People think that Americans are becoming more politically polarized. It’s been blamed on Fox News and MSNBC, or the politics of identity, or whatever. Certainly, people have much more ability to choose their own news sources than 20 years ago and most people will choose sources that carry a point of view they already agree with. While perhaps this phenomenon is contributing to the problem, I propose that the problem, instead, is the systemic limitations of our present voting system. And now, because of the same system, we don’t have a viable third option–we have to choose between a rock and a hard place.
Our voting system is called first-past-the-post, where (in the extreme) the largest minority wins the election. Essentially, if a voter doesn’t think his candidate can win, he has to vote tactically for the least-bad candidate that he thinks can win, or risk ‘wasting’ his vote. This is an oversimplification, as we usually have (depending upon the state) a sequential primary election followed by a big general election. Some states have different rules for tempering this effect, but in the end this basic principle still holds.
In this year’s GOP presidential primary, there were 16 candidates. All got small vote shares (the “winner” in each of the early contests got less than 30% of the vote) and dropped out one by one until two broadly unpopular candidates and one poorly funded unknown were left. The two candidates that were unpopular nevertheless had the largest passionate minorities. One unpopular candidate had a more vociferous following than the other, and thus won the nomination. This is, of course, Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was effectively the only Democrat candidate because all other candidates (except feisty underdog Bernie Sanders) assumed that they couldn’t win against her significant block of political and financial supporters, as well as the political strings she is able to pull. Any other reasonable candidate assumed that no matter how much support they drew, she would get just a little bit more. (We now know based on Bernie’s strong showing that Democrat voters were hungry for an alternative and a Tim Kaine or a Joe Biden could likely have defeated her.)
These situations could have been avoided with a different voting system. The Alternative Vote or a Condorcet method could introduce a third candidate or party which voters could safely identify as their second choice without wasting their vote on the first choice. This person would be a “compromise candidate”–somebody that Republicans could agree is better than the Democrat, and somebody that Democrats could agree is better than the Republican.
Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely such a system would ever rise in the U.S. Neither party, which dominate all of U.S. lawmaking, would like this method, as they have a vested interest in maintaining status quo.