Rob Lanphier on the evils of the USA's current 2-party system

Right now many would lament the state of government and leadership in our country. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and voters feel as though they are no match for monied interests that buy influence from Democrats and Republicans alike. Many complain about the "horserace" mentality in the media coverage of elections, covering who is ahead rather than the issues. However, these problems are actually weaknesses in the electoral system we have today, and can be fixed by election reform.


The reason why the media is so focused on the "horserace," i.e. the relative positioning of the presidential candidates as the primary season plays out all over the nation, is that it is information people need to know. Why? Our election system forces people to engage in "strategic voting." We are forced to pay attention to how other people vote to determine the best way to cast our vote.

I should explain what I mean by "strategy." Ideally, under a strategy-free system, in a Presidential election, you would vote for the one person you feel is best qualified to be President, bar none. In addition, there would be a mechanism by which you could submit a list of all people you feel would be capable of being President, in decreasing order. You wouldn't need to worry about how your neighbor or the people in your state voted, in order to determine how to cast your ballot. You just cast the ballot based on which candidate represents you the best, and rank the rest from there in case compromising is necessary.

Unfortunately, our system is far from strategy-free. Rather than voting for the best candidate, we vote for "the lesser of two evils" in order to keep things from getting any worse. There is widespread cynicism about any successful candidate for public office. It is widely assumed that anyone capable of running a successful bid for the Presidency has to do quite a bit of backroom dealing to pull it off, and so with a cynical resignation, we vote for the one who won't screw things up too badly, in order to avoid getting the candidate we fear the most.

Imagine if the steering wheel on your car only had two positions: left and right, and that those two positions meant different things at different times. That's what our two-party system is like. We are steering our country with a two-position steering wheel, zig-zagging back and forth on a reckless path.

Influence of Cash

Because of voters bound by the strategy dilemma, candidates realize that they have to convince people not only that they are right, but that they can win. Voters don't like wasting votes, and so candidates are forced to spend a lot of money on proving they can win rather than talking about the issues. This illusion of winnability is expensive, and so only the candidates that gather a lot of money up front stand a chance.

One of the quixotic ways in which we are trying to fight the battle is to control the amount of money which candidates have to campaign with. The idea is that if we cripple all candidates identically, then it will be more fair for all of them. What really happens is that all candidates are kept from competing with McDonald's, MTV, and Beverly Hills 90210 for the mindshare of the people – which partially explains the widespread voter apathy seen today.

Change The Voting System to reduce the strategy dilemma and hence the influence of cash

Contrary to popular belief, strategy is not a necessary evil in the system (at least not nearly at the level it exists today). Better voting systems exist.

[Lanphier then expresses his current preference for Condorcet voting and Proportional Representation multiwinner systems as improvements over winner-take-all plurality voting. He refers people to his election-methods email list to observe and/or participate in the ongoing debate. We have omitted that part of his essay.]

Electoral reform isn't going to be the elixir that heals all. People will still go hungry, crime will be everywhere, taxes will still be too high, and the environment will still get trashed. Nonetheless, electoral reform is a solution that solves many of the problems that campaign finance reform purports to do. We should empower voters rather than try to restrict our public servants and those that want to spend money promoting politicians (which some people may support out of the goodness of their hearts and the betterment of all (it happens!)). In the end, it will result in more freedom for all of us.

Hopefully, we can once again have leaders whom we trust.


The theory about "cash" Lanphier advances above –

  1. with plurality voting cash automatically has a lot more importance than with better systems like range voting
  2. also (Lanphier did not emphasize) with 2-party domination voters have fewer choices, which also causes cash to matter more relative to ideas (which matter less since there are fewer of them)
is not just his theory; is also is rather heavily supported by this book:

Michael J. Goff: The money primary, the new politics of the early presidential nomination process, Rowman & Littlefield 2004.

For even more support, you can also examine this:

Doris Appel Graber: Mass Media and American Politics, (4th ed.) CQ press Washington DC 1993.

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