Why Shouldn’t I Vote for Cornel West?
We can’t afford any more George W. Bush’s or Donald Trump’s, who were both brought to us by Democratic-leaning voters thinking they were doing the right thing by voting for third party candidates...
One of the most fashionable statements these days among progressive-leaning voters who pretend to great political insight is:
“I want to vote for the person I like the most, not some party or candidate that I only half-agree with.”
Its corollary is:
“You’re just trying to get me to vote Democratic because you support that party’s corruption. I won’t be intimidated: I’m going to vote for the best person to run the country!”
Often these types of statements are followed by:
“People in France and Israel can vote for any one of a dozen parties and nobody complains that they’re ‘throwing away their vote.’ This is America: we’re even better! So, I should be able to vote for anybody I want!”
Some people pushing this line simply don’t understand the difference between the political systems of France/Israel and the US.
Others are cynical hustlers (this is true mostly of the talk-show and YouTube hosts trying to differentiate themselves by pushing this), trying to grab and hold an audience by being “edgy,” “iconoclastic,” or “a rebel with a cause.”
So, let’s review some political basics.
Whatever its genesis, this opinion — that ignoring our two-party system and “voting for the best candidate is a good thing” — is widespread. After all, intuitively it seems to make perfect sense.
In a rational world, who would want to vote for anyone less than the best candidate? Unfortunately, though, America’s political system is not as rational as that of countries with proportional representation or ranked choice voting.
A 2022 Pew poll found people’s unfavorable view of both parties has gone from 6 percent in 1994 to 27 percent today. Similarly, 38 percent of Americans “wish there were more political parties to choose from in this country” and may be persuaded to vote for a third-party candidate.
So why is it that third parties don’t work in America, but they do in France?
The United States, in 1789, became the first modern democratic republic founded on the notion of the leaders of a government, through elections, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Framers of the Constitution had never heard of proportional representation or the modern parliamentary system (more on that in a minute), so they went with a simple strategy that’s today referred to by political scientists as “first-past-the-post winner-take-all” (FPTP) or, sometimes, as “majoritarian” or “plurality” election systems.
Whoever gets the most votes becomes the elected politician, and everybody else gets nothing. If you voted with the majority, you’re represented; if not, you’re not at all represented by a person or party that shares your view.
America was an English-speaking country and, as a result, this system spread mostly throughout the English-speaking world and in former British or American colonies. Majoritarian FPTP systems like ours are used in Canada, the UK, India, Jamaica, Liberia, Singapore, Philippines, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Bangladesh.
As a result, most all of these countries are dominated by two parties who tend to pass control of the nation back-and-forth over time. (Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland use Ranked Choice Voting, an even more recent innovation which allows for more political parties; more on that in a moment.)
In such a system, third parties almost always act as spoilers, drawing votes away from the major party to which they’re most closely aligned. People who vote Green, for example, generally would have voted Democratic, thus reducing that party’s vote; people who vote Libertarian would have voted Republican with the same effect.
For example, in Florida in 2000, Ralph Nader on the Green Party’s ticket got 97,488 votes, while George W. Bush “won” Florida by 537 votes.
It strains credulity to assert that the majority of Nader’s voters would have either voted for Bush or not voted at all, which is why when David Cobb ran for president on the Green Party ticket in 2004, he explicitly told people in swing states not to vote for him but to cast their ballots for John Kerry instead.
Jill Stein had no such moral compunction with her Green Party candidacy in 2016. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin provided Trump’s margin of victory in the Electoral College over Hillary Clinton, and, in each of those states, Stein pulled more votes than Trump’s margin.
(In Michigan she got 51,463 votes and Trump won by 10,704; in Pennsylvania she won 49,678 versus Trump’s margin of 46,765; and in Wisconsin Stein carried 31,006 votes but Trump only won by 22,177.)
In other words, had liberals not voted for Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000, Al Gore would have become president and we never would have been lied into a war; had people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin not voted for Jill Stein in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have become president and America would have been spared the trauma of 500,000 unnecessary Covid deaths and the ongoing assault to our democracy.
This is apparently not lost on sour-grapes Jill Stein, by the way; she’s reportedly helping run Cornel West’s 2024 Green Party candidacy. It’s also not lost on the Democrat-hating folks at No Labels, who have pledged to put up a candidate for president (presumably Joe Manchin) in 2024.
In the 1950s, French sociologist Maurice Duverger published several papers on this odd quirk of FPTP systems and the way they turn aligned third-party candidacies into agents for the opposition party.
This simple reality — apparently unknown to those who advocate third party candidates — has since come to be known as Duverger’s Law.
It’s why when I lived in Vermont in 2000 and voted for Ralph Nader, knowing there was no chance Vermont would go for George W. Bush, I was making a safe “protest” vote, but if I’d been living in Florida it would have been political suicide.
With our FPTP system, voters in swing states operate under an entirely different set of electoral facts and circumstances as do those in solidly Red or Blue states: a fact that third-party candidacy advocates would really rather you don’t know.
So, why can France have so many political parties without damaging their political system but here in America third parties harm those they’re most closely aligned with?
This goes to the invention of what’s called “proportional representation.”
It wasn’t until the year the Civil War started, 1861, that British philosopher John Stuart Mill published a how-to manual for multi-party parliamentary democracies in his book Considerations On Representative Government.
It was so widely distributed and read that nearly all of the world’s democracies today — all of them countries that became democracies after the late 1860s — use variations on Mill’s proportional representation parliamentary system.
In Mill’s system, if a political party gets, say, 12 percent of the vote then they also get 12 percent of the seats in that country’s congress or parliament. A party that pulls 34 percent of the vote gets 34 percent of the seats, and so on.
The result is a plethora of parties representing a broad range of perspectives and priorities, all able to participate in the daily governance of their nation. Nobody gets shut out.
Governing becomes an exercise in coalition building, and nobody is excluded. If you want to get something done politically, you have to pull together a coalition of parties to agree with your policy.
Most European countries, for example, have political parties represented in their parliaments that range from the far left to the extreme right, with many across the spectrum of the middle. There’s even room for single issue parties; for example, several in Europe focus almost exclusively on the environment or immigration.
The result is typically an honest and wide-ranging discussion across society about the topics of the day, rather than a stilted debate among only two parties.
It’s how the Greens became part of today’s governing coalition in Germany, for example, and are able to influence the energy future of that nation. And because of that political diversity in the debates, the decisions made tend to be reasonably progressive: look at the politics and lifestyles in most European nations.
In our system, though, if a party gets 12 percent of the vote — or anything short of 50 percent plus one — they get nothing. Whoever gets 50-percent-plus-one wins everything and everybody else gets nothing, which is why we always end up with two parties battling for the higher end of that 50/50 teeter-totter.
Pretty much every democracy in the world not listed above under the FPTP label are using Mill’s proportional representation. But we don’t, which is why we’re stuck with a two-party system.
Australia and New Zealand have diminished the damage third parties can do to the main, established parties, by using a voting system called ranked choice voting. In a system like that I could have voted for Ralph Nader as my first choice in 2000, with Al Gore as my second choice. When it becomes apparent that Nader isn’t going to make it, my first choice is discarded by the system and my vote for Gore becomes the one that gets counted.
Over 300 communities in America are now using ranked choice voting (including Portland, Oregon) and it works great. Moving from FPTP to proportional representation would require amending the Constitution, though, so that’s not going to happen any day soon: ranked choice voting is a nearly-as-good alternative.
At the national level, though, the best way to solve the problem of some Democratic politicians not being as progressive as we’d like is to get active by joining the Democratic Party and becoming a force for positive change within it. To stand up for public office and elect more progressives, something that can only be done within the Democratic Party.
To not “throw away your vote,” but to help rebuild the institution that brought America Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to unionize, Medicare, Medicaid, free college, regulatory agencies that defend and protect the environment and working class people, support for people in poverty, and that built America’s first real middle class.
Yes, there are corrupt and bought-off politicians within the Democratic Party. Ever since the Supreme Court fully legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision and its predecessors, there have been more than a few Democrats who have enthusiastically put their hands out. The most obvious and cynical ones call themselves corporate “Problem Solvers.”
But voting for a third-party candidate and thus handing elections to Republicans won’t solve that problem: if anything it will make it worse, because the entire GOP has committed itself to being on the take and, as we saw with Nader and Stein, third-party candidacies often simply hand more power to the GOP.
Try to find, for example, even one Republican who isn’t benefiting from the billions in oil dollars that have flowed through the Koch network over the years and is thus willing to do something about climate change. Republican governance and their fealty to the fossil fuel industry is literally destroying America.
This is why real progressives like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Pramila Jayapal stay and work within the Democratic Party. For progressives to take over the country, we must first take over the DNC.
In other words, get inside the Party and take it over! It’s what hard-core conservatives did with the GOP over the past 20 years, starting with the Tea Party movement, and it’s what progressives must do with the Democratic Party.
Cornel West is a great guy, but with our FPTP election system a vote for him for president in a swing state is effectively a vote for the Republican nominee. No third-party candidate has ever won the White House, and none ever will until we have nationwide ranked choice voting.
So, the next time somebody tells you how they’re going to only vote for “the best candidate,” you may want to give them this little Civics 101 lesson, along with the phone number, website, or email address for their local Democratic Party. And get behind the movement to bring ranked choice voting to national elections.
We can’t afford any more George W. Bush’s or Donald Trump’s, who were both brought to us, in part, by Democratic-leaning voters thinking they were doing the right thing by voting for third party candidates.