An examination of America's two-party system, its primary elections, the privatization of everything, and a little thing named Gerrymandering.
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.
(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.
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.
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 presidency.
Now, Ranked-Choice Voting isn't a perfect solution. It may cause a slow-down in government response and restrict innovation, especially in times of need.
For example, a middle-of-the-road candidate might be less willing to introduce new ideas (like nationalized healthcare) or implement a nation-wide response to an emergency. Since the candidate relies on the support of both sides of the aisle, they may try to make both sides happy. And sometimes, when you try to make both sides happy, you make no one happy.
Image all the presidents who have pushed the envelope in the past. Lincoln, FDR, Lyndon B. Johnson. If they were worried about appeasing both voting bases, some of the biggest social movements may never have happened. Lincoln may not have fought as valiantly for the 13th Amendment. FDR may not have introduced his New Deal programs. Lyndon B. Johnson may not have fought for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Pushing the envelope IS necessary at times.
But, Ranked-Choice Voting could ALSO help prevent this from happening:
The Privatization of EVERYTHING
The second reason our election process feels SO DARN dramatic is because EVERYTHING to do with the election is privatized.
Seriously, it’s worse than you think. Let’s check it out.
First, campaign advertising was privatized back in the 1930s and has shaped the way our entire election process operates. I’ve already written about this at length in my piece about the American News Industry, but I do love talking about it.
The first campaign advertising firm, called Campaigns, Inc. did some VERY questionable things.
But I have a better example for today.
Well, that very same Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in 1934 as a Democrat, but was very well known to be socialist in his views (he was even part of the Socialist Party at one point).
Sinclair's opponent in 1934, Frank Merriam, decided to hire Campaigns, Inc., a private political consulting firm, to wage a campaign war against Upton Sinclair. One of the most egregious tactics Campaigns, Inc. used was to take lines spoken by various characters in Sinclair’s books and release them as ads in various newspapers. They looked a little like this:
Yes, you read that right. Sinclair's opponent used lines from fictional characters to defeat Sinclair.
That’s like if George R.R. Martin ran for a political position and his opponent used lines spoken by characters from Game of Thrones.
Officially, these quotes AREN'T fake. Upton Sinclair DID say them…but it is a MASSIVE misrepresentation of the truth.
And it also set the stage for the continued privatization of our political system. Which leads us to our next example.
The Presidential Debates: Just Darn Good Television
The second example of our privatized electoral process is with our electoral debates.
During each election cycle, there are typically two types of debates: primary debates and general election debates.
And here's the thing...the primary debates are hosted and sponsored by private entities. I’m not kidding.
This explains why the debates for primaries only air on one channel at a time.
For example, the first Democratic Primary Debate for the upcoming election aired on NBC and was hosted by NBC. The second debate aired on CNN and was hosted by CNN.
And because the primary debates are hosted and sponsored by private entities, the debates are designed to eschew typical debate etiquette and instead grab the most viewers. Why? Because more viewers equals more ad revenue.
And, as I’ve already discussed in my piece about the American News Industry, these news corporations are focused on only one thing: MONEY.
Because of that, these news corporations are going to do what makes them the most money. They’re going to make these primary debates into a SHOWDOWN.
Fortunately, the general election debates are a little different. They're overseen by a nonpartisan nonprofit group named the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).
Unfortunately, many politicians, campaign managers, and networks still try to weasel around the CPD and exert their influence on the debates.
Politicians, campaign managers, and networks have all realized that debates don't need to contain actual facts. The only important thing is to draw the most viewers. Then, if you throw a couple of zippy one-liners at your opponent, you can win the favor of millions of Americans who have tuned in for the showdown.
Roger Ailes knew the secret to debating all the way back in 1988 when he told George H.W. Bush the following line before a debate:
Now, you might be wondering WHY any of this is allowed.
Well, part of the reason it's allowed is because the government repealed the Fairness Doctrine back in the 1980s. What’s the Fairness Doctrine you ask? Well, I’ll tell you!
The Fairness Doctrine is what used to keep the news industry in check. It required the media to present multiple sides of the same political issue. This essentially prevented media corporations from turning into bias production factories.
Unfortunately, the Fairness Doctrine WAS repealed and the media you see today WAS turned into a bias production factory.
A solution to THIS issue doesn’t seem very likely either. Both of our politics parties benefit ENORMOUSLY from the privatization of our election process. They make money. They gain power. Rinse and repeat.
It's also difficult because the federal government outsources to the private industry ALL THE TIME. It's almost impossible to separate the private industry (and capitalism in general) from our political system these days. Hell, it's the entire reason the Military-Industrial Complex even exists.
The only way the privatization issue could be fixed is if, somehow, Congress was able to pass laws restricting the private industry's involvement in our election cycle. But again, this doesn't seem likely. Why? Because...
Sure, the Republican Party may have been the first to pull the trigger on the privatization of our government (they repealed the Fairness Doctrine and were the first to use private political campaigning), but these days BOTH political parties benefit far too much to change the system.
Sigh. Oh well.
Let's move on.
The Wide Open Road of the United States
The third and final reason our election cycle feels like a boxing match is a little more amorphous than the previous two reasons.
Basically, the United States is freaking huge. It’s huge! And the distance between communities is ENORMOUS.
Check out the distance between New York City and Topeka, Kansas:
This enormous distance leads to the formation of isolated communities. And, over time, these isolated communities become QUITE different from one another. Someone in San Francisco is NOT going to lead the same life as a farmer in South Carolina. These two types of people barely interact with each other.
Sure, isolated communities exist in most countries. Even the smallest countries have enough distance between communities to create different lifestyles and different political opinions. But when a country is HUGE (like the United States), the difference in lifestyle and political opinion happens waaaaaaay more often.
And because of the United States’ two-party system, our isolated communities become war-zones for the Democrats and Republicans who want to gain control of the country. So, in the long-run, all of these communities get turned into either red or blue districts.
And given enough time and enough political advertising, these isolated communities start to think along these red and blue lines. It becomes almost like a football game: the reds vs. blues.
And then there’s gerrymandering, the next level of geographical manipulation.
Get Mr. Jerry Mander Out Of Here!
Gerrymandering is the act of reshaping various congressional and state-level districts to capture a big liberal or conservative voter base.
Typically, districts try to capture similar numbers of populations. Check out the current map of Virginia's Congressional Districts:
This is what congressional districts typically look like. Different shapes and sizes, but designed to capture similar population amounts. The one you see above was created in 2015.
Now, let's look at Virginia's Congressional Districts before they were changed in 2015.
Yes, some of the districts ARE shaped differently than how they're shaped now. It's actually an interesting story.
In 2012, Virginia's General Assembly had a Republican majority for both their houses.
They created a redistricting that packed low-income minority voters in the 3rd District so that their votes would count in the surrounding districts. Republicans did this because, historically, low-income minority voters typically vote for Democratic candidates.
Luckily, in 2015, this instance of gerrymandering was found unconstitutional by a Virginia Circuit Court. The districts have since been redrawn in order to redistribute the low-income minority voters of the 3rd district.
But that's only the tip of the ice-burg. Gerrymandering happens all over the country and at many different levels.
Let's check out a few more Gerrymandered districts:
Holy shit, that's bad. These districts are NOT designed to capture similar populations. They're designed to capture VOTING groups.
So, not only do Democrats and Republicans fight over influence of specific areas, but they also MANIPULATE geographic districts to suit their needs.
And if you can redraw districts to fit a population that will DEFINITELY vote for you, you can win more local elections than you'd be able to otherwise.
Check out this graphic that's been floating around on the internet for a few years now. I LOVE this graphic because it explains gerrymandering so succinctly.
Long story short, this:
Gerrymandering also creates further division, because where people used to naturally differ in views, now they are being artificially driven into certain voting lines. And as long as political parties can continue to redraw the lines, they don’t have to worry about compromising on issues. They’ll only have to redraw the lines so that they stand a better chance of winning.
And if you can just redraw the lines, you can capture a group of people that OVERWHELMINGLY supports your party. When this happens, the other party tends to give up on these districts and instead focus on the districts they DO have control of.
This is why you see some presidential candidates almost completely ignore certain states that overwhelmingly support the other party or candidate. It’s just a waste of time and resources!
I know what you’re expecting me to say here: there isn’t really a solution that will work here.
…well sort of.
We can’t change the size of our country. And we can’t change the amount of effort political parties exert in certain geographical areas. And we definitely can’t change the amount of social isolation certain communities experience (not even the internet could do it!).
But, we CAN change one thing. We can limit Gerrymandering.
Historically, the Democratic Party has relied less on Gerrymandering than the Republican party has. This is because liberal voters outnumber conservative voters in the United States (which is why two Republican presidents have lost the popular vote but have still become president in the last 20 years). The Democratic Party and Republican Party have also taken different approaches toward elections, with Republicans generally focusing on a grassroots, ground-up approach...which usually involves Gerrymandering.
Basically, since liberal voters outnumber conservative voters, the Republican Party has resorted to distorting districts in order to win seats in Congress and in the General Assemblies of each state.
The Republican Party isn't exactly subtle about Gerrymandering. Hell, they've even given the process a name: REDMAPPING. It's a legitimate strategy by the Republican Party.
Thankfully, you're beginning to see the Democratic Party combat REDMAPPING.
In 2020 alone both New Hampshire and Virginia have enacted laws combating Gerrymandering. And as of today, around 18 states have some sort of Gerrymandering laws in place.
Unfortunately, it seems to be all the Republican-majority states that are lagging behind on enacting these laws...not that I'm very surprised.
So there you have it. Just a few of the many reasons why our election process is so darn dramatic, divisive, and corrupt.
Yes, these reasons aren't the only reasons at play. There are a TON of other reasons and processes that have contributed to the state of our political process. A TON. And it's a very complicated and correlative system that feeds off of itself.
Unfortunately, I don't have time to write you a book on the topic. But I do want to point you in the direction of a couple useful sources that have helped me write this piece:
The Lie Factory by Jill Lepore
Lepore does a wonderful job here uncovering the history and impact that Campaigns, Inc. has had on the American political process. Click here for the whole story.
How Redistricting Became a Technological Arms Race by Vann R. Newkirk II
Here, Newkirk lays out the history of our country's corrupt gerrymandering practices. He does a fantastic job of helping readers understand just how the REDMAP project developed over time and became one of the defining characteristics of the Republican Party. Click here for the whole story.
Additionally, if you'd like to discuss any other reasons for all this drama in our election process or political process, please email me at email@example.com or DM me on any social media outlet (@got2now).
See you next week!
- Eric Prince
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