Not only the presidential race results, but also the individual and
collective results of many representative elections throughout the US
are so close -- and so widely, consistently close across states,
offices, and branches of government -- that some systemic pattern must
be responsible. The data simply does not fit a model of competing
conservative and liberal ideologies, which if they actually meant
anything, would not correlate so perfectly with equality of
I argue here for an explanation of what we observe, based on four
Both Clinton, who remade the Democrats into New Democrats, and Bush 2, who remade the Republicans into Compassionate Conservatives, followed the clear evidence of increasingly precise models of national voting behavior in changing major elements of their party platforms in their efforts to gain power. It is, of course, no surprise that ideological purity is valued less than actually gaining power, since successful politicians are almost by definition those that value power over ideology.
What we observe presently, I believe, is that the differences in the two-party elections has effectively been reduced to the error margin in the models; as the models get tighter, the elections get closer, since both sides can now calibrate the exact degree of dilution of their party's liberal/conservative ideology that is required to get that extra .1% advantage. Nothing proves this so convincingly as simply observing the incredible energy level of the 2000 Democratic campaign in focussing on the precise cocktail of swing-voter issues needed to gain the last tiny increment that would capture the last swing state, however peripheral, even irrational they may seem to the quite unconcerned, and vast, majority of US voters: (a) prescription drugs for the elderly, (b) a Jewish Vice President, (c) the state of Florida. Such a strange combination could only have been so loudly trumpeted by campaigns with extremely great confidence in their models of what the election would turn on. The present, shining perfection of parity everywhere, coming to resolution only in that very state where it is so evidently subject to those very constituencies, could only happen in a two-party world with nearly perfectly precise election modelling.
Some argue that the US is increasingly polarized. If so, positions in the middle should be abandoned in favor of extreme positions; the centrist-supportive two-party system should be overturned in favor of extremist parties on the far left or far right, or, indeed, occupying a variety of other poles. There is no reason that ideological bipolarity should be the best model of the electorate's distribution across the high-dimensional space of voter-influencing issues.
But in the US, somehow, our entrenched two-party system beats off third-party attempts at every opportunity. The two parties make certain to have a relative difference of opinion on the most important vote-getting issues of the day; and the fact that they are entrenched convinces voters, through a blackmail-like logic, to vote for the lesser of two evils -- the major party closer to their position -- instead of for any third alternative that might represent their position better. Blackmailers say, Do what we want or we'll hurt you. The blackmail logic here is that voting for any third alternative with a stronger position on your issues, which is to say, the one you actually believe in, means that you have made it more likely that the worse of the "two evils" will be elected.
In a multi-party system, if the electorate is truly polarized, then any party that stays in the middle should become weaker. In our system, on the other hand, despite all claims about voter polarization, both parties still aim for the middle, because polarized voters are still effectively blackmailed into voting for the diluted but closer-aligned alternative. But it is only because of the strength of the two party system that only the most radical fringes on left and right actually flouted this blackmail logic and voted for their true preferences, one or two percent to each of Buchanan and Nader.
But the argument here is circular: it depends on the entrenched character of the two party system. Why shouldn't there be an entrenched three-party system (or more), of Left, Right, and Spin? In other countries, stable minority parties have strong opinions and also have their voices heard; they cannot be dismissed or drummed out of the system like the Democrats are trying to do to Nader presently. For example, in Israel, various blocks of voters obtain proportional representation and since no majority can be created without their participation, their concerns also cannot be ignored.
African-Americans in the US would have received much better historic treatment in a multi-party system where the swing bloc gets its needs met in order that a working majority can be formed on key issues of government; indeed, our current system can be seen as a way to systematically disempower minorities.
Since government is also a high-dimensional process, there is no reason that multi-polar governing coalitions should be unable to form majority policies and execute successfully on the issues of the day. Indeed it would be more equitable for the various minorities, provide for much more political theater and entertainment, and produce a more involved electorate. Americans may pride themselves on their orderliness, but multi-party democracies are not evidently less capable of governing.
Everything reduces down to the question at the root of it all:
What keeps the two-party system in power?
The easy answer may also be the best answer: money. It is clear that political issues divide into consumer issues that bring in the votes, and corporate issues that bring in the money. These two types of issues overlap slightly, with a few consumer issues being adequate to raise significant financial support for campaigns, such as, perhaps, the NRA's support for anti-gun-control candidates. But for the most part in today's electorate, consumer and corporate issues are independent: Corporations largely don't care about abortion rights policies, gun control, educational vouchers, minority rights, etc., which various consumer constituencies *do* care about very much. And consumers in our comfort-oriented political age largely don't care that much about the arcana of trade agreements, business regulations, and corporate welfare, despite the fact that these issues have a huge, if relatively hidden, impact on their lives and on the world, in the form of higher taxes at home, degraded environmental and working conditions for workers both in the United States and abroad where trade agreements are brokered by US corporate-issue supporters, and so on and so forth -- wherever corporate interests countervail against those of the people themselves. It is true that some corporate interests do compete against others, as for example trial lawyers versus the product companies they sue -- and in those cases the opposing interests each support one party against the other. But nevertheless, generally speaking, on many corporate issues, there is a consensus of interest on the part of large soft-money-contributing corporations that is different from and often antagonistic to the interests of either small business or the vast majority of the people.
The self-interested corporate policy of funding the two parties but no third alternative seems to be the key to the defeat of third parties. This conclusion is strongly supported by the remarkable 18% success of Ross Perot in 1992, who nearly broke the system when he showed up to the game with his own money; compare that with the relatively unfunded failures of Nader and Buchanan. Without a competitive financial position, third parties clearly have no chance. With money, even a third party built on no natural constituency or sustaining and clear platform can bring in a significant fraction of the vote.
The candidates need both money and votes, of course -- the one a prerequisite to the other. What secures the money is an effective conspiracy of non-competition between the two parties on corporate issues which, through the energetic salesmanship of candidates, motivates corporations to donate plenty of soft money to both parties but none to any third, cost-enhancing, hegemony-threatening alternative. What secures the votes is the money to get the message out and run an effective operational campaign, plus a set of positions on *consumer* issues which the candidate projects, using scientific election modelling, will be able to win a majority.
I have argued here that the two-party system in an age of precise socio-demographic modelling will inevitably lead to the increasingly precise parity that we now see in the current election mess. What we see today is only the beginning! As models improve and candidates continue to competitively adjust their platforms, the margins of victory will correspond to the decreasing error of the models.
But this parity depends on the strength of the two-party system in its ability to blackmail voters even at the extreme edges to stay within the system, voting for, as they will always consider it, the lesser of two evils. This strength is constituted by the inability of third parties to be taken seriously, which fundamentally comes from their inability to attract corporate funding. Thus the foundation of the parity we observe is the simultaneous funding of both -- and none other than -- the two major parties by and for the benefit of corporations and their issues, insuring against the rise of alternative parties, particularly those that may threaten the corporate-issue monopoly.
It seems that Nader is right: Unless you can give better reasons for the stability of the two-party system than its corporate funding base, the precision found in this parity we observe today is a clear proof of Nader's argument that American politics today has a fundamentally corrupt foundation based on doing the will of business interests, independent of the will of the people.
In short, Lincoln's great words are no longer true, for ours is now a government of an almost completely ignorant or uncaring people, by cynical politicians, for the moneyed interests that act in concert if not conspiracy to keep their servants unassailably entrenched in power. The election parity that we witness today and that we can expect increasingly in the future is not just a new degree of precision in predictive election modelling, but also the remarkable power of joint corporate funding of both sides to perpetuate a two-party system that primarily serves those moneyed interests, by offering choice only on consumer issues, and not on corporate issues. Corporate money has eliminated alternative choices for all but the most obstinate fringe, and thereby imposes a logic fundamentally the same as blackmail to force everyone to vote for "the lesser of two [corporate-funded] evils". What we see is neither happy nor an accident, and we will surely see more of it in the future.