For generations, the U.S. public has largely accepted that the two-party system was the best we could hope for: while perhaps not perfect, this particular brand of democracy – dominated since the 1800s by the Democratic and Republican parties – is certainly more democratic than the one-party communist dictatorships of China or North Korea, and is probably more stable than the multi-party parliamentary systems seen in Europe.
Yet, many of us struggle every election cycle with a nagging feeling that there is something wrong with a system that limits electoral choices to just two political parties but provides consumer choices so expansive as to border on bewildering. How is it, we wonder, that when we go into a voting booth our choices are limited to “A” and “B” but when we walk into a grocery store, we must choose between 15 varieties of toothpaste?
As the late great historian Howard Zinn once sardonically said, “we have two parties, and this proves we have democracy, though two parties is only one more than one party!”
It’s a good point, actually. While a one-party state would not be considered democratic by any standards, somehow the U.S. two-party system – with only one more party than a one-party system – is touted as the crown jewel of the world’s oldest constitutional republic. But despite misgivings over the lack of choice in the general election, the two-party system’s saving grace has long been the ability of voters to influence the nomination process of these two parties.
Through the primary process, defenders of the two-party system point out, the people are empowered to determine the leaders of the parties and therefore shouldn’t complain when the choices end up being between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, as “South Park” so eloquently described the situation in a brilliantly subversive critique of Election 2004.
That has always made some degree of sense, deflating criticisms of the two-party system and enhancing its democratic legitimacy to large degree, but what has transpired in Campaign 2016 significantly calls into question some of the underlying assumptions of this argument. While the trends that we have seen this year may have existed in previous election cycles, the impacts that they are having in plain sight are leading many to question the basic legitimacy of this system.
First of all, the ability of party elites to manipulate the process by placing a “thumb on the scale” has more clearly come into focus, highlighting the unfairness to “populists” who don’t enjoy support from powerful party insiders.
On the Democratic side, before a primary vote had even been cast, Bernie Sanders was severely disadvantaged by the support that so-called “superdelegates” had expressed for his rival Hillary Clinton, with the media routinely reporting her superdelegate advantage despite the fact that these individuals had not voted yet – which only happens at the party convention in the summer.
At the time of the first “Super Tuesday” in early March, the race was a dead heat in terms of pledged delegates (i.e. the delegates selected by regular voters in primaries and caucuses), but because Clinton had already racked up support from at least 459 superdelegates (the handful of party insiders who are given a disproportionate voice in the nominating process at the Democratic National Convention), she was routinely reported as being ahead of Sanders in the overall delegate count by 503-70.
So, from the beginning, Clinton effectively had what appeared as a seemingly insurmountable lead in the delegate count. This contributed to what was always Clinton’s main advantage: the perceived inevitability of her candidacy as the Democratic Party’s anointed nominee and as the natural successor to President Barack Obama. Sanders has had to struggle the whole campaign season against this deficit in both delegate count and public perception, a task that was not helped by a media establishment systematically sidelining him.
Anecdotal evidence from the beginning of the campaign seemed to indicate that there was something amiss when it came to media coverage, with Sanders’ campaign rallies treated as non-events while other candidates’ rallies were given prominent coverage on the networks. Over a year ago, in an analysis for Media Matters for America, Eric Boehlert noted that despite Sanders’ campaign rallies drawing thousands of people – making them some of the largest campaign events of 2015 by either Democrats or Republicans – the media chose not to cover them as major news events.
According to Boehlert, writing in May 2015, “At a time when it seems any movement on the Republican side of the candidate field produces instant and extensive press coverage, more and more observers are suggesting there’s something out of whack with Sanders’ press treatment. And they’re right.”
When Sanders did get reported on in the media, much of the coverage portrayed him as outside the mainstream of American politics, or viewed him solely through the prism of Hillary Clinton. “It’s all about how his campaign might affect her strategy and her possible policy shifts, instead of how his campaign will affect voters and public policy,” Boehlert wrote. “On the Republican side, candidates are generally covered as stand-alone entities, not as appendages to a specific rival.”
Beyond that, much of the early coverage unequivocally declared that Sanders had no chance of winning, an odd role for the media to play in covering a nomination campaign. The press, after all, is supposed to report on the nomination process, not determine – or predict – the nomination process. Yet, this is what a few prominent news outlets have had to say when Sanders announced his candidacy: “Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be president,” according to the Washington Post last year. “He Won’t Win,” said Newsweek, “So Why Is Bernie Sanders Running?” MSNBC: “Why Bernie Sanders matters, even if he can’t win.”
The coverage went on like that throughout 2015, with Sanders systematically ignored and marginalized by the mainstream media, with an independent media analysis finding late last year that the major networks’ evening news broadcasts between January and November 2015 devoted just ten minutes to the Sanders campaign. Meanwhile, these same broadcasters (ABC, NBC and CBS) devoted a whopping 234 minutes to Donald Trump’s campaign.
By April 2016, the disparity in coverage had grown too much for Sanders supporters to handle, and hundreds of protesters took to the streets outside CNN headquarters in Hollywood to voice their frustration with the imbalanced reporting.
“There should be fair and equal coverage for all presidential candidates,” said one protester at the rally.
“Stop showing Trump so much,” said another. “Stick to the issues.”
Indeed, while the media throughout the primary season has essentially treated the Democratic race as a non-story in which Clinton was expected to easily clinch the nomination, the Republican race was seen as a titillating cliffhanger in which every movement and change in the polls – not to mention every crazy tweet sent out by Trump at three in the morning – was given headline coverage.
Ultimately, Trump accounted for 43 percent of all Republican coverage on network news in 2015, out of an initial field of 17 candidates. That means that the other 16 candidates competed for just over half of the coverage. And this doesn’t even count all of Trump’s appearances on morning programs and Sunday talk shows, which would increase his airtime exponentially. With this kind of saturation coverage, is it any wonder that he emerged as the top GOP contender?
Largely as a result of this grossly disproportionate and unfair media emphasis, not to mention a wildly chaotic and arbitrary primary process riddled with irregularities, we appear to be ending up with two candidates who are more or less despised by the general public. The two front-runners are the most unpopular candidates seen in a generation, or to put it into numbers, Hillary Clinton has a 57 percent unfavorability rating in a recent Quinnipiac poll, while Trump gets a 59 percent unfavorability rating.
Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said, “American voters don’t like either one of the front-runners. The question could be who we dislike the least.”
Perhaps this is why nine out of ten Americans express a lack of confidence in the electoral system and nine out of ten young people want to see other alternatives on the ballot in addition to the Democrats and Republicans.
According to a survey by Data Targeting, which called the results “shocking,” 55 percent of Americans favor having an independent or third party presidential candidate to consider this year, in addition to the two traditional party choices. Of those 29 years of age and younger, 91 percent expressed support for additional choices.
Another survey, conducted conducted May 12-15 by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and published May 31, reported that a full 90 percent of voters lack confidence in the country’s political system while 70 percent said they feel frustrated about the 2016 presidential election and 55 percent reported feeling “helpless.” Forty percent went so far as to say that the two-party structure is “seriously broken.”
“It’s kind of like a rigged election,” Nayef Jaber, a 66-year-old Sanders supporter from San Rafael, California, told AP. “It’s supposed to be one man one vote. This is the way it should be.”
According to the survey, 53 percent of voters say that the Democrats’ use of superdelegates is a “bad idea” while just 17 percent support the system. Moreover, most Americans say that neither political party represents the views of ordinary voters. Just 14 percent say the Democratic Party is responsive to the opinions of the average voter while eight percent say the same about the Republicans.
Regardless of one’s political views, the historic nature of these numbers should be appreciated, and in some ways may eclipse any other storyline of Election 2016. Basically, the two-party system is losing credibility in an unprecedented fashion, accelerating a general trend that has been growing in America for several years.
For example, five years ago, a Gallup poll found an all-time high of 40 percent of Americans identifying as independents. In 2014, a new record was set, with Gallup finding that an average 43 percent of Americans identify politically as independent, compared to just 30 percent who call themselves Democrat and 26 percent who identify as Republican. Another Gallup poll last year found that 60 percent of Americans say that a third major political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties “do such a poor job” of representing the American people.
But despite this growing trend in public opinion rejecting the two-party system, the Democrats and Republicans enjoy a number of institutional advantages within the U.S. electoral system that protect the status quo.
In addition to the challenges that minor parties face in securing a plurality of votes needed to gain representation in the U.S.’s winner-take-all system (as opposed to proportional representation systems which grant representation to any party passing a threshold of, say, five percent), there are several additional obstacles that tilt the playing field in favor of the Democrats and Republicans, reinforcing their dominance and their privileged status.
While the two main parties are guaranteed ballot access in all 50 states, for example, competing parties must meet rigorous requirements to even be listed on the ballots, requirements that vary considerably from state to state.
Further, the Democrats and Republicans benefit from taxpayer subsidies in the form of public funds to hold party conventions and private primary elections, which in many cases exclude independents from voting. In 2012 taxpayers shelled out over $600 million for party conventions and primaries, even in states where they are not permitted to vote in the primaries due to registration requirements.
Then there is the massive funding advantage enjoyed by the two establishment parties, which raised over a billion dollars each in the last presidential election. Compare that to just under a million dollars raised by the Green Party in 2012 and 2.5 million raised by the Libertarian Party.
Also, the limited public financing system that exists in the United States only provides funds to parties that receive at least five percent of the popular vote in the previous election, which no third party achieved in 2012. That means that while the major party nominees are eligible to receive up to $96 million in federal funding, third parties receive nothing.
Further entrenching the two-party system, independents and third parties have no representation on the Federal Elections Commission or Boards of Elections, which are instead controlled by the Democrats and Republicans, and therefore have no voice in setting or enforcing rules of the game. Perhaps even more significantly, the two main parties enjoy a near monopoly of media coverage, and in presidential elections, successfully collude to exclude third party candidates from televised debates.
Despite all of these disadvantages, however, the two biggest third parties – the Greens and Libertarians – are receiving considerable support this year, with a recent survey finding Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, polling at 10 percent. This is roughly twice as high as Johnson’s poll numbers from the 2012 election cycle.
Green presidential candidate Jill Stein was not included in that survey, but with her campaign having succeeded in getting her onto the ballot in states with 290 electoral votes – more than enough to win the presidency – her supporters are calling on pollsters to include her in future surveys. “With polls showing a majority of Americans want an alternative to Clinton/Trump, there’s no way to justify not including Jill Stein in presidential polls,” states an online petition.
Indeed, with historic and unprecedented numbers of Americans rejecting the two-party system as a whole, it is becoming increasingly conspicuous for the media to pretend that this election is just another politics-as-usual affair in which we are expected to happily choose between “A” and “B.” This is especially the case this year when both major party candidates are tainted by criminal investigations and lawsuits.
According to one tally, Trump has been named in at least 169 federal lawsuits over the years, including the ongoing litigation against his for-profit school, “Trump University,” described by the conservative National Review magazine as a “massive scam.” One of the lawsuits against Trump is going after the presumptive nominee through a provision of the RICO Act, which could lead to criminal charges being filed.
Meanwhile, Clinton is the subject of an FBI investigation and has just been reprimanded by the State Department’s Inspector General who found that she did not comply with the agency’s policies on records in her use of private email server while Secretary of State. She was also criticized for failing to turn over records promptly and for refusing to be interviewed for an investigation into the matter – possible violations of the Federal Records Act and other criminal statutes.
In other words, we are heading into a general election in which the two major party candidates are faced with significant legal problems and could conceivably be facing prison time, and yet for the most part, the media is continuing to present the two-party system as the only game in town, despite the growing indications that Americans are hungry for alternatives.
How this all plays out remains to be seen, but one thing for sure is that this is no politics-as-usual election, and those pundits and pollsters who continue to discount the role of third parties do so at their own peril.