Buffalo Bull

Issue E.16 — Monday, 2017.04.24

U.S. vs. Democracy, No. 2: Political Parties

(This is one issue of a subseries; see U.S. vs. Democracy for a list of all issues in the subseries.)

At first, American voting procedures were different. In earlier days, in many if not most places, you’d go to the polls, write your choices on a piece of paper, and put it into the ballot box, or maybe you’d just tell the people at the polling station, and they’d write them down for you, maybe tallying the results in a ledger. The specific procedures were locally defined. Usually, the only qualification to vote was to own property, and compliance was usually known, but, if not, readily verifiable. There were no “voter registration” rolls.

Because property ownership was usually a requirement, only about one in sixteen could vote. The justification was, those who own the country should decide how it is run. Eventually, however, came calls to extend suffrage to more and more of the people, including freed slaves, Indians, and, eventually, even to women. Along with these movements there were counter-movements to retain control in the hands of the aristocracy. The contrary measures included literacy tests, arbitrary residency requirements, and citizenship. (In the beginning, if you lived in a place, you were a citizen of that place, but that situation was obviously intolerable to those seeking to maintain the aristocratic order.) However, the most anti-democratic change was the introduction of political parties into the formal government-controlled voting mechanisms.

There were political parties from before the beginning, but they typically had little or no legal significance. When voters could bring in their own pieces of paper with chosen candidates indicated, there wasn’t much question about who was on the “official” ballot. Indeed, at first, the parties would print pieces of paper with their candidates on them, and pass them out to potential voters to use at the polls: you could get a ballot from Party X or Party Y, sometimes with an inducement of libations from a local tavern, and use their pre-printed ballot when you went to the polls. Eventually, however, the governments themselves took over the job of printing the ballots: implicitly, this meant that the governments decided which candidates and which parties would be represented on the ballots.

That brings us to the situation today, wherein the government decides which candidates go on the ballot. Those candidates which are selected for the ballot have an enormous advantage. Although it is usually possible to write-in any candidate a voter wants, the procedure is intimidating to many voters (deterring them from using it), and write-in candidates and ballots may be rejected on a variety of grounds. (For example, “which John Doe?” was meant; or the name might be misspelled; or it might be considered not legible enough; or some related procedure was not followed exactly by the voter or by the candidate; and so on.)

To gain placement on a ballot, there are usually two paths: receive enough votes during the previous election, or follow some petition or signature-gathering process. The petition path is often onerous and expensive, and sometimes quite unreasonable. That it is unreasonable is demonstrated by the tendency of the government (that is, the major incumbent parties) to tighten up the requirements when it appears that a new, minor party might be reaching a critical mass which would enable that new, minor party to gain ballot status. In other words, the requirements are made more stringent merely to keep the minor parties off the ballot. In any case, minor parties are almost always operating under a serious disability, especially the new ones: they must spend limited resources to gain ballot access, rather than pitching their platforms and qualifications to the voters.

This is especially damaging to one-issue or special interest parties, which might be responding to a temporary political situation. For example, there might be an unusual but important decision to be made, regarding, for instance, whether to go to war, ratify a new treaty, take some kind of action on the economy, deal with a crisis, and so on. If a sufficient number of voters support policy X, then it ought to be possible to form a temporary X Party to promote their view, especially if the major parties oppose it. The major parties like to promote the idea that voting for a minor party or for a minor candidate, with little chance of victory, is a lost cause, but that idea is false. In fact, it has repeatedly happened in U.S. history that one of the major parties will “steal” an idea from a minor party, to gain an advantage in an election. While a minor party or candidate itself might not win, the efforts often result in changing the platform of major parties. (Of course, whether or not the parties follow through with their promises is another matter. In the current system, they are so well assured of their positions that they often feel no need to keep their promises.)

All of this, however, obscures the biggest problem with parties as they exist in our current undemocratic system: the parties themselves aren’t democratic. Although there are shows of concern for what the voters want, parties are closed organizations. They are private institutions, controlled by a very few people, certainly not by the voters.

One good way to look at political parties is to compare them against magazines, television, radio, newspapers, and commercial web sites, collectively, sometimes called “media”. These institutions almost always derive most of their revenue from advertising. (In the case of web sites, they sometimes make money from tracking viewers, then selling the data.) The magazine or show or web site isn’t the product: the viewer or subscriber is the product. Sometimes the main reason they charge for subscriptions is so that the advertisers know that the recipients aren’t just throwing the magazine away, because if you pay for it, even just a token amount, it’s much more likely you’ll actually read it. They’re selling the subscribers or viewers to their customers, the advertisers, who make money from those same viewers, enough to pay for the advertisements and, by extension, enough to pay for the magazine itself. If you read an article about pets or music or food or the latest news of some kind, that article was written as a way to get you to read the magazine or other medium, and to read or view (and maybe click on) the advertisements. Your interests only serve as a way to get you to read the advertisements. (Of course, the advertisers will pay only when they think you might have the right interests to become their customers; you won’t find many advertisements for hunting knives or tractors in fashion magazines.)

Political parties work in much the same way. Instead of advertisers, they have donors; instead of articles about some topic, they have candidates. Media advertisers will pay for ad placement when they think the readers will purchase their products, while political donors will contribute money for candidates when they think the voters will elect a candidate who will give something to the donors. The political parties, although nominally not-for-profit, are basically commercial operations. Just as you might see the same automobile manufacturer advertising in two competing car magazines, you’ll see the same donors contributing to two competing political parties: no matter which party wins, they will have put into office a candidate who has, openly or secretly, committed to return a favour to the donor or campaign contributor.

You aren’t going to see the two major parties oppose war, because they’d lose their biggest donor-customers by doing so: the warmongers have a lot of cash to “invest” in expanding their business. The party might lie, and say it doesn’t support war, but it won’t betray its donors, because they are among the party’s biggest customers, and they’ll go to war anyway. By minimizing the number of parties, the interests of the biggest donor-customers are guaranteed to be protected.

The party management is not controlled by the people. Party committee members make the rules and dispense the funds to control the candidates. They decide what is “best” for the party, and act accordingly. The asset which empowers them to do this is the precious ballot position: because there are only a few ballot positions, each is more valuable as a consequence. The customers, the donors, are kings, and the party managers will do whatever it takes to satisfy them. Just as a television network might sacrifice its biggest and most popular personality when a few advertisers decide they will no longer support his show, a political party may sacrifice its own most popular candidate when that candidate’s position irritates any of the largest donors. The network bosses come up with some lame story and end the host’s contract, while the party bosses pretend to do the will of the voters while circumventing the voters’ wishes using technicalities in the rules and special instructions to their “superdelegates”. The network bosses control things openly, while the party bosses work behind the scenes, in the proverbial “smoke filled rooms”.

This, of course, has nothing to do with what the people might want.

A little Gedankenexperiment is in order: Consider what might have happened if, during the last national election, the 2016 election, the major parties had not been in control of the ballot positions. If there had been a three-way race, Sanders would likely have defeated Clinton, and there might have been a runoff between Sanders and Trump. Without taking sides – I wouldn’t support either of them, myself – I’d bet on Sanders, because he seemed to have the support of the “average working guy” in a way similar to Trump, but he was probably more credible in terms of promising real change without pandering to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim crowd. I think that some of the Trump voters were turned off by the anti-immigrant rhetoric (but he was the lesser of two evils to them), and they would have gone with Sanders. We’d possibly have ended up with a president who was even more disruptive to the established order than Trump seems to be, and that’s the point: those who profit from the established order would likely have lost ground. It’s not as if there would have been a major revolution, Sanders would have his enemies which would have constrained his actions, and his “socialism” is, I believe, something of a façade, but a succession of such elections might cumulatively have resulted in significant change.


Because the biggest few donor-customers account for most of the revenues of the two main parties, some issues become taboo subjects and will not be debated. Those issues mainly concern the five pillars which support the social-political system: the nature of property rights; the legitimacy of capitalism (all forms, not just industrial); the military sector; the “national security” apparatus and police state machinery; and the structure of the government and political system itself. Despite that some issues such as environmental problems ranked at the top of voters’ concerns, they were not discussed in the debates or in the press (who sell advertising to the same interests which donate money to the candidates): the parties had both sold out to donor-customers who supported the status quo. In fact, candidates were compelled to agree not to debate third-party candidates, largely because consideration of those proscribed topics was deemed verboten. Thus, with a few parties in control, there is almost no chance of real change, even if most voters want it.

Some argue that the two party system is optimal, despite these anti-democratic shortcomings.

For example, it is claimed that it helps build consensus, that minority interests are folded into the two parties where, combined with strength based on the relevant other issues, they offer a chance for everyone to have his or her views incorporated into the resulting policies. Considering that the people are probably more divided now than at any time in almost a century, this is a weak assertion. What in fact happens is that minority interests might be emphasized, but at a severe price. For example, the Democrats supported various LGBTQ constituencies and the Republicans courted some Christian extremists with positions on certain issues, but the price was that most of the country was not heard on the environmental, military, and financial questions. A few minorities had their concerns addressed, but the price was that an even smaller minority – the oligarchy – controlled the outcome. In other words, the system was inverted, turned upside down: the one percent won (it was a rigged game), some larger minorities were given a possible but not guaranteed chance for gains, and the main body of the citizenry had many of their biggest concerns (those which conflicted with the desires of the one percent) ignored.

It is also asserted that too many parties make agreement difficult and government unstable. By extrapolation, a system without parties, where each citizen is essentially his own party, would be even worse. That might be news to other countries (such as Canada and France) which have long employed a multi-party system without showing signs of meltdown or chaos. The example of France, in particular, is instructive: despite dozens of parties, the system continues; although it appears chaotic to U.S. citizens who, politically, have been taught to count using only two fingers, it has been remarkably flexible, and France shows no signs of self-destruction as a result of its electoral system. To the contrary, minor parties and fringe candidates sometimes serve as safety mechanisms, allowing the expression of sentiments and views which would otherwise be denied to some citizens; at the end of the day, a healthy multi-party system can foster solidarity by allowing more voices to be heard, giving a feeling of fairness. In practice, too, smaller parties can advance their constituencies’ interests when they are in a position to provide a tie breaking or swing vote on an issue: they can advance their specialized agendas through compromise and deal making.

Another argument made against a multi-party system, or against a system altogether without parties, is that it would be too complex and expensive. This, too, is an absurd claim. How will the number of candidates on a ballot affect the cost? Is someone actually going to argue that the cost of paper or disk storage or bandwidth would swamp the election budgets? In fact, the U.S. is famous for its expensive electoral machinery: we buy fancy voting machines which are highly vulnerable to cracking (people buying used machines on e-Bay have shown they have terrible software security and are easy to break in to), whereas places like France with large numbers of parties make do quite well with paper ballots while generating almost no claims of “voter fraud”.

The abysmal state of voting system security in the U.S. has been covered elsewhere, so there is no need to revisit it here and now. However, I would like to outline a way for a more democratic system to work, as a suggestion.

Suppose every candidate, when registering as a candidate, were to be assigned a number, which could be represented as a bar code, QR code, or something similar. Any one bringing in signatures from a hundred voters or one percent of the voters, whichever was less, would be eligible to run for office. The candidates would then be free to distribute the bar code and number to potential voters. At the polling places, a voter could take his or her own ballot, decorated with the bar codes corresponding to the candidates he liked, and have it scanned when he or she voted. Or, alternatively, he could pick up a blank ballot at the polling station, and write in the numbers for the candidate he supported; this other method could also be done on a terminal and, in either case, the polling stations would offer terminals to look up the numbers in a database of candidates. (I suggest numbers to prevent confusion in case there are multiple candidates with similar names, or in case a candidate is known by a nickname, and so on.) Candidates could offer the bar codes on their web sites, for printing by voters who decide to bring in their own ballots, or they might even mail them out in the form of gummed labels, something like postage stamps, to stick on the blank ballots available at the polling stations. Parties or candidates could even mail out complete ballots. Considering that almost all of the cheapest cell phones can scan bar codes or QR codes, how expensive could the equipment be? And the software cost would be minimal: it would only need to be developed once. A test app could be passed out for free: it would scan your ballot using a cell phone, to make sure you didn’t make mistakes (like voting for two competing candidates on the same ballot) and to ascertain that the ballot you intended to bring to the polls would be readable. Just an idea...

Instead of party primaries, we could have an open primary, with the top contenders going to the runoff election. Of course, there would be nothing to stop the parties from continuing to operate, but they would be equal to anyone else, and not have any special status. Most importantly, they wouldn’t be able to control ballot placement.

Eliminating any official status of parties would be a step toward having a democracy. It would also, no doubt, liven things up a bit, and increase voter participation.

Edit History:

Thursday 2017.05.11 &mdash Title changed. Replaced introduction with link to page listing all members of this subseries.

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