Decentering the Duopoly

In an op-ed for the NY Times, Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman of Five-Thirty-Eight consider some of the reasons why US elections have become less competitive. They provide three: 1) the power of incumbency; 2) the ideological self-segregation of voters; and 3) the inflexibility of party ideology. Clearly, within the confines of the two-party system, all three of these factors mutually reinforce one another to the benefit of the political status quo. Because duopoly party ideology has become more uniform and rigid, solidifying the Republicrat/Demoblican divide, and support from interest groups, fundraisers and national committees is tied to this ideological commitment, the Republican or Democratic challenger to an entrenched opponent is less likely to modify his or her positions to acquire a competitive edge in drawing the votes of a more ideologically homogenous voting public. How could any third party campaign compete in such an environment if the established opposition party is already incapable of mounting a competitive campaign?

When bipartisans trumpet their calls for compromise, and bray about the devaluation of centrism, what they fail to consider is that political discourse is always radically de-centered. More often than not, the political center is not to be found between the duopoly parties. The political center in Idaho, for instance, is located within its Republican majority, while that of Massachusetts is constituted by the wrangling of Democrats. While this would seem to constitute an intractable obstacle to any sort of political change, it only appears so because the political blinders of duopoly ideology obscure from our view the idea that such a state of affairs may well be the condition of possibility for real political change.

In a close Republican/Democratic race a Green Party candidate is likely to peel off votes from the latter, while a Libertarian is likely to attract voters away from the former, and thus either could effectively decide the election one way or the other. Voters who may well agree with the Green or Libertarian candidate on most issues will be less likely to cast their vote in that direction for fear of handing the election to the duopoly candidate with whom they disagree more. We see then that lesser-of-two-evils voting is closely related to the perceived potential of an electoral spoiler effect. However, in a non-competitive Republican/Democratic race, this danger is less acute precisely because the political center is already skewed to the left or the right as the case may be. The question thus becomes: how can this situation be exploited to the advantage of a third party campaign?


NJ Centrist said...

Your question, "how can this situation be exploited to the advantage of a third party campaign?" is an extremely important one. I believe we are at a unique moment in time where a centrist party could break into the club. Midterm elections usually break in the opposite direction of the recently elected president. So 2010 should bode well for the Republicans. However, the American public is still angry at them.

If Centrists play their cards right, we may be able to leverage this discontent. However, the center has the perceptual disadvantage of seeming to be a paler version of one party or the other. We need an issue which will sharply distinguish us from the two major parties, and resonate with the electorate.

One possibility is the National Debt and deficit spending. Now some will say that is already being talked about. However, both the Republicans AND Democrats can be blamed for it, and it is a truly dangerous situation that is developing.

Centrists are not organized enough to run a presidential campaign. Besides, the public likes Obama, and they are not going to entrust the presidency to an untested party. (I know, what party?) However, there are a number of House seats that may be vulnerable. If we were to pool our centrist resources and focus on a handful of races in critical districts, we might be successful. Even one third-party candidate winning would send shockwaves through the country.

Let's do it!

I'm going to talk more about this on my blog at But we must do more that blog. It is time for action.

d. eris said...

"there are a number of House seats that may be vulnerable. If we were to pool our centrist resources and focus on a handful of races in critical districts, we might be successful." This is a good point. I would argue in addition that all third party campaigns have a direct interest in the election of any minor or independent candidate, even those with whom they may stringently disagree. Transpartisan alliances may well be a necessary component of the successful third party campaign.