Ketchup and the third-party problem
Sir Kensington's Ketchup is better ketchup. Most adults who try it agree that it's more delicious, a better choice. Alas, Heinz has a host of significant advantages, including dominant shelf space, a Proustian relationship with our childhood and unlimited money to spend on advertising.
The thing is, you can buy Sir Kensington's any time you want to. And when you buy it, that's what you get.
You're not buying it to teach Heinz a lesson. You're buying it because that's the ketchup you want.
The marketing of Sir Kensington is simple: If you want better ketchup, buy this, you'll get it.
Elections in the US don't work this way.
I'm calling it a third-party problem because the outcome of third-party efforts don't align with the marketing (and work) that goes into them.
Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who ran against Bush and Clinton, cost Bush that election. The people who voted for Perot got Clinton, and it's pretty clear that the Republicans learned nothing from this, as the next winning candidate they nominated was... George Bush.
Ralph Nader, the third-party candidate who ran against Bush and Gore, cost Gore that election. The people who voted for Nader got Bush, and it's pretty clear that the Democrats learned nothing from this, as the next person they nominated was... John Kerry.
[Irrelevant aside: John Kerry was married to the heir of the Heinz Ketchup fortune.]
[I'm calling it a 'problem' because I have such huge respect for people who care enough and are passionate enough to support change. The problem is that since Gus Hall, and then John Anderson and then the more recent candidates, just about all the changes that third parties have tried to bring to national politics have foundered. It just isn't a useful way to market change in this country.]
If enough people spent enough time, day after day, dollar after dollar, we could fundamentally alter the historic two-party system we have in the US. But it's been shown, again and again, that the easy act of letting oneself off the hook by simply voting for a third-party candidate accomplishes nothing.
The marketing of the third-party candidate is: Teach those folks a lesson, plus, you're not on the hook for what happens. But...
No one in government is learning a lesson.
And you don't even get who you voted for.
The irony is not lost on me. A small group of voters who care a great deal are spending psychic energy on a vote that undermines the very change they seek to make.
It's a self-defeating way of letting yourself off the hook, but of course, you're actually putting yourself on the hook, just as you do if you don't vote at all.
No candidate has earned a majority of all potential (regardless of registration) voters, not once in my lifetime. Which means that the people who don't vote, or who vote for a third-party candidate, have an enormous amount of power. Which they waste.
Yes, it's on you. Your responsibility to vote for one of two people, and to be unhappy with that conundrum if you choose. And then work to change the system, and keep working at it...
But it's not like ketchup. With ketchup, you get what you choose. With voting, we merely get the chance to do the best we can on one particular day, and then spend years working for what we might want.
It turns out that democracy involves a lot more than voting.