The year is 1996 and it’s an election year: aliens have kidnapped presidential hopefuls Bob Dole (Republican) and Bill Clinton (Democrat). Aliens Kang and Kodos take on the human forms of the candidates and run for the presidency themselves; these tentacled creatures have not come in peace but to take advantage of America’s two-party system where voters have no choice but to vote for either the Democratic or Republican party in the upcoming election. Yet, before the coup d’état is complete, Homer Simpson arrives in a stolen UFO smashing into the Capitol building. Homer reveals to the crowd they’ve been duped into supporting alien overlords. With their cover blown, Kang and Kodos abandon their human forms revealing themselves as hideous, single-eyed, green, tentacled monsters. The conspiracy uncovered, the aliens don’t attempt to escape. Instead, they confidently communicate to a crowd of spectators that they have no choice but to vote for either Kodos or Kang. After all, America has a two-party system and it’s too late to select new candidates; also, the aliens caution the crowd from being so foolish as to throw away their vote by supporting a third-party candidate like Ross Perot.
Art imitates life or, in the case of the Simpson’s, satirizes it. Clinton and Trump’s approval ratings are about the same as Kang’s and Kodos’. Clinton like Kang before her is viewed as an untrustworthy opportunist seeking the presidency out of personal ambition as opposed to a desire to serve. The insomniac Trump, just like Kodos, is believed lacking in the intelligence, judgement or the temperament required to be president; and as was the case with the voters in 1996 the electorate in 2016 are a free people captive to an unresponsive two-party system where the only option available is to choose between the lesser of two evils.
This November 8thAmericans head to the polls to elect the 45th president in what many regard as the most important election in generations; it is important because America is stuck with a dysfunctional two-party political system offering voters little hope for meaningful change. There are third party candidates and parties yet these alternatives aren’t really options at all: the Green Party’s Jill Stein has little understanding of economics; she believes quantitative easing is the appropriate tool to pay for social programs or free university, etc. She has zero appreciation for the negative effects of pursuing such a dangerous fiscal policy in the long-term; then there’s the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson who an American friend of mine aptly describes as an “asshat.” Johnson is essentially a stoned Donald Trump—he is chill, likes to “partake,” and doesn’t know much about anything in particular. So, the Americans limp towards the next election like lame ducks.
Political theorists argue two-party systems are actually supposed to prevent parties from becoming too polarized—the competition for popular support (at least in principle) keeps party policy somewhere in the middle. This clearly is not happening in America. The dysfunction in the Congress we’ve seen over (at least) the last eight years and the lack of civility when it comes dialogue in the public sphere, e.g. conservatives labeling progressives as not “true Americans” and liberals accusing conservatives of being a bunch of Luddite racists, etc. take us anywhere except along a middle course. You could not have a more divided polity right now.
Since I’m lacking any direct experience with the American system, I asked Kang and Kodos if they would answer some questions I have about the two-party system, the Electoral College, and the overall significance of the 2016 election.
Rick: Kang you obviously did your homework before attempting to take the presidency in 1996. You were the Republican nominee. Kang was the Democratic nominee. Has there only ever been two political parties in the history of the United States?
Kang: glad to be here. I trust there will be no need for a bloodbath. To answer your question there have been plenty of other political parties. They just come and go. For example, there were the Federalists (1790-1820), National Republicans (1825-1833), Whigs (1833-1854) and Democratic-Republicans (1800-1820s).
Rick: Kodos how long have the Republicans and Democrats been the only real options available to Americans?
Kodos: why do you recoil so? My culture has learnt all it can from human anal probing. Rest assured you have nothing to fear from me. Kang, well, that is another story. Since 1852 only candidates from either the Republican or Democrat parties have placed first or second in a presidential election. There was one exception: in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive third-party candidate. He came in second to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
Rick: I took a gander at the Constitution (1787) and there’s nothing in there saying American has to have a two-party system. This is just a convention that developed over time. Kang why did the two-party system develop in the first place?
Kang: [polishing his anal probe] some of your human balding white political scientists argue two-party systems are the natural result of using a winner-takes-all voting system.
Rick: [looking around for all the available exits] some of my readers might not know what this winner-takes-all voting system is. Could you explain further?
Kang: [drooling] why yes, most certainly. In such a system, the candidate receiving the most votes compared to the others wins the district. You don’t need to win a majority or receive 50% plus one of the votes. You win by just getting more votes than the person in second place. Candidates who come in third, fourth, etc. don’t matter whatsoever. The winner could receive as little as 15% of the votes assuming the second place finisher received 14% and so on and so forth.
Rick: a person can win an election by receiving so little of the popular vote?
Kang: baha, oh my. The main problem with winner-takes-all is there’s a real chance the wishes of the majority of voters in any given electoral district are not reflected at all in the final results.
Rick: what system do you use on Rigel 5?
Kodos: [interjecting] we’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
Kodos: but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting.
Rick: yes, I see.
Kodos: by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs.
Rick: yes, yes, I see.
Kodos: But by a two-thirds majority, in the case of more major—
Rick: let’s bring our attention back to earth shall we? There is one genuine alternative to winner-takes-all. This is called the proportional representation system like Australia uses.
Kang: Australia an interesting place. We avoid probing its animal life: everything there seems to want to kill you.
Rick: could you describe the proportional representation system used in Australia…?
Kang: in the proportional system if 25% of the electorate vote for one political party then that party receives one-quarter of the seats available in the legislature. All parties receive a proportion of seats in the legislature based on how well they performed in the last election. But proportional representation isn’t possible when a country is divided into single-member districts like in Canada or the United States. In Canada you call these districts “ridings” I believe. Speaking of ridings: Kodos and I were in Sydney just the other day and we overheard a conversation between an Aussie and an American. The American asked the Australian if all Aussies rode kangaroos. Then the Australian responded by asking the Yank if all Americans rode fat people.
Kodos: I don’t get it.
Rick: lost in the idiom I suppose. So to be clear in a single-member situation each district can only send one representative to the legislature?
Kodos: yes, yes. And this makes it all but certain that third party candidates and parties, and the people who support them, are not represented in either the Congress or your fancy-smancy Parliament.
Rick: there are exceptions though. Sometimes third party candidates or independents win elections.
Kang: [unibrow moving up and down] yes, but it is as rare as a redneck who doesn’t like a good probing.
Rick: I think since 1939 of the 535 people elected to the Congress only two have been independents. The most noteworthy independent to win is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Kodos: feel the burn.
Kang: au contraire, feel the probe.
Rick: okay, turning our attention to the presidential election and the Electoral College. Which one of you can explain this best for our readers?
Kodos: I think I’m a little more well-rounded than Kang.
Kang: we’re both round.
Rick: Kodos how about you explain?
Kodos: [puts thesaurus down] interestingly, there are 50 states in America. With the exception of two states—Nebraska and Maine—every state has a specific number of electors. Some states have more than others. The strange thing, and this is coming from someone from Rigel 5, is when someone votes in a presidential election they aren’t really voting directly for the president.
Rick: could you elaborate? What do you mean voters don’t vote directly for the president?
Kodos: let’s ignore Jill Stein of the Green Party and the Libertarian Gary Johnson for the moment. Let’s say there are only two candidates on the ticket—one a Democrat and the other a Republican—people can vote for. You cast your vote on election day, November 8th.
Rick: it would’ve been hilarious if the election took place on the 5th of November…
Kodos: I’m not sure what you mean.
Rick: sorry. Keep explaining.
Kodos: California has a total of 55 electors. Following the results of the election all of the electors by convention pledge to support either the Republican or Democratic candidate.
Kodos: all of California’s electoral votes go to the winner of the state-wide election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1% to 49.9%. All of the votes go to the winner.
Rick: so if, let’s say, Donald Trump receives 60% of votes from California he receives all 55 electors. Clinton doesn’t receive 40% of the electors.
Kodos: no. This is a winner-takes-all approach. [Puts thesaurus down, again] There’s no room for nuance.
Kang: [proud of himself] this winner-takes-all approach contributes to a situation where voters choose between the lesser of two evils. Whoever wins 270 of the available 538 electoral votes becomes president.
Rick: so the election is decided by electoral votes and not the popular vote?
Kang & Kodos: that is correct.
Kang: [punches Kodos on the shoulder]—Jinx! You owe me a soda!
Rick: this is what happened during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush received less of the popular vote than Gore while Bush received the majority of the electoral votes. Bush won because he carried states which had proportionately more electoral votes. This seems odd that in a democracy someone could become president without actually receiving the greater proportion of the popular vote.
Kodos: the system was designed to [makes air quote gesture with tentacles] mitigate the problems with giving the American People themselves too much decision-making power.
Kang: this is true. We did the same thing on our planet. There’s a strong tradition dating all the way back to Adams and Hamilton in the early days of the Republic where the elite of your country feared what they called a mobocracy or the [makes air quote gesture] rule by the mob. Electors make sure democracy doesn’t get too democratic.
Rick: what if neither candidate receives 270 of the electors? What happens then?
Kodos: in that case according to the 12th Amendment of the Constitution the House of Representatives determines the next president.
Rick: you know for a couple of aliens you know quite a bit about political systems. Thanks guys.
Kang: it was our pleasure.
Kodos: I would run if I were you.
The leading theory why countries with genuinely free elections evolve into two-party states is called Duverger’s Law. This law, one of the few established in the field of political science, states that two parties are a natural result of a winner-take-all voting system. In principle the winner-take-all system is supposed to keep the parties running for election in the middle when it comes to platforms and values. However, theories are only as good as the most recent data. The law was formulated a long time ago and the data has definitely changed.
When the French political scientist Maurice Duverger first began articulating this “law” in his essays in the 1950s, the political situation was very different then in the United States compared to now. Specifically, the political left and progressivism (social reform) had been on the ascendant in the United States since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through his “New Deal” through a combination of compromise and executive orders during the 1930s.
Since the Great Depression, and even before the Stock Market Crash in 1929, a significant proportion of the American polity actually distrusted capitalists. This is one of the reasons why otherwise reasonable people supported more radical political movements like the American fascist and communist parties in the 1930s. Through the New Deal, the United States developed into one of the more socially responsible and responsive societies in the world (a process reaching its nadir during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s).
After Nixon the political right began a concerted effort to deregulate the economy, deregulate ecological oversight, deregulate social services, increase military spending, and sell the American public the idea that socialist policies (or regulating anything) was some sort of social evil or anti-American. The naked pursuit of wealth and defeating the Soviets during the Cold War was all that mattered. In the intervening decades, from the 1970s to the present, governments at the behest of conservative politicians and corporations clawed back social programs; conservatives gained more and more control of both state and federal level government. This corporate influence reached its apogee in America with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. This court decision removed any limits on how much a corporation/billionaire could spend to support a particular candidate running for political office. This decision benefited both Democrats and Republicans; and it also compromised the independence of the Congress. The members of the House of Representatives and the Senate pay back billionaires for their support through the granting of political favors. This is why Donald Trump is correct when he observes the “system is rigged.”
The political system is rigged making this presidential election an important one: the two parties are so clearly bought and paid for, and the decision-making process so clearly partisan, the American electorate is willing to support anyone (even a man as unsuitable to lead as Donald Trump) to change things up. Both Trump and Sanders offered alternatives to the status-quo. Regrettably, Sanders never had a chance to win the nomination for the Democrats because of in-party intrigues; and equally regrettable is the fact Hillary Clinton, if she wins the presidency, will likely be nothing more than a caretaker president. Considering the alternative—like Trump becoming the leader of the Free World—the best outcome in the short-term is to support Clinton and the status-quo. There have been third party choices—Libertarians Ross Period (1996) and Ralph Nader (2000)—but at the end of the day people vote for the major party candidates. So don’t expect much from either Johnson or Stein in 2016.
Americans appear to like a divided government, e.g. in 38 of the last 60 years presidents have had to work with legislatures controlled by the opposing party. If this is the case, then it is likely Clinton will be declared the 45th president of the United States. Yet, the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the recent importance placed on populist leaders like Obama, Sanders, and Trump, etc. seems to point to a future where people are more interested in grass roots, anti-systemic movements. The Democrats and Republicans will have to change things up significantly if they want to avoid a challenge to their traditional influence (like Sanders and Trump presented).
If you thought the 2016 election was historic, or even just a little volatile, just wait for 2020. If nothing significant changes in the intervening years, and if the economy happens to go into another major recession (which is being predicted by many economists based on the new financial instruments introduced by Wall Street using risky car loans), the 2020 election will be a hell storm by comparison. People will look back at 2015-2016 with fondness saying “those were the good ol’ days. Where’s the anal probe at?”
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might be interested in related stories or podcasts. Explore the list below:
Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men Instead of Principles
Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him
Part 3: Donald Trump: Where’s It All Heading
Elections 101: Kang and Kodos on Clinton and Trump
Trump Makes Promises He Can’t Keep
Podcast (audio): Why You Should Vote for Trump