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Our new election norm: picking between the lesser of two evils

Posters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
REUTERS/Jim Young
Posters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen outside Trump's Nevada caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Nev., on Feb. 23.

My friend (and long-time political observer) Wy Spano sometimes cites as a favorite cartoon of his one that showed two voters meeting as they head into the polling place. One says to the other: “So, which one are you voting against?”

I’ve mentioned this cartoon before, back when I thought it was more funny than true. Now it’s more true than funny.

If you listen to enough political news, you may know already that the likely major-party nominees for president, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are each disliked by a majority of the electorate. Trump is more disliked than Clinton, but neither gets a thumbs up from a majority.

Yes, sure, some of this reflects the overall partisan polarization. It didn’t use to be this bad, but in today’s climate, most Republicans put up a wall of opposition tinged with fear and hatred against anyone identified with the Democrats; the same is true to a slightly lesser extent in reverse.

But even within each party’s ranks, Clinton’s supporters are more motivated by their opposition to Trump than by their confidence in Clinton, and vice versa to a greater extent.

(If you want some backup for that last statement, I based it on a recent CNN-ORC national poll in which a respondent who said they would likely vote for Clinton was then asked: “Would that be more a vote to express support for Hillary Clinton or more to express opposition to Donald Trump?” (Or vice versa if the respondent was planning to vote for Trump.) The results were as follows:

(When asked of Clinton voters): Would that be more a vote to express support for Hillary Clinton or more to express opposition to Donald Trump. The result was that by 51-48, more Clinton voters said their vote would be more to express their opposition to Trump than their support for Clinton. Among Trump supporters, the negativity was even higher. Only 43 percent said their vote would be more “for” Trump compared to 57 percent who said it would be more against Clinton.

This can’t be a good thing. And it feels like it could become the new normal.

Regular readers of this space, going back to the “Electoral Dysfunction” series of the 2014 election cycle, know that I am not a love slave to the U.S. system of politics and elections and see many advantages to various features of other systems around the world. Here’s one:

Only two choices

The U.S. system, more than almost any other democracy in the world, gives a voter only two meaningful choices on Election Day if they want their vote to potentially affect the outcome: The Democrat or the Republican. No one other than a Dem or a Repub has been elected president since Whig candidate Zachary Taylor in 1848 (and back then, there were also only two meaningful parties, Dems and Whigs).

Yes, we have smaller parties in the U.S. — for example the Greens on the left and the Libertarians on the right — that get on the ballot in most states, most cycles. But in today’s system, voting for a minor party candidate is what some people call a “wasted vote” because, in a plurality-winner-take-all system such as the one that prevails in most U.S. elections, it won’t affect the outcome any more than if you hadn’t voted at all. (Yes, I know, Greens and Libertarians, understandably, don’t like that “wasted vote” rhetoric.)

Many democracies in the world have systems that make it much more likely that a voter can vote for a person or a party that they actually like, and still hope their vote might make a difference, rather than being forced to spend their precious vote on a lesser of two evils. And yes, Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections use ranked-choice-voting and there are other alternative systems in which a plurality winner does not take all. But none of those systems are in place for U.S. presidential elections.

But for today, I just want to argue that while we have a two-party system, we really have more than two parties, and I’m not just talking about the Greens and the Libertarians. Within the Democratic Party, we really have at least two parties: a leftier one that, at the moment, would like to be able to vote for Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” in November, and a more center-left one that aligns fairly well with Hillary Clinton’s incremental progressivism.

How many of those Democrats who told CNN-ORC that they will vote for Clinton if that’s the only way for them to vote against Trump were really saying that they’d feel a lot better about their vote if they could vote for Sanders? And how many of those might stay home if they can’t vote for Bernie?

This may be especially true this year, or maybe not. The fight for the Dem nomination is often a fight between a center-lefty and a leftier alternative. One of them wins, and many of the followers of the other must choose between falling in line behind a nominee for whom they have not much enthusiasm or staying home on Election Day, or voting for a minor party knowing that their vote will not have any effect on the outcome.

Likewise, the fight for the Republican nomination generally boils down to a choice between a center-righty and a further righty. We have long been aware that the Repubs are really at least two parties, along those lines. Or maybe three, with the third party being evangelical Christians. And then, of course, this year there’s the Party of Trump, which is harder to define ideologically but which, quite obviously, is the current largest of the small crypto-parties within the Republican Party.

Again, pretty obviously, a huuuge portion of those Republicans who told CNN-ORC that they will reluctantly vote for Trump because they dislike Clinton would be much happier if in November they could vote for a party led by Ted Cruz or John Kasich or Rand Paul.

Sure, a lot of those people would be voting for a candidate who wouldn’t end up winning. But in systems like the ones I’m talking about, the country is often governed by a coalition of parties, and the parties in the coalitions usually get some of what they favor as a condition of them joining the coalition.

Another advantage of these systems, which we generally put in the category of “parliamentary” systems as opposed to “presidential” systems like ours, is that once the coalition is formed, it can actually govern. This includes being able to pass its bills, as opposed to our system which, at least at present, is gridlock prone. Or maybe you don’t consider that an advantage.

Four or five parties

So much for me romanticizing the parliamentary system. It has its own downsides, of course. But just take the parliamentary metaphor to mean that what we have in the United States right now is four (or five or more) parties — the Sanders Democrats, the Clinton Democrats, the moderately conservative Republicans, the rightier conservatives and the Trumpian insurgents — forced to behave as if they were just two parties by the rules of the U.S. politics game.  

This two-party duopoly, by the way, was in no way intended or envisioned by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. But it is now deeply embedded in our political culture and is now woven into the Constitutional system as evolved — so embedded that we mostly think and act as if there are no alternatives, or as if the Americans system is the envy of the world.

For those inclined to defend the perfection of our system, it might occur to you to argue that all of the five or more party options described above are available to those who vote in primaries. There’s some truth to that. But bear this in mind:

One of the key starting points of my Electoral Dysfunction series was that the United States ranks near the bottom of all democracies in voter participation. The turnout of eligible voters for a presidential election hovers around, or just under, 60 percent. (It was 58 percent in 2012. Much higher — 76 percent — in Minnesota.)

But that’s only for the big quadrennial presidential election. In midterm elections, with the entire U.S. House on the ballot, turnout drops to under 40 percent (37.6 in 2014).

It’s less than half that much in primaries. Yes, on average, fewer than 20 percent of eligible voters participate in primaries and, in many cycles, many states don’t have their primaries until after the presidential nominating contest has already been decided. (Yes, this cycle is a bit of an exception to that rule).

Of course, more of us could turn out in primaries. But we don’t. And then the field gets narrowed down to two meaningful choices of whom the majority of us are enamored of neither. Then far more of us turn out to register our Hobson’s choice, but still not enough to keep us from being near the bottom of the list of world democracies.

Over recent decades, many new democracies have been formed. They often study various versions of democracy that exist around the world. None of them choose ours as the model. I wonder why not.

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Comments (30)

Separation of powers

The oddity in our system of government isn't necessarily the two party vs. multiple party system but our paralyzing system of checks and balances. Our federal government has four distinct institutions, the house, senate, executive and Supreme Court, each with a de facto and at times de jure, veto power over all of the others. I can't think of any other country in the world which has gone to greater lengths to institutionalize inaction. While countries with parliamentary systems of government always have the potential for political instability, our constitution practically mandates it. As rocky as the last 8 years have been, I don't think any of us fully realize how fortunate we have been not to be confronted with even a medium national crisis, something to which our current government could not effectively respond.

No matter who is elected this time around,

...we'd better hope there is no national crisis of significant dimension in the next 4 years. The President will be despised by many millions of Americans - a further destabilizing factor, in addition to those Mr. Foster discusses above.

Some might mistakenly lose respect for the Presidency itself, rather than for the broken, corrupt process which has produced these candidates.

Memories

Actually, there are echoes of 1968 (for those of us who go back that far).
In that election too, people were voting as much against Nixon or against Humphrey as they were for either candidate.
And then too, there were (mostly young) voters who sat out the election on the grounds that Nixon wouldn't be a significantly worse than Humphrey. They learned otherwise, and that seems to have cured us for almost half a century.
Now, we have a generation of voters for whom 1968 is history, and who take it less seriously than they do their own emotional responses.
I hope we don't have to learn the same lesson all over again.

Dimensions

Rather than simply talking about a party system, it might be better to analyze the different dimensions along which voters divide. (many of these dimensions overlap, but they are still different).

Party affiliation is one.
Left -- Right is another,
so is Conservative -- Progressive/Liberal.
Primacy of individual liberty vs social group benefits is still another.
And preference for a single strong leader rather than group leadership.
I'm sure that readers can come up with more.

While these dimensions tend to cluster, many people do not categorize neatly.

The big tent party has lost it morality

The GOP keeps making the tent size smaller as the GOP morality sinks lower and lower. Reince Priebus is making it easier everyday not to vote for Trump. Two weeks ago Priebus said "Trump has agreed to hide his feelings about minorities". Trumps feelings don't need to be hidden, they need to be changed. This week Priebus said "America doesn't care about Trumps past treatment of women". He is telling this to the half of America that are women and the men that do care how women are treated. I guess it just proves Trump really is the leader of the morally deficient Republican Party, as sad as that is.

How about this

Let’s talk about Sanders’ feelings towards the wealthy… Since there few of them, they are a minority in this country and Sanders doesn’t hide his dislike for them…

There's a difference

between a numerical minority and a power minority.
The obscenely rich (we do lead the world in income disparities) are different from the rest of us, and definitely not a minority in terms of power.

The Norm

has been in place for many years, just not accentuated to this degree. Only partisans feel new pain this year. Some of us have have been rinsing and spitting out both sides of our mouths for quite awhile.

Are beer sales rising yet? Cheers!

[and Eric, I'd suggest we have grown akin to a more European system of internal differentiation, if not party labeling. Both D & R have significant subsets within the overall caucus, but without separate identifiers. So has our illusion of unity been maintained, until this year.]

Parliament

What you are describing is the Parliamentary system -- the norm in much of the world (see Britain and Israel).
It has its own problems, since it operates by having various parties (often without common interests) grouping together to form a ruling majority in Parliament. In Israel, the Shas party, whose interests do not coincide with most of the population, can effectively be a 'king maker' by selling its support to whichever party will in turn promise to support at least some of its positions, and thus determine which of the major parties can form a government.

Precisely my point

We grow closer to those pressures each cycle, it seems. When each party here has within it several caucuses of specific interest, we often seem to be quite something other than united. I follow Britain's machinations quite closely. We have nothing among Democrats here as dysfunctional as their Labour Party right now, held loosely together by a variety of small specifically identified "parties," and one large leverage group from Scotland, the SNP. Until more recent rounds of elections, the Conservatives ("Tories") held control through caucus of the Liberal Democrats [never confuse European labels with ours]. They are no longer needed, so the Tories call the shots without consultation, except among their own extremities. The UKIP movement has given them some challenges here and there, but seems to be on the wane with only one seat. UK Labour is now in disarray to the point no American Republican would conceive; hence, the Paul Ryan recent retrenchment/rapprochement of sorts...or not. Stay tuned there.

The fact that Bernie Sanders can run as an American Democrat and Donald Trump as American Republican clearly indicates our preference for limited label identification, regardless of ingredients listed on the back of the jar. Our Democrats have long been a coalition of several very specific agenda groups as have the Republicans (specifically since the fractures of Roe v. Wade). Americans are not big on multiple choice exams, apparently preferring True/False quizzes. That's probably a good thing, given our tendency to choose "C" when in doubt, not "D." [Is that still the finding of tests and measurements people?]

I know it's irrelevant reference today, but I do believe Congress would get more done for more people with less vitriol if we had more Scoop Jackson Democrats and more Howard Baker Republicans, with more elbows locked over the center line. Now, that's certainly an "old geezer" view, isn't it?

Whatever our complaints might be, our system has held up far better than most any European country's parliamentary scheme. Sure, both Democrats and Republicans must spend much energy herding Fat Cats, but not very many Back Alley Cats, as the Europeans must also do.

Maybe that was the intent

I wonder if the Founding Fathers created this system with the actual intent to pass as few laws as possible thus reducing the influence of the government on regular citizens. In other words, it is good that American government can’t pass too many laws, many of them, they assumed, would be bad and harmful. It is actually easy to explain: if there is no law to ban something, the action is permitted by the nature of a free country so the fewer laws we pass, the more freedom we have. And in case of a crisis, everyone comes together and do what they think is best for the country at that time (like approving an Iraq War).

I'm sure that you could find

at least one Founding Father who favored minimalist government (Jefferson said it, but didn't live by it), but Madison (as much as anyone the author of the Constitution) had wanted more restrictions in it than survived the Convention.
As for everyone coming together, the Revolution was hardly universally popular; many people favored remaining British and left for Canada.
And not everyone approved the Iraq war, and many who did did so on the basis of what turned out to be false information. Many people who 'thought it best' did so only because they were lied to about the existence of an existential threat.

They tried that

with the Articles of Confederation; the minimum central government possible.
After a few years it became obvious to most of the Founders that this would not work, so (with James Madison doing the heavy lifting) they called a Convention and wrote a real Constitution.

The Iraq invasion

The decision to invade Iraq was made out of fear and peer pressure. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing noble about it.

No lies

Revolution occurred before America became a county so it doesn’t count for coming together. As for the Iraq War, there were no lies there and a great majority voted for that… for the reason they thought it was the best decision at that time…

Weapons of Mass Distraction

was a lie, as was 'yellowcake'.
And the United States never had a plebiscite on the Iraq war(s) -- our system does not work that way.
Or are you referring to Congressional votes?
Congress never issued a declaration of war against Iraq; the closest thing was the
"Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002"

I wonder if the Founding

I wonder if the Founding Fathers created this system with the actual intent to pass as few laws as possible thus reducing the influence of the government on regular citizens.

The founders created this system of government as a way of protecting the institution of slavery. And at least within that context, they were quite successful. In America prior to the Civil War it would have been virtually impossible to eliminate slavery, peacefully through legislation. And the impact of their vision is with us still. For most of our history since the Civil War, it has been the south dominated senate which has provided the most effective legislative bulwark against civil rights.

The founders were aware of the problem of slavery

They had to leave it in as a political compromise in order to keep the South in the Union.
They (at least many of them) assumed that it would be eliminated in the future.

"It has its own problems,

"It has its own problems, since it operates by having various parties (often without common interests) grouping together to form a ruling majority in Parliament."

Since they lack a system of checks and balances, parliamentary forms of government are relatively immune to systemic paralysis. But that doesn't mean things necessarily go well. The UK's parliamentary system runs fairly efficiently because historically the governing party has had a majority and hasn't needed to take on parliamentary partners. And when it did, as with the first Cameron administration, the coalition seemed remarkably stable. The irony of that was that the decision by the Liberal Democrats to be a more assertive coalition partner was part of the reason for their electoral downfall in the most recent election. Britain, by the way, has a first past the finish line voting system, which historically has led to an underrepresentation of third parties in the parliament. Other parliamentary systems avoid this issue by having various forms of proportional voting. So while the parliamentary system has the potential for institutional stability, that doesn't mean that in practice it always. The coalitions themselves formed to obtain a majority can themselves be unstable. You can end up with a situation like Italy's at various periods in it's history end up lasting just weeks or even days. It is maybe worth noting that their instability resulted in the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the leading model for the vulgar tycoon politician prior to Donald Trump.

"New" norm?

Look, the reason both parties are struggling with insurgencies right now is because this is NOT new, people have finally just gotten fed up with it.

What is IT?

Some people are fed up with trying to think their way through complex (and necessarily imperfect) solutions to complex problems, and are looking for someone to tell them that it can all be blamed on some 'other' and that there's an easy and complete solution that someone else will take care of for them.

Once again

my brain is relaxed by the cerebral sense of your writing, HF. Thank you.

[and thanks, also, for noting Italy's example. I had Greece in my mind, for recent reasons.]

A "new" election norm?

I'm an autumn chicken by this point, and I've never cast a vote for President that wasn't a vote for the lesser of evils.

Mr Black's piece seems to assume that systems just are, and doesn't consider that form follows function. A two-party framework is the most efficient way for private power to control the modes of public power: Just two systems of administered discourse (call them the Fox system and the New York Times/NPR system) manage well the worldview of the vast majority other than the marginalized (who are substantially less likely to participate civically and therefore can be left untended). Just two "official" candidate slots, with extreme financial barriers to entry, greatly limits the possibility of a candidate who is not acceptable to those who benefit from "things as they are." More parallel routes to elected power - e.g., more parties, proportional representation - would simply mean a higher private cost to manage the system and less control over it.

The Trump and Sanders candidacies do show that the natives are waking a bit. Sanders urges a peek beyond the duopoly, while Trump appropriates the costume of an iconoclast to fool those in whom ingenuousness has been carefully cultivated, though without changing the authoritarianism of the system. Whether either of these invitations ultimately leads to something in the direction of democracy remains to be seen.

Relative evils

It is kind of fashionable to speak about our national elections in terms of comparative evils, but I think that's more affectation than insight. I am about as partisan as they come but as review the presidential candidates of the other party, I see imperfect individuals but none representative of pure evil. Two of the more admirable GOP candidates in recent history, in my opinion were George Bush senior and Bob Dole, and they were up against Bill Clinton, whom I don't admire at all. Nevertheless I voted for Clinton twice back then, and given the same choice would vote exactly the same way now.

One of the downsides of the two evil narrative is that it facilitates the evenhanded, moral equivalnt, "both sides do it" narrative that is the default position of way too much of our lazy or perhaps overworked media. While the two sides are often different, they are rarely equivalent, and when the media tells you they are, they are saying something quite different from the truth.

Agree with you...

Media people prefer to be ringside announcers of boxing bouts.
They aren't very good at covering tag-team wrestling matches. Too confusing for them, apparently.

They can't even broadcast football games without a partner these days. Someone to talk to, other than to us, I guess.

Agree with you completely

in your critique of Both Siderism (and I've sought politely to chide Mr Black in the past for his frequent resort to it, as in this article). It is more culpable than the acts of the actors themselves for our present dysfunction because it is a commitment not to diagnose the problem or speak to the cure. There is no a priori reason that there should be symmetry, and there is no symmetry.

However, I disagree as concerns the "lesser evil" framing. First, "evil" is just a turn of phrase; it doesn't demand that one subscribe to the metaphysical existence of good and evil in the world (which I don't). The point is that in every election in which I've ever voted, the candidates of both parties were adverse to the interests of the general welfare. One candidate always is far less adverse than the other, and the choice always is easy, but both still are adverse. There's a reason for this: the candidates of both established parties must serve the interests of the few or they would not be viable candidates, and a system that serves the interests of the few is adverse to the interests of the many in nearly all of the important ways.

To reject the "lesser evil" formulation is to suggest that one candidate or the other is a good choice depending on your outlook, and therefore itself contributes to a lazy faith in a symmetrical two-sides framework.

"evil" is just a turn of

"evil" is just a turn of phrase; it doesn't demand that one subscribe to the metaphysical existence of good and evil in the world (which I don't)

And that's something we do too much. We turn words with real meaning in "turns of phrases", If the word we select doesn't convey the thought we have, why don't we take the trouble of picking another word? Was the word "evil" chosen here to ramp up emotion at the expense of sound analysis?

"The point is that in every election in which I've ever voted, the candidates of both parties were adverse to the interests of the general welfare."

Maybe so, but where the population is comprised of people whose interests are in conflict with each other is any other result possible? I suspect that it is the case that a candidate who claims to be able to please all the people all the time, has no real possibility of pleasing any person at any time. Donald Trump, for example, is someone who has made some of the most sweeping promises possible, something that is only enabled by a complete refusal to explain how he can keep any of them.

The only concept that works

Is where our civic engagement, and voting, follows the "behind the veil" precept of John Rawls (which is built on political philosophers who came before): where we each formulate and vote on our views of public policy by setting aside, as much as we can, the knowledge of where we ourselves stand and what our own selfish interest is. The result, in theory, is most fair and most supportive of the opportunity and welfare of all. Otherwise, it is a pure battle of self interest, those with the most power prevail, and over time power continues to consolidate. Unfortunately the distinction between private initiative and civic participation is lost in the administered discourse that propagates the message that politics is simply about looking to advance one's own interests.

I stated above that I always must vote the lesser evil, not because neither of the two establishment candidates ever serves my self-interest, but because neither ever serves the general interest. I mean this in the Rawlsian sense.

Two evils

As a DFL political partisan and activist, I have a practical problem with the "two evils" narrative. It's CW both on our side and the other side, that low voter turnout benefits Republicans at the expense of Democrats. That's the real reason Republicans so strongly favor voter ID. More generally, negativism tends to reduce voter turnout and therefore help Republicans. Speaking in very broad strokes, Republicans are content to be against stuff and vote against stuff. They turn out voters just fine when that's the prevailing atmosphere. It's a reason why they are so comfortable opposing Ranked Choice Voting, which makes it very difficult to vote against a candidate. Democrats, on the other hand, benefit from an optimistic, positive environment. Hopey, changey stuff, in the immortal formulation of Sarah Palin, gets our voters out to the polls.

It's often claimed that the media is left of center in it's political orientation. There may be some truth to that, but there are lots of truths out there, some more pertinent to our politics than others. As liberal as the media might be in it's impulses, it often affects a cynical, been there, done that, bored now, attitude to coverage of the news. We have seen it all before, the media tells us constantly, and it never turns out well so why bother? All sides are evil and the only differences are relative, and nothing you do will ever make things significantly better. So in my partisan view, why make the effort to go out and vote for a Democrat who will always disappoint you, instead of a Republican who makes you comfortable by appealing to your prejudices, and claims at least, that he will leave you alone?

Relative evils

Maybe instead of assuming that in our current election we are continuing our practice of choosing the lesser of two evils, we are doing something new in just choosing evil.

Democrats, maybe at this very last moment, should at least contemplate the possibility that the candidate we have presumptively chosen, Hillary Clinton is unelectable, incapable of winning a national election at this point in our history.