Rejecting the Lesser-of-Two-Evils Trap
A Voter's Manifesto
By RICHARD ANDERSON-CONNOLLY
Our climate of anger, disgust, and helplessness has produced three quite different exhortations regarding the election in November. All are understandable yet ultimately inadequate because they fail to recognize that the current economic disaster is nothing but the logical culmination of a political sickness rooted in the two-party system itself. If the objective is to prevent corporate rule then the most reasonable strategy in November is to cast a vote for a multiparty democracy. Other approaches merely tinker with the imminent expiry of what remains of American Democracy.
The most dynamic manifestation of the current turmoil is the so-called Tea Party, not really a party but simply the rightest wing of the GOP. With a few victories in the primaries this would have been a remarkably successful challenge to establishment incumbents were the Tea Party itself not fomented by the establishment. The saddest aspect is the participation of the economically insecure and downwardly mobile, unable to comprehend the causes of the crisis, promoting an agenda that can only worsen their position.
The left is split. Among one segment, particularly the Democratic center-left but including such solid comrades as The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, the lesser-of-two-evils argument is proclaimed with almost hysterical vigor, drawing renewed strength from the rightward lurch of the Republicans.
Another big chunk of the left, along with many in the middle and the right and the obliquely outside, will simply not vote, voicing either an explicit disappointment in the broken promise of change or a muted recognition of a lack of efficacy.
All these reactions have some measure of truth – Throw the bums out! Don't let the nutjobs seize control! Nothing changes so why bother? – yet all fail to acknowledge the preeminent truth out our time: the all but monotonic movement over the last 40 years toward elite rule by means of corporations hindered only by the merest trappings of democratic governance.
One term for this is corporatocracy, a 21st century neologism which seems to not differ much from either plutocracy or oligarchy but might differ from fascism, a 20th century neologism, in that it may not be quite as violently repressive. It seems unlikely, however, that corporate rule, once the legitimacy held only by democracies is lost, could maintain its high levels of inequality without extreme violence. But whether we use the f-word or the c-word or some other term it would be hard to deny the assertion that we have moved, and continue to move, toward a system where an elite dominate virtually all spheres of political and economic life.
What is the evidence for this extreme diagnosis? We must, of course, start with the economy. The statistics are grim and undeniable. The mean income of the richest 20% increased by $60,000 in real terms from 1974 to 2009. The mean income of the poorest increased by $600 dollars over that same period. The bottom 40% of the population have essentially no net worth; the top 10% own over 70% of the country's wealth; the top 20% have 85%. The official poverty rate is over 14%; if proper adjustments for the cost of living had been used it could easily be twice that amount.
It is important that the current economic crisis not be seen merely as the trough of a business cycle, even that of a particularly bad one. The recession was the culmination of forty years of increasing inequality and the resulting stagnation of the purchasing power of the middle and working classes. The upswing was artificially extended and the collapse exacerbated in large part by a transfer of money from the rich to the poor via debt: a movement from those who consume a smaller share to those who consume a larger share of their income. Now the tide has changed direction: the repayment of debt means a transfer from those on the bottom to those on the top. Consumer demand and growth will necessarily stagnate. Inequality and unemployment are linked.
The very same forces that undermined the middle class and delivered tens of millions of household to food stamps have strengthened the economic elite. In part, wealth was redistributed upward through corporate welfare, with warfare as one of the most effective means. Even more importantly downward redistribution is a pittance: the highest marginal tax rates are far too low and the rates on capital gains are unconscionable; there are no family allowances here as in Europe; health insurance is private and poorly regulated; college tuition is poorly subsidized. The weakness of unions, built into our labor law, keeps downward pressure on wages and allows profits to capture a bigger share of the pie.
One does not need to be a card-carrying Marxist to recognize the material basis of the crisis. In Germany from 1928-1936 the share of income going to the richest 5% of the population increased by 15%. In the United States from 1980-2009 the increase was 32%. There was a 19% increase during the dot-com decade, 1990-2000. The peak was in 2001 when the richest twentieth took 22.4% of all income; the richest have fallen back slightly to 21.7% in the wake of the financial crisis. By the way, the share of the richest twentieth in Germany in 1936 was 23%. We're almost there.
In any case the cultural and political superstructure has moved pari passu with the economy. We see a Christianity led by a sword-wielding savior. According to a 2008 Gallup poll 44% of Americans believed that God created man in his present form – the same percentage as in 1982; another 36% believed God had a guiding hand in the process. Casual racism against Arabs or Mexican immigrants is mainstream. Gays still can't marry and Fox News leads in ratings. The culture stagnates along with wages.
The state, as the Tea Party correctly recognizes, is far too strong yet in reality that power has been used on behalf of the oligarchy. Corporations, it seems, are persons and money equals speech. The state is in the business of extra-judicial kidnapping and assassination. Spying, ostensibly designed to catch the next would-be Saudi bomber, in reality targets environmentalists, anti-globalization protestors, and left-wing activists in general. The U.S. leads the world in both the total number of prisoners and the rate of incarceration, edging out Russia, our former superpower rival.
What policies might reverse course? Marginal taxes on the richest ought to be doubled, more or less. Same holds for the minimum wage, which today is lower in real terms than in the 1960s and '70s. Existing labor law – particularly the repressive Taft-Hartley Act – must largely be scrapped and replaced with labor-friendly work councils and codetermination. Anti-trust must make a vigorous comeback, starting with the four giant financial institutions, still operating under the same disastrous incentives that come with too-big-to-fail. Trade agreements that favor capital over labor must be voided or entirely re-written. Healthcare should become Medicare for all. The states need to commit to covering most of the costs at their universities and colleges instead of hitting struggling students with tuition to be paid back with interest.
To be successful it would take a massive redistribution of resources from the wealthiest and most powerful to the poorest and least powerful. It would be a dismantling of the Military-Industrial-Financial-Prison-Security-Congressional complex. Who would do this? Would the Praetorian Guard in the Pentagon and National Security Establishment permit it? Who even talks of such things?
Certainly not the Tea Party.
And not the Democrats.
The most successful Democrat over the last 40 years, Bill Clinton, can't be far to the left of Richard Nixon. Clinton, recall, gave us “Welfare Reform,” NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act, expanded government wiretapping, a capital gains tax cut, Alan Greenspan (reappointed), and deregulation of the financial sector. Just as important were his nondecisions: he did almost nothing to strengthen labor or to defend the environment. Defenders of his presidency should ask, “Were corporations stronger or weaker at the end of his eight years?”
Obama's record to date suggests he is closer to Clinton than to FDR except for the similarities in the condition of the economy. Despite strong support from the electorate and supermajorities in Congress, Obama could pass a version of healthcare “reform” only with the backroom support of Big Pharma, providing a nice illustration of the relative balance of power between corporations and the demos. Similarly it was Wall Street, not homeowners, who received government largesse as a response to the housing crisis. Workers are still waiting on the modest reform embodied in the Employee Free Choice Act.
Obama was elected with a mandate for change. Large Democratic majorities controlled Congress. The economic crisis provided as much political cover as the party could ever need. This was the perfect moment to aggressively regulate corporations and transfer income and wealth from the rich to the working and middle classes. Instead the indifference and inefficacy of the Democrats put corporate control into the sharpest possible relief. How is it possible to look at the record of Obama and the 111th Congress and then assert that the Democrats support the average worker over the elite?
One argument in favor of voting Democratic cites the Supreme Court. Yet when the Republicans controlled the presidency the Democrats in the Senate abetted the ascendance of the corporate representatives in black robes. Let us not forget that the five votes in favor of corporate personhood in Citizens United came from justices confirmed with votes by Democrats in the Senate. (Those five justices, by the way, are all Roman Catholic, suggesting, perhaps, that the American version of fascism will have more of an Apennine than Teutonic flavor). The Democratic response to the decision has been typically tepid: the occasional rhetorical condemnation more than offset by the absence of a real counterattack on corporate personhood.
Some Democrats speak about the plight of the middle class, and may even genuinely be sympathetic to the human suffering, but they are caught in a system where promoting the interests of corporations is the best way to promote their own immediate interests, i.e., reelection. Money from corporations and the economic elite overwhelm the contributions from labor.
According the Center for Responsive Politics on their wonderful site opensecrets.org the Democratic Party so far in the 2010 election cycle has received $3 million from labor. The party has received $31 million -yes, that's 10 times as much – from the sector identified as Fire, Insurance and Real Estate, more colloquially known as Wall Street. The Democrats have received $14 million from communications/electronics and $10 million from the health industry.
Those lower and middle class Americans who made $20 contributions to Obama's presidential run are now perhaps realizing that their investments were far too meager to earn any return, and maybe even feeling a bit silly for imagining it could have been otherwise. It now seems likely many will find a better use of their money in 2012, assuming they can still scrounge up a Jackson.
Is there any observer of the American political scene who would deny that the entire “political spectrum” has almost continually shifted rightward over the last four decades? But this was no impersonal act of nature, some law of increasing political entropy: the shift was the result of a conservative discourse employed by politicians in both parties. Among Democrats the corporate agenda normally gets packaged as “bi-partisanship,” which liberals happily take as a sign of their reasonableness. But it doesn't really matter whether a vote in favor of corporate rule was cast as a compromise – the effect on the distribution of power and resources is the same regardless of intent.
Let me be quite explicit, because critiques like these are often use to construct men of straw, that I believe the average Republican to be worse than the average Democrat on virtually every issue. The argument here is that even the lesser-of-two-evils is so bad that we need to radically alter our strategy. Moves within the same game are no longer sufficient; looking ahead merely a few steps we can see that American Democracy will be in checkmate. Voting for Democrats is a tactic that, at best, will delay the arrival of the corporatocracy.
While the lesser-of-two-evils argument is probably the most reasonable none of the three reactions to the current crisis weakens the oligarchy. The Tea Party gives us Christ the Capitalist, defender of tax-free capital gains. Those who stay home send a message that is too ambiguous and uncoordinated to be properly received. To find a strategy for November we must not weigh the pros and cons of these three distinct recommendations but look instead for a common cause. The root problem, in this diagnosis, is not merely the greed, cowardice, or corruption of particular incumbent Democrats and Republicans, nor even of both party organizations in toto, but rather the late-stage symptoms of a disease known as the two-party system.
The two-party system is not the result of any explicit preference by the citizenry. It has little to do with tradition or culture or party loyalty. Two parties emerge as a reasonable response to a particular arrangement: single-member districts with plurality voting. Most Americans are woefully ignorant of comparative politics and might regard this type of voting simply as voting when, in fact, it is mostly confined to parts of the English-speaking world (probably another reason for American ignorance of the alternatives).
The empirical pattern between the type of voting system and the number of viable parties is so clear that it is known as Duverger's Law, named after the French sociologist who discovered it. What Duverger found, and what has been repeatedly confirmed, are two empirical facts:
(1) single-member district plurality voting, as in the United States, tends to produce only two viable parties and
(2) proportional representation and runoff voting tend to produce multiparty systems.
While it's possible to find a counterexample, this one factor – the voting system – explains more of the variation in the number of viable parties than any other. The logic is simple: under a single-member district plurality system vote-splitting among those who are ideologically similar could give the victory to the least preferred candidate. It make sense for ideological blocs to congeal around only two parties to prevent this dysfunction. And once established the forces of tradition and inertia can certainly strengthen the rational basis.
Put most simply I assert the following argument: for various historical reasons that today we can simply take as given labor has been weak relative to business in the U.S. We also inherited plurality voting, with its problem of vote-splitting, creating our two-party system. Both parties became captured by the stronger economic elite. The politicians in the two parties created a political-economic system that strengthened the initial advantage of the economic elite. The ever-wealthier elite strengthened their control over both parties.
The simplicity of this stylized account doesn't matter much if we are now stuck in that last causal loop: (1) the economic elite control the politicians in both parties; (2) The politicians pass laws that maintain or expand the economic power of the plutocrats.
If indeed the two-party system is the central problem then it follows that a multiparty democracy is the only solution. Duverger's law again applies. Proportional representation is the most important factor in producing more than two viable parties.
Imagine what would happen in November if we had proportional representation. New parties on the left, right, and center would spring into existence – tradition be damned! Both the Democrats and the Republicans would get the thrashing they deserve. There would be no talk of the enthusiasm gap. Yes, the Tea Partiers would pick up 15% of the vote and therefore earn about that many seats in Congress, but Greens, Progressives, Social Democrats, Socialists, and other parties of the left would collectively do even better.
A party or coalition that spoke to the insecurities of the middle class without the (tea) baggage of Christian fundamentalism, xenophobia, and homophobia would carry the day. The cross-national data indicate that countries with proportional representation have higher levels of equality and have resisted the trend toward inequality followed by the U.S. and the U.K. over the last 40 years.
Many of those on the left, while able to acknowledge the failings of both the Democrats and the two-party system as well as the rise in inequality, at this point generally respond with some type of pooh-pooh. Isn't proportional representation unconstitutional? Or, nice idea, but it won't work because we don't have a parliament.
Neither these nor any other fundamental objection exists. The House of Representatives could easily move to version of proportional representation simply by repealing a 1967 law that mandates single-member districts. House delegations from each state could be elected at large. Or large states like California could be broken into two, three, or four multi-member districts. (The Senate, on the other hand, is essentially our House of Lords and should be similarly debilitated or abolished outright.)
It is of secondary importance for the number of viable parties whether elected officials work under a parliamentary system or something like the U.S. Congress. If no party received a majority then several parties would simply caucus together.
Instant runoff voting would be even easier because it does not require a switch to multi-member districts but simply the ranking of candidates on the ballot – a good start although it would likely not produce as many viable parties as proportional representation.
So where do we stand? The country is suffering from corporate dominance. The cause of the disease is plurality voting and the two-party system. If we continue on this course the prognosis is full-blown corporatocracy or fascism. The cure is the greater political and economic equality that follow from a multiparty democracy. This can be realized only by adopting proportional representation.
What is to be done? Although I fear that nothing can prevent our ultimate decline into fascism, that it might be time to consider a strategy to rebuild a democracy after a collapse, I suggest that a reasonable counterattack for November is to link the push for a multiparty democracy with a publicized decision-rule: Vote for candidates who commit to voting reform, particularly proportional representation but also instant runoff voting and public financing of campaigns.
That's it. Party affiliation should be irrelevant, unless more than one candidate in the race supports voting reform. If no candidate supports voting reform then don't vote but, importantly, make it known to the candidates that you didn't support them for that reason.
This can easily be done via email. For example, I have contacted the candidates running for federal office in my state and district, inquiring of their views on proportional representation, instant runoff voting, and public financing. So far, no response. On election day I will follow-up to explain why I didn't support them.
This decision rule includes the three responses – the Tea Party, the lesser-of-two-evils, and abstention – as particular cases: I would vote for a tea-partying Republican who supported proportional representation; voting for a Democrat who promoted voting reforms would be entirely palatable; and I will be forced to abstain if no worthy candidate is in the race.
It would also include as a fourth case, one largely ignored in the current campaign season, a vote for a genuine “third” party or independent. Both the Libertarians and Greens are good on voting reform. (Yet Ralph Nader, surprisingly, does not seem to understand the importance of this issue or perhaps prefers the role of spoiler as some have suggested.)
How might this voting rule be defended to a hysterical Democrat? If indeed Democrats are the lesser-of-two-evils then appeals for procedural fairness, that is, a more representative democracy, should be seen as a reasonable demand. On the other hand, if the Democrats are not more committed than Republicans to a fair voting system, the sine qua non of democracy, then the rest of us don't need to take their moral posturing very seriously.
Even so, to sweeten the deal for the Democrats I would offer an secondary decision rule: If both a Democrat and a third-party candidate support voting reform, then vote for the Democrat. This undermines the spoiler charge; the responsibility for vote-splitting now rests with the Democrats.
Nonetheless my central message is that we must reject the trap of the lesser-of-two-evils. Democrats are moving us toward corporate rule just as surely as the Republicans. If two cars are both driving toward a collapsed bridge one should hardly be excited about getting inside the vehicle that is traveling more slowly. Democrats who refuse to see the magnitude of the oncoming crisis, or who see it but do nothing to reverse course, have no moral claim to our votes.
We can make sense of our times only be recognizing that the root of our problem is a two-party system that has been completely captured by the economic elite. The solution will not be found by picking the best choice among the available options but rather by transforming the system into a genuine multiparty democracy. Therefore a vote in November for candidates who support voting reform is the most reasonable strategy for preventing corporate rule and for renewing our democracy.
Richard Anderson-Connolly is an Associate Professor of Comparative Sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.