As Hillary Clinton supporters suffer with the knowledge that their candidate is poised to win the popular vote by over 2 million votes, they likely are not comforted by the fact that, in five states, she lost to Donald Trump by a smaller margin than the total number of third party votes. Among these are Pennsylvania and Florida, where Clinton needed less than half of all third party votes to have been cast in her favor in order to have claimed victory. Some supporters of the major party candidates have complained about votes that they perceive to be wasted on third party candidates and shame these candidates and their supporters as “spoilers.” While this label captures their frustration about their candidate’s defeat, it also illuminates a common sentiment in the US that third party candidates are trivial. The Democratic and Republican parties possess vast monetary, media, and cultural influence, which narrows the majority of the US political process into a rigid, two-party mindset. The unrivaled power of the two major parties allows them to monopolize the people and ideas circulating in governing bodies. This dynamic hinders the US government’s ability to adapt, advance, and accurately represent the diverse populace it serves.
The United States is a nation with over 320 million citizens, citizens who encompass countless ethnicities, speak over 350 languages, follow faiths from every corner of the world, and enjoy lifestyles everywhere from the urban epicenter of Manhattan to regions of Alaska not accessible by roads. This extensive diversity corresponds with a plethora of contrasting perspectives and needs which are impossible to express with only two major political ideologies. The rigidity of the two-party system currently prevents it from mirroring the wide array of interests of US citizens. Instead, the Democratic and Republican parties primarily occupy themselves with the task of reaffirming their own power. Not only do the two major parties use their prominence to squash the success of other parties, regardless of their potential to improve the nation, but these parties also capitalize on their perceived invincibility by prioritizing their personal agendas above their Constitutional duties. The most glaring current example of this is Republican senators’ refusal to consider President Obama’s appointee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. It is no secret that the hope for a Republican presidential victory, and thus a more conservative Supreme Court appointee, motivated this tactic. It is a shame that US citizens continuously cast votes that reinforce the power of the two major parties and ultimately condone this neglect of duty.
Despite the transparency of the corruption plaguing the efficacy of Democrats and Republicans, the major parties continue to dominate the political landscape, thanks in part to the disproportionate funding and news coverage they receive. Entering Republican Donald Trump’s name into Google News search yields 94 million results, while Democrat Hillary Clinton’s name yields 63 million results. In comparison, the name of the next most popular presidential candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson, only produces 1.77 million results when it is searched on the same engine. Not surprisingly, finances appear to drive the drastic advantages in publicity enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans. Clinton spent a whopping $609 million on her presidential campaign, while Trump put forth $286 million for his. Trump won with his campaign spending less than half of what his opponent did, but this was largely due to Trump’s personal appeal to certain voters, rather than to any debilitating discrepancies in funding. The Democratic Party raised $986 million in the 2016 election season, and the Republican Party raised a respectable $757 million, confirming that both parties have the means to acquire vasts sums of money to support their candidates. In contrast, Gary Johnson spent a total of just under $12.8 million on his presidential campaign. The enormous monetary wealth of the Democrats and Republicans allows them to connect with voters through campaign events, advertisement, journalism, and television attention in a capacity unmatched by any other party.
Unbeknownst to many US citizens, a private corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates organizes nationally-televised political debates. In a clear conflict of interest, the Commission on Presidential Debates receives its funding from the Democratic and Republican parties. By way of this financial support, the two major parties can bar other candidates from participating in crucial debates through a rule that requires a candidate to receive 15 percent of national support in five major national polls in order to be eligible to debate. This arbitrary yet formidable barrier bars credible third party candidates from a crucial opportunity to share their ideas with voters and fortify their campaigns.
In the run up to the first 2016 presidential debate on September 26, Gary Johnson commanded almost 9 percent of national support and was gaining popularity. Despite Johnson’s evident ability to connect with US voters, the Commission on Presidential Debates denied this candidate the opportunity to debate with Clinton and Trump because he fell short of the 15 percent support threshold. The circumstance presents a Catch-22: Johnson needed publicity of the debate in order to gain visibility and support necessary to qualify for the debate in the first place. Here we can see Johnson falling victim to a vicious cycle. Rather than serving as a platform for each candidate to convey their positions to the American people, the presidential debate padded the popularity of the already most visible and best-funded candidates, as though these candidates had earned exceptional legitimacy via their party affiliation. The debate served as evidence for a harsh reality, in which institutional restraints stemming from the superior funding of the Republican and Democratic parties subdue the opportunities of rivals to make their voices heard on the national stage, and consequently restrict the ideas permeating the US political bubble.
So what prevents alternative candidates from bringing their non-traditional ideas into one of the major parties? During this past campaign season, Bernie Sanders attempted to do just that, by bringing his democratic-socialist ideology to the Democratic Party. The outcome of Sanders’ campaign then highlighted the barriers within the Democratic party that restrict outsiders from gaining enough traction to challenge the status quo within a major party.
At the conclusion of the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders had received the support of 45.6 percent of the delegates tied to citizens’ votes in his race against Hillary Clinton. Despite Sanders' incentive to shift the focus towards defeating Donald Trump, his support for Clinton revealed yet another circumstance in which a major party prioritized its own goals over democracy. Superdelegates themselves are inherently undemocratic because they give one person the equivalent influence of an estimated 10,000 citizens’ votes. The Democratic party implemented the system of superdelegates as a response to the overwhelming defeats of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, by using establishment politicians to prevent the nomination of candidates who may suffer embarrassing defeats. Once again, a major party prioritized its own influence over the will of US citizens. In this past election, Clinton received the support of 92.8 percent of superdelegates, many of which were pledged in her favor before citizens had even been given the opportunity to vote in their states’ primaries. The lopsided support of Clinton over Sanders among the Democratic party’s elite was suspicious, but it could potentially have been explained by an alternative perspective from those who had worked more closely with both Clinton and Sanders. However, during the week of the Democratic National Convention, in which Clinton accepted her nomination as the Democratic candidate, Wikileaks revealed evidence that the Democratic party had given a distinct advantage to Clinton’s campaign.
The leaked documents show that, prior to Clinton clinching the nomination, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, sought to help the Clinton campaign and undermine Sanders’ success. Wasserman-Schultz immediately stepped down from her position following the release of the report, but it was impossible to determine what would have happened had the DNC not interfered with the results of the primary. Though the news must have been painful and frustrating for Sanders, he chose to ignore the blatant misconduct and rally the Democratic party’s support behind Clinton due to his strong preference for Clinton over Republican-nominee Donald Trump. Despite Sanders’ incentive to shift the focus towards defeating Donald Trump, his campaign's failure to do so revealed yet another circumstance in which a major party prioritized its own goals over democracy.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the United States’ now President-elect, Donald Trump. Trump faced similar dissent from within the Republican Party, highlight by the fact that no living Republican President chose to attend the Republican National Convention. Despite his tumultuous relationship with the Republican Party, Trump still managed to win the primary and break through many of the barriers discussed in this article. While the arguments posited in this article may seem to be invalidated by Trump’s election, Trump’s controversial rhetoric and his private Twitter account constantly draw the national spotlight in his direction. His numerous absurd comments and actions granted Trump the media attention essential to victory without costing him the financial resources usually needed to finance advertisements. Additionally, Trump harnessed fierce anti-establishment sentiment across the country to support his campaign, while having the vision to use Twitter to spread his messages in an expense-free and high-profile setting. Trump certainly introduced an effective and cost-efficient manner of foregoing establishment politics with his Twitter account, and future politicians should certainly learn from his success. Nonetheless, the outspoken, unconventional style that gifted Trump so much media attention and contributed significantly to his success would suit the personality of very few other people. Therefore, systematic and financial barriers which block political outsiders from gaining power still stand between the majority of aspiring politicians and a victorious campaign.
The United States remains in desperate need of a political reform that can redeem the US government in the eyes of many citizens. Leading up to this year’s presidential election, 57 percent of people within the Democratic Party and 60 percent within the Republican Party expressed dissatisfaction with their parties’ respective candidates. On top of this, 39 percent of registered voters chose to register with neither major party, and instead remained registered as Independents. The fact that such a vast proportion of US voters registered without a party affiliation indicates an even greater discontent nationwide with Trump and Clinton than the one expressed by Democrats and Republicans. Even though dissatisfaction for the current state of political affairs is rampant nationwide, one reason that the two party system remains triumphant is that the US government has a winner-take-all voting system. Therefore, most citizens feel compelled to continue voting within two-party parameters because they fear that the power dynamic within the US government will make third party votes inconsequential.
US voters need motivation to vote outside of the Democratic and Republican parties, even if their vote does not contribute to the party or candidate that receives the most votes. If the US government reformed its voting system so that each party received government representation corresponding to the proportion of votes it received, individuals’ votes would actually translate into representation. There are a large number of countries that use the proportional representational system; the German Parliament is a good example for demonstrating how this system works. In Germany, each individual casts two votes. The first vote contributes to a winner-take-all race for a Parliamentary Representative from their geographic region. The second vote cast by an individual contributes to a national race in which members of the German Parliament are elected based on the percentage of votes that each party receives. As long as a party receives at least 5 percent of votes nationwide, that party will represent its constituents in the German Parliament. Therefore, individuals who best represent the will of the people from a specific region, as well as multiple parties that best represent the diverse ranges of interests of the entire nation, all hold positions of power. A proportional representation system shatters the fear of irrelevant votes, distributes representation so it directly correlates with the will of the populace, and empowers voters to vote with increased loyalty to their own values and needs. Removing the focus on a single victor would eliminate the possibility of party dynasties and empower citizens to have agency in shaping a diverse ideological layout. Diversifying government representation would allow third parties to gain validity outside of the campaign season and decrease the effects of political funding and institutional inequity. The adoption of a proportional representation system, like the German Parliamentary system, would rejuvenate the US government’s ability to execute its duty by shifting emphasis away from the dominant binary political powers and instead crafting a mosaic of political ideologies representing citizens more accurately.
Even though a reform of the US government’s election system appeals to many people in theory, the reality of amending the US Constitution is a logistically daunting task and has only occurred seventeen times in a span of 240 years. In order to amend the Constitution, at least three-fourths of the 50 states must approve the amendment within seven years of its proposal. Additionally, many US citizens believe that the government should adhere to the Constitution in as similar a manner as possible to the governing of the Founding Fathers. It would also be challenging to convince even those who do support amending the Constitution to support one specific amendment that would create such drastic change in the US political process. Nonetheless, the present challenges and frustrations with the US government’s ineffectiveness and power-hungry culture are deep-rooted and widespread. The widespread support received by the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns demonstrates the prevalence and potency of these frustrations and the hunger for change. The passion of disenfranchised voters must be channeled towards reforming structural flaws that contribute to corruption and inhibit democratic representation in order to address the urgent issues that currently alienate voters from their representatives. Overcoming this challenge and introducing proportional representation would crucially restore optimism and trust in the relationship between a population and a government founded on striving for the extraordinary.