Why are America's elections SO darn dramatic? Part 1
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
An examination of America's two-party system, its primaries, and the potential for ranked-choice voting.
written by Eric Prince
The stage lights up. Music blares. The crowd goes wild.
“This is it!” the host says into the microphone, “The moment you've all been waiting for."
The host points toward one of corner of the stage.
“In this corner, standing at an even 6 feet and clocking in at 180 pounds of pure moderate ambition, appealing to both conservatives and liberals alike – Joe “JUST KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND YOU MIGHT WIN” Biden!”
Joe Biden steps forward wearing only a face-mask and workout spandex. He remains silent. His campaign manager has told him not to speak.
“Aaaaaaaaaaand in this corner of the room," the host turns around and points to the opposite corner, "The Godfather, the White Scarface, our current champion: Donald J. Trump!!!!!!!”
Donald Trump lumbers out on stage wearing his signature grimace, holding up both of his pointer fingers to the ceiling. A small portion of the audience erupts into cheers. Everyone else is silent.
The host waits for the audience to die down before speaking again, “This is the battle of a lifetime, folks. Trump vs. Biden. The future of our country is at stake. The future... of mankind.”
The crowd erupts into commotion again.
"Are you ready!?" the host says.
"Yes, we are!" the crowd says back.
The bell dings. The first presidential debate has begun.
Okay, I admit, the above example was a little dramatic…but it got the point across, right?
Elections in the United States just feel SO dramatic. Like a pay-per-view, prime-time, mano a mano boxing match.
And it certainly doesn’t help that the media is using images like the one below:
Or that Trump uses this music at his campaign rallies...I'm not kidding. Here's an actual video I took at his campaign rally back in 2016:
It also doesn't help that Trump knows how to get views. He's the king of drama and entertainment (and he's been doing it since the 1970s!).
Here's another video of him fighting Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE.
Long story short, our election cycle has become a dramatic, ideological battle of personalities and one-liners. And it's only gotten worse in recent years.
Unfortunately, people love drama, personality, and one-liners. (This also explains why Two and a Half Men was on the air for 12 years...)
But our election cycle wasn't always like this. There was a time when our election cycles were relatively tame.
Sure, people have always loved their drama...
But up until recently, certain mechanisms prevented our elections from becoming too absurd.
I mean, just look at other countries. Sure, some of their elections are dramatic. But they aren’t NEARLY as drama-filled as the ones we have in America.
So, why does the American election cycle feel SO MUCH like a circus?
Well, there are many, many, many reasons it feels this way. But over the course of these next few weeks, I want to explore three reasons that I believe have contributed a disproportionate amount to today's elections:
1) The Primaries and our stupid Two-Party System.
2) The Privatization of EVERYTHING election-related.
3) The Geography of the US (and someone named Jerry Mander?)
We’re going to be looking at each of these three issues in depth to try to identify ways in which we can solve them (no matter how unlikely the solution is).
Today we'll be examining the issue of our primaries and our two-party system.
In two weeks we'll be looking at the privatization of everything and the geographic manipulation of the United States.
But first, a few disclaimers:
Disclaimer One: Our election issue is a very, very complicated one. It cannot be broken down into the three simple reasons you see above without missing A LOT of information along the way. Please understand that there is a lot more at work here than I am able to cover in an easy, ten-minute read.
Disclaimer Two: Additionally, these three reasons (plus others) create a ton of positive feedback loops that worsen over time. The three reasons I list above helped create a system that continues to profit off of drama and division. And as long as certain people are profiting off of this system, these positive feedback loops will continue to operate for the foreseeable future.
So, without further ado, let's examine these three issues!
The Primaries and Our Stupid Two-Party System
Everyone knows the two-party system in America is screwed up.
The two-party system in America forces you to choose between two people you REALLY don’t give a shit about. And at its worst, it forces you to choose between the lesser-of-two-evils.
(Hint: Biden is the lesser of the two evils)
But it’s not really JUST the two-party system that's killing us. It’s the two-party system AND the primaries COMBINED that's killing us.
Let’s take a look.
This is the entire political spectrum.
And these are the primary spectrums for the Democrats and Republicans.
Up until the general election, these primary spectrums do not cross (for the most part).
There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, people who vote in the primaries tend to be registered to the specific party for which they're voting. Some states will even register you as a specific party if you DO vote in the primaries.
Second, the primaries have a historically low voter turn-out. And the people who DO show up to vote tend to be those who are either involved in politics or those who have strong feelings about a certain candidate. This means that these voters have A LOT of power in deciding our president.
The Ice-Cream Truck Example
Essentially, our primary spectrums encompass an entirely separate voter base and an entirely different belief system up until the summer before the General Election (just a few months before the election).
So, both parties are incentivized to appeal to the TYPICAL primary voter and IGNORE everyone else.
I didn’t just make this up, either. This is actually a popular example in game theory called Hotelling's Game. You may have heard it referred to as the ice-cream stand (or truck) example.
Let's take a look.
There are two beaches situated across from each other.
Two ice-cream trucks set up shop on either beach.
Over time, these two ice-cream trucks will move closer and closer together in order to gain the most people from their respective beaches.
After a certain amount of time, these ice cream trucks will find themselves side-by-side (usually in the middle of the spectrum).
Now this doesn't seem so bad, does it? It means that usually the candidate who is in the middle of two differing groups of people will be elected. Problem solved, right?
Because the primaries screw EVERYTHING up. Remember, the primaries create two separate voter groups. So the ice-cream truck example happens TWICE.
The spectrum ends up looking like this:
What this does, over time, is push ideologies apart. It moves people further left and further right.
Let's take a look at the 2016 primaries. This is the right wing of the entire political spectrum:
The typical conservative viewpoint is just right-of-center. But, remember, these are the primaries we are talking about. And like we observed earlier, the people who typically turn out for primaries are those who feel empowered to vote.
And in 2016, Trump empowered a specific group of people to turn out and vote.
So, the elected official ISN'T just right of center. They're actually a little more far right than that.
And once the primaries are over, you have two nominees who are further apart than they'd normally be without the primaries.
Without the primaries, THIS is the typical area for candidates to fall into:
And WITH the primaries, THIS is what ends up happening:
The Key Phrase: Over Time
So, why is this division happening only now?
It's not! It's actually been happening all along. And it comes and goes in waves.
Remember the Civil War? You know, that ENORMOUS war that was fought over slavery? Yes, that was a result of social division.
HOWEVER, the primaries didn't exist in the 1800s. At least, not in the form you see it as today. Which means that the social division of the Civil War was au naturel, baby.
The political parties did all the nominating back then...and it mostly happened all behind the scenes. The primary voting process wasn't actually introduced until the early 1900s.
And of course, it took some time for people to start taking advantage of the process, which is why you didn't see real political division beginning until the 1950s (plus, there were a couple of World Wars and a Great Depression that took precedence).
But ever since the 1950s...oh boy: Division galore!
So, what is a potential solution here?
Well there are two solutions – and neither solution is very realistic at this point in time.
The first solution is to somehow create a third mainstream political party. This would help address the ice-cream truck issue in the primaries – a third party would HAVE to overlap with the Democrats and Republicans at SOME point. Since our current political system sort of operates like a duopoly, a third party would also help to create more competition.
The second solution is to change the way our voting process is structured. Right now, the United States operates on a first-past-the-post voting process for all of our presidential elections. This means that the person who receives the most votes wins. It also means that there is no incentive to vote for a third candidate.
If we were to change the way our voting process is structured, to something like a Ranked-Choice Voting process, we might be able to eliminate the showdown-type feeling of our general elections.
A Ranked-Choice Voting process allows a voter to rank all of the candidates from most preferred to least preferred.
Now, there are many different types of Ranked-Choice Voting systems in place: instant-runoff, single-transferable, condorcet, positional, the list goes on.
I can't discuss all of these methods, so I'm going to focus on the Positional Method (which also happens to be my favorite).
In the Positional Method of Ranked-Choice Voting, first place votes are awarded the highest number of points, while Last Place Votes are awarded the fewest. At the end of the election day, all of these points are tallied up and the person with the highest number of votes wins the election.
Let’s look at an example.
In an upcoming election there are four candidates. Three of the candidates share varying degrees of popularity. We'll call them Candidates A, B, and C.
Candidates A, B, and C all experience undying support from a specific demographic base. Unfortunately, they also experience varying degrees of hatred from the other demographic bases.
But the fourth candidate, let’s call them Candidate X, doesn’t really enjoy this undying support from any particular group of people. Candidate X is no-one's top choice. However, Candidate X is generally liked by EVERYONE.
So, on election day, people are able to rank these four candidates from most preferred to least preferred. The three candidates who enjoy undying support from their respective demographic bases place anywhere from 1st to 4th. Candidate X, however, places 2nd on EVERYONE’S ballot.
Now imagine you have 99 voters. These 99 voters can be split into three groups.
33 voters place Candidate A at Number 1.
33 voters place Candidate B at Number 1.
33 voters place Candidate C at Number 1.
The ballots can be broken down into three identical piles:
A vote for first place is equal to 4 points. A vote for second place is equal to 3 points.
A vote for third place is equal to 2 points. And a vote for fourth place is equal to 1 point.
Because the Candidates A, B, and C placed anywhere from 1st place to 4th place, Candidate X receives 300 points, while everyone else receives 231 points.
Candidate X wins the election and becomes the President!
The Benefits of Ranked-Choice Voting
Ranked-Choice Voting helps the election process in a couple of ways.
First, it creates more competition in the election itself. Even if there are one or two front-runners, the potential WILL be there for an underdog to win.
In our current election system, you have two choices. Even if there IS a minor third-party candidate, it's in your best interest to vote for one of the two front-runners. Additionally, many people will vote AGAINST whoever they don't want to win.
Take this year's election for example: a TON of people will be voting FOR Joe Biden because they WANT Trump to lose. Many people would even consider a vote for a third party candidate to be a meaningless vote...or worse: a vote for Trump himself!
Second, it helps to counter fringe voting demographics who can sway the primary elections (like in 2016). Even if a far right or far left candidate were to rise up, a Ranked-Choice Voting process would help select the candidate who most people at least somewhat favor.
This would also help counter someone who might be unfit for presidenc