Monday, January 9, 2012

The gap where a third American party should be

American polling company Gallup surveyed over 20,000 Americans in 2011 and discovered that, for the first time (their records go back to 1988) the proportion of Americans self-identifying as 'independent' has reached 40%. Those identifying as Democrat reached 31% and Republicans only 27%.

Their graph from 1988 to 2011 is below.
I notice a few things immediately. First, see how poorly Republicans do throughout the period, despite winning occasional elections. They only beat the Democrats in 1991 and briefly in the early 2000s. My guess is that those identifying as Democrat may tend to be less likely to actually vote, may be younger, for example. Perhaps Gallup's survey is not very valid and misses some of the sections of society who tend to vote Republican. Finally the article explains that more of those identifying as independent 'lean Republican' than 'lean Democrat', so presumably some will vote for Republicans come election day.

There is a low for 'independent' identification in 2004. Why? This was one year after the start of the American invasion of Iraq. It was the year of Bush's reelection as president. My guess is that Americans were especially polarised during this period, with fierce anti-war and pro-war tensions, perhaps divided along partisan lines.

Yet the independent identification bounced back and has only risen since President Obama took office. Since Obama's election the wars have mostly rumbled on and economic recovery has been slow, perhaps undermining the view of the Democrats as a sensible alternative to discredited Republicanism. Identification for Democrats has fallen, but Republican support has barely increased. Americans, it seems, have moved away from identification with either party.

40%! This looks to me like a great vacuum into which more political parties should step. At the moment this is especially difficult because the US has a first past the post electoral system, which grossly benefits the largest parties at the expense of smaller ones.

The classic example is Britain in 2005, when Labour 'won' the general election with only 36% of the vote (while 39% of the electorate did not even bother voting). That is, only 22% of the entire electorate voted for Labour, who walked away as the sole party in government. From The Guardian:
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the underlying logic of the current voting system is in the number of votes it takes to elect each party's MPs. On last night's results a Labour MP only needed 26,858 votes to get elected, compared with 44,241 votes for a Tory MP, and a staggering 98,484 for each Liberal Democrat MP.

In other words 353 Labour MPs were elected on 9.48m votes, 196 Conservatives on 8.67m votes and 60 Liberal Democrats with 5.9m votes.
This system squeezes out the smaller parties and makes voting for them largely pointless since voters know that only one of two parties can ever make it into power. The success of the Liberal Democrats in Britain is especially impressive considering the massive electoral disadvantage they faced as the third biggest party.

(The Irish system, by comparison, is based on proportional representation by single transferable vote. This also disproportionately benefits the bigger parties, but by not as much. In 2011 Fine Gael won 31.6% of the total vote and 46% of the parliamentary seats. They formed a coalition government with Labour, and together these made up over 55% of the votes cast, creating a government that was at least voted for by the majority of people. There are now seven parties or groupings represented in the parliament, with new parties popping up every few years. Small parties have a real chance of getting into government coalitions.)

Back to the US, where there seems to be a real place for alternative parties. A majority of surveyed Americans reported unfavourable views of both parties and a majority (52%) feel the US needs a third party. It is itching for a third party alternative but the electoral system is stacked against any such thing. This system, of course, benefits the Republicans and Democrats, which is why they will oppose it and why the Conservatives and Labour opposed electoral reform in the UK. So I doubt we will see the big powers opening up the system to challenges from below any time soon.

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