him a fair shot, and so he gamely played along with their stupid, leading questions that set him up for a fall.

    Trump at least understood that the media was heavily in Hillary's pocket and that he would never get a fair shake.

    GJ needed to understand that he and any Libertarian POTUS candidate would be fighting an uphill battle all the way against a hostile, dismissive media.

    I watched GJ and wondered if he even got any media interview training at all. Probably he did, but it looks like he totally ignored what he was taught.

  • Bob Boberson||

    You should say thank you and be on your way.

    Well isn't that some prime derp right there!? As a libertarian I don't think I have to thank anybody for seeking out authority. I'll thank an elected official for actually doing something to alleviate the amount of force and taxation the state leverages against me but aside from that I owe any politician absofuckinglutely nothing. They need earn my vote. In no way was I wanting a "savior on a white horse" but I did expect an actual libertarian to be the nominee. 'Fiscally conservative and social tolerant' is to libertarianism what skittles are to actual fruit.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    Millenial conservatives are mostly pretty receptive to Gay Jay. I know of several who liked most of his policies, but maybe took issue with his foreign policy, immigration policy, or religious freedom issues (an issue in which many are blatant hypocrites but I digress) and so many broke for Trump, but they didn't treat him like a joke. Sanders fans meanwhile saw the Aleppo thing, saw the media gatekeepers spin it as a colossal and disqualifying fuckup, Googled what Aleppo was, and then went back to Hillary or Jill Stein

    I remember reading an article on Politico where Hillary's people didn't want to address Johnson because it would give him credibility, but his numbers were getting to the point where it was a genuine worry. The Aleppo thing really could not have come at a worse time since it allowed the media to do her job for her

  • Ceci n'est pas un woodchipper||

    "First past the post" means that the goal will always be to get 51% of the votes, which means that the primary purpose of political parties will be to win elections, with policy being a secondary function. Because legislation ultimately comes down to achieving majorities, factions form coalitions; coalition-building tends to produce a minimal number of "sides" as people compromise with others whose views are closest to their own until they reach a number large enough to win. This means that we will always tend to have two parties containing various factions in coalition, rather than many parties who form coalitions in government.

  • Ceci n'est pas un woodchipper||

    Point being, you're not going to see a third party with any real clout. You could see a third party displace the Rs or Ds, but that would require convincing a majority of voters to defect on a reliable basis, and that only happens if you create a platform that appeals to them so much they overcome inertia and perceived risk. That's tough, because the two parties usually occupy one or the other side of a given issue (again, the effects of coalition-building), leaving the third parties to sit somewhere in the middle. They'd have to find an issue or set of issues that makes them unique, sell it to voters in a media environment that's controlled by a hostile establishment, and run candidates people feel confident about voting for. How often has that happened in our history?

    I think the LP should focus on winnable local races and skip the moonshots. This is a hundred-year game about changing culture, building small victories, and being ready to seize opportunities when they arise.

  • mortiscrum||

    Couldn't agree more. I've had several conversations about third parties, and over and over I've heard people say something like "now's the time for a third party! The main ones are too stupid/incompetent/evil, and now people will vote third party."

    No, they won't. The majority system won't allow it. Like you detailed, a coalition must be formed to get to 51%. In a parliamentary system, the coalitions are formed by the elected officials after the elections; in our system, the coalitions must be formed before the elections by the voters.

    A successful "third party" in America looks like the Tea Party, or Bernie Democrats. It's a vocal minority that manages to sway the platform of the Republicans or the Democrats.

  • dchang0||

    Correct. This was taught in the most basic political science course I took in college; it was plainly stated in the textbook. I'm surprised most people didn't learn this by now, as even many high schools teach political science courses.

    Oh right... our public education system is a sham designed to enrich school administrators and union officials...

  • Augustine||

    Bingo! People seem to ignore the systemic nature of this issue.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    The two party system is a good system: it forces political coalition's to be made before voters go to the polls. Republicans are a coalition between Christian conservatives, libertarians, as right wing populists. Democrats are a coalition between progressives, social democrats, and socialists. In multiparty systems, these groups each get their own party, which means that the smallest parties often become the key members of coalitions and have disproportionate power. Look at Europe: is that the kind of political outcome you want? Libertarianism and liberty are non-existent in Europe.

  • mtrueman||

    "Libertarianism and liberty are non-existent in Europe."

    You can do without both and still end up with a Trump.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    You can do without both and still end up with a Trump.

    You say that as if it's a bad thing. I greatly prefer Trump to any of the European leaders.

  • agricola||

    thats completely false , life is much freer in Europe-m i lived there 10 years. The police are pussys, nobody bothers you, and fuck all. its a libertarian dream, and you can run circles around the local populace.

  • Billy Bones||

    New Flash: Americans, as a whole, are willingly stupid. We just can't give them more than two choices, lest their heads explode.

  • RT Deco||

    I thought that when you give them many more than two choices, they end up nominating Trump.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    If you think that Europeans have "more than two choices", you don't know how European politics works. Europeans pretty much have zero choices; their leaders are determined by "coalitions" of their elites.

  • Bob Meyer||

    The reason that nothing will change the two party system lies in a very simple principle best exemplified by an old New York mayor, "Beau James" Walker. He understood that the only thing necessary to remain in power is for people to believe that they had "a piece of the action". Everybody that is protected from competition by licensing or has "a friend" at City Hall or gets special treatment from a government agency has a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are. The essence of politics is convincing people that you, and you alone, can protect their piece of the action.

    No libertarian can make headway against this kind of politics. How effective is it? James Walker was perhaps the most crooked mayor that New York ever had (and that is really saying something). Despite being indicted and fleeing the country to avoid a trial he was so loved that a movie was made about him starring Bob Hope that made him appear to be a victim of political shenanigans. How could Walker's obvious corruption be ignored? He was a strong supporter of welfare legislation and big government solutions to problems. These "solutions" always involved giving his supporters a "piece of the action".

  • Hank Phillips||

    Jimmy Walker, he "Night Mayor" of narcotics and other prohibition graft, is a good example. But those laws were enacted by small party spoiler votes. The Prohibition Party got 1.4% of the vote and managed to enact the 18th Amendment in 11 election campaigns. They gained control over the GOP in 1932 just like the People's Party took over the Dems in the 1890s.
    But libertarians are not grafting parasites. Our spoiler votes have been changing jurisprudence and repealing bad laws for 45 years now, just as busily as the communist, socialist, populist, prohibition, greenback and econazi green parties have enacted them. But will the Kleptocracy admit it? When was the last time a Dem told you they converted to Gaian Econaziism, science be damned, because of the spoilervote beating they took in the Y2k election? When did a Republican ever confess that their every loss after 1928--until the religious war of 1952--was on account of Hoover wrecking the economy with prohibition enforcement?

  • SteveC||

    An article bemoaning the two-party system that doesn't mention Duverger's Law?

  • Hank Phillips||

    That red herring only distracts from the fact that small parties change the platforms and jurisprudence by forcing the looters to adopt their planks or go back to picking pockets and chasing ambulances. The Greens forced the Democrats to throw abortion rights, gun ownership and legalization under the bus, to become communist stooges to the exclusion of all other concerns. Ironically, their suicidal energy policies were the main reason serious backers overlooked faith-based ku-klux infiltration (and the asset-forfeiture depression) and backed the prohibitionist GO-Pee as less suicidal.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    The Greens forced the Democrats to throw abortion rights, gun ownership and legalization under the bus, to become communist stooges to the exclusion of all other concerns.

    Well, and it's better when they do that before the elections, as they do in the US, than after the elections (through "coalitions" and horse trading), as they do in Europe.

  • SteveC||

    Approval Voting would give minor parties their true support, but it would also eliminate vote splitting and the spoiler effect, and so reduce minor parties' ability to manipulate major parties.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The GOP has spared no effort infiltrating objectivist and libertarian organizations with convincing moles. Even Ayn Rand was sold a bill of goods, and why not? Nixon's anti-Libertarian Law signed within a day of the LP becoming a thing literally shovels millions of tax dollars to the looter media. It took 10 years for ANYONE to even discover the party existed! Like Orwell's most useful dog, the looter media took the hint. The only real objectivist, Nathaniel Branden, was made a pariah by wannabee lapdogs in a perfect Republican divide-and-conquer Psy-op. Libertarians need to reread The Sanction of the Victim, pull off the kid gloves, and put on spoiler vote kickboxing gear.

  • Rockabilly||

    If anyone is a 'fucking idiot' it's Bill Maher.

    While he rightfully called for an end to the war on drugs, Bill Maher the fucking idiot, gave Obama a million bucks for his re-election campaign so Obama could continue the war on drugs.

    Bill Maher also supported Hillary Clinton who has been a long time supporter of the war on drugs.

    Bill Maher - look into the mirror and see a 'fucking idiot.'

  • mtrueman||

    "If anyone is a 'fucking idiot' it's Bill Maher."

    It's not his intelligence or lack of it that makes him such an irresistible topic of discussion here. Maher is a TV celebrity. That's why we return to him again and again.

  • Roger Knights||

    But after The New York Times in September published a scare story about how Johnson-leaning millennials might throw the election away from the presumably entitled Clinton, supposedly independent-thinking comedians of all stripes had a unanimous message to their fans: Don't even think third party.


    If we had ranked-choice voting, like Australia, comedians wouldn't worry about voters making a minor party their first choice.

  • mtrueman||

    We don't get enough analysis of Bill Maher, one of America's most revered intellects. Thank you very much.

  • MarconiDarwin||

    But he is a libtard. So what's a Republican site posing as libertarian supposed to do? Bash Mary Fallin for Oklahoma's woes?

  • ||

    The framers of the Constitution all HATED political parties!
    What deserved to be done was OUTLAW the very EXISTENCES of political parties.
    That was right; ALL nations should make ALL political parties on ANY wing absolutely, positively, and permanently ILLEGAL under ANY AND ALL circumstances!!!

  • mortiscrum||

    How on earth would a government even begin to enforce that?

  • Rational Exuberance||

    The old stand-byes? Reeducation camps? Mental hospitals? Minitruth? Firing squads?

  • agricola||

    the framers of the Constitution HATED comedians and bought all their food organic- and didn't have a TV either! and they smoked weed

  • FrankHerbert||

    real libertarian growth and education about libertarian positions needs to start from the 'bottom' at the State Rep and Senator levels and proceed up the swamp drain from there. once enough states have libertarian legislatures, federal reps and senators can be sent to the District of Corruption with enough numbers to actually have power and be taken seriously. only then can there be any solid chance of breaking the DonkeyPhant duopoly.

    until then, the LP seems content to push any candidate who puts on the jacket.

  • Longtobefree||

    1. The bane of free political choices is political corruption.
    2. Political corruption flourishes when politicians are allowed to legally collect funds from others.
    3. Politicians govern poorly because they are always "campaigning" (i.e. collecting bribes)
    4. The solution requires both elimination of the needs for funds to campaign, and restriction of the time spent campaigning.
    5. Outlaw politicians (incumbent and candidate) receiving any funds other than salary of the office.
    6. Provide for a 10 week campaign period to allow politicians to present to the public what their political beliefs are.
    7. Provide a cost free method for that presentation of beliefs so that the politicians do not need to solicit funds. (maybe some will invent a thing called "the candidate web site")
    8. Politicians declare their candidacy, post their political manifestos, and go back to governing (if incumbent) or waiting (if candidate).
    9. "the press" freaks out and in 10 weeks publishes a year's worth of fake news attempting to sway voters.
    10. The election is held.
    11. repeat every couple of years, as needed

  • MarconiDarwin||

    Ross Perot was the closest we came to at least having a fighting chance. Because even if it was overly ambitious, his campaign actually led the polls for a brief while.

    Then he got derided for using charts.

    Because America runs on slogans, not complicated stuff like "math"

    So you have libertarians harping on Colin Kaepernick, or cry-ins or Bill Maher, and endorsing the myth "both sides are the same" while cheerleading the futile attempts at capturing just the White House.

  • Brian Reilly||

    A damned pity that no one ran for President from the Libertarian Party. A double damned pity that Mr. McMullen was a stooge, planted expressly and entirely to throw sand in the gears of Mr. Trump and benefit Ms. Clinton. He was not running for President, either.

    It is not so much that we have a system dedicated to two parties, it is that (most of the time) one or another of the two parties broadly reflects the interests of most of the voters, regardless of whether one agrees with the voters on it. If (in 1992) Mr. Perot had not wigged out (or obeyed an order to leave, depending on whose account one believes) he might very well have won a three way race.

    If Libertarians want to be taken seriously at the Presidential level, they had better find a serious candidate. They did not have one in 2016. I would say the same for the Greens as well. We did not have 2 bad candidates this year, we had at least 5.

  • MoreFreedom||

    The biggest threat to the political party system is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or Approval Voting (AV); systems which allow multiple candidates, yield a MAJORITY winner, and voters only vote once. As students of political science know (and as demonstrated in the text "The Party Decides" political insiders pick the candidates among which voters can choose. And they don't want to give up that power. Look what the GOP did in Colorado, eliminating the caucus in 2016 to prevent Trump from winning its delegates. It also avoids shenanigans such as getting another candidate to run to split one's opponent's votes.

    IRV has been used and is popular where it's known. It can and should be used in state and local races, as well as presidential primaries. We should support IRV.

    The theory of coalitions applies to legislation, and doesn't have to apply to candidates. Consider what might have happened with IRV between Trump, Clinton and Johnson. Of course using it for president would require a Constitutional amendment, but IRV needs to be used in many other local/state elections first. And libertarians can help that to happen.

  • tlapp||

    Such a lost opportunity for Libertarians. First the choice of Weld as the VP was a disaster. Epitome of the establishment politician. Then Gary Johnson seemed to fade and lose interest as time went on, Trump would have correctly called him low energy.
    While we look for substance we must remember to lead requires some charisma. You need to be able to engage the masses to have them listen to your ideas. Hopefully there is a Libertarian candidate the next time around that has some of the energy and charisma to inject Libertarian ideas into the debate.

  • Michael Price||

    "Because, in a reversal of an order given five years before, the state suddenly decided that qualifying political parties had to be one of the 13 officially recognized "national parties" in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission, even though states obviously have the legal leeway to set their own election guidelines. "
    Half time, change rules.

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