Scratching that itch

When hand-wringing over consistently lousy voter turnout in America turns to discussion of what should be done about the problem, the standard answer is to blame it on apathy and to shame people for shirking their civic duty and guilt trip them into coming to the polls in the next election. Rarely are questions ever asked much less answered about how to change the sad reality that so many feel doomed to hold their noses and choose between what they regard as the lesser of evils.

When you think about where voters’ heads are at currently, most favor “none of the above” and that’s not an option on the ballot. Few in the political establishment allow themselves to seriously consider that not voting might have little or nothing to do with apathy or disregard for the responsibilities of citizenship and a whole lot to do with the fact that most Americans passionately dislike the two major parties and would really like a third one that doesn’t operate on the fringes because the Democrats and Republicans do such a poor job of representing them.

Want fewer people to sit out elections? Give them some choices they don’t consider so damned unpalatable.

But here’s the rub: America has a two-party system, for better or worse, rightly or wrongly. Ours is not a parliamentary system where competing factions can join forces and form coalition governments. We have winner-take-all elections. There’s a long history in the U.S. of trying to scratch the itch to break the stranglehold of the two major parties. Whether it was Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob La Follette in the 1920s or Ross Perot in the 1990s or Ralph Nader in 2000, the dominance of the Republicans and Democrats was never upended.

Public disgust with the two major parties combined with the extent to which our system actively discriminates against third-party or independent candidacies explains why so many people reach the tragic conclusion that voting is a waste of their time. It’s also why Blue Jean Nation is working to create what we call a “first party movement.”

Having three or more parties as permanent fixtures on the American political landscape is not a realistic goal. Having at least one that is worth a damn is reachable. That goal can’t be reached by appealing only to voters to the Democrats’ left or to the Republicans’ right. A citizen movement capable of transforming one or both of the major parties and compelling them to meaningfully reconnect with regular people has to vigorously compete for the affections of all voters. A better offer especially needs to be made to independent voters, including the many centrists among them. They want another major party most of all.

If history is any guide, the politically homeless won’t get the third party they long for. But we can get the next best thing. One party or the other or both can be infiltrated and forced to change their ways. Doing so is the only practical way of offering lapsed voters the real representation that will bring them back to the polls. It’s harder than condemning nonvoters as bad people, but it’s always harder to cure the disease than treat the symptom.

Mike McCabe