When my father was driving my brother and me back from one of our winter club hockey games when I was a kid, he asked us to vote on where we should stop for dinner. My brother and I — still young enough to enjoy vast quantities of fast food without feeling sick — instantly agreed on Burger King. However, my father, despising the chain, shook his head and took us to a diner after explaining that our votes didn’t count unless we lived in a swing state. In retrospect, this was my first real lesson in the American electoral process.
Naturally, my brother and I were upset to see our majority vote ignored, but my father had just taught us an important truth that no patriotic middle school would ever dare admit: American democracy is corrupt. As this current election has shown, we are given the ability to choose our leaders the same way a thief would give you the choice between your money or your life. Technically, yes, you do get to make a decision of some kind, but it’s a false dichotomy that eliminates any other option that should be your right to choose.
This false dichotomy is largely a byproduct of the two-party system that drives American politics. In the past 10 election cycles, no pair of presidential nominees has been more despised than Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Even the ratings of President George W. Bush, who was “strongly disliked” by 32 percent of voters in 2004, are considered positive compared to Trump and Clinton, who were deemed unfavorable by 61 percent and 53 percent of voters respectively, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Despite this, all polls indicate that they are the only two candidates who stand a chance of winning.
There is a reason why no third-party candidate has ever won a presidential election. The two-party system polarizes the American political process, forcing citizens to choose one side or the other with no options in between. This divisive mindset removes the middle ground, limiting the voters and ultimately setting up the two main parties as effectively the only two parties in American politics.
In order to differentiate themselves from their opponents, politicians in both parties are forced to adopt increasingly extreme stances, further dividing the already estranged parties. Although this was most apparent in the presidential primaries when left-leaning Senator Bernie Sanders and right-wing extremist Trump were both running for the nomination of their respective parties, the statistical trend has continued into the general election. In fact, the Pew Research Center has shown that from 1994 to 2014, the number of “middle ground” voters dropped over 10 percent as negative views of opposing parties doubled on both sides.
Additionally, the lack of cooperation between the two parties has led to increasing political stagnation, with many critical decisions left undecided long past their due. As just one example, the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s chair still remains vacant as the Republican-dominated Senate refuses to hold a confirmation hearing for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Last week, Senator John McCain even suggested that Republican senators may block anyone Clinton nominates should she win the presidency. Unless the two-party system undergoes a dramatic change in the near future, this trend will continue until the system itself collapses under the weight of irreconcilable differences.
If there is anything positive to say about this election, it is that it has highlighted the flaws of American democracy. Therefore, at this turning point in history, what can we as individuals do to make a difference?
The most obvious step is to vote, because it’s the only power we have right now. However, it is counteractive to waste a vote on a third-party candidate who can’t win the presidency. Rome was not built in a day, and a reformed democracy won’t be either — even on Election Day. For now, third-party votes should be saved for local and congressional elections because that is the foundation that would ultimately lead to greater change. Without this foundation, a third-party president would reach the Oval Office essentially powerless, which would likely cause more harm than good for both the new party and the country itself. Beyond signing the ballot, we should be demanding and petitioning for a government that actually represents the beliefs of the common people, not just those who are in power. Ultimately, any government — especially our own — is a system of borrowed power that stems from the people. I’d say it’s about time that we start taking some of that power back.