The Two-Party System Sucks. Please Don’t Vote for Howie Hawkins.

Voting for third-party Presidential candidates is a bad way to resist the binary. And in 2020 as four years before, the stakes are too high.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

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By Anna Ast

Nobody likes the two-party system. Small-“d” democrats don’t like it. The framers of the Constitution dreaded it. Activists throughout the nation’s history have scowled upon it. And Independently-minded voters of all stripes—left, right, center, and not neatly categorizable—hate it. Every four years sees an outpouring of indignation and frustration from such voters all over the nation: indignation at the idea that anyone might force them into a binary choice and frustration at knowing that whatever they do, one of two people will be inaugurated as President in January. These are rooted in the fact that many voters dislike both the Democratic and Republican parties; people like me, who despise the binary but basically like one of the two parties, can swallow their objections and throw their support behind their preferred option. But those confronted with a choice that is not only binary, but also bad on both sides will have a harder time going to the polls for one of them, even if they have a clear preference as to whom they would rather elect.

Every four years, this indignation and frustration yield two predictable results: one, a huge mass of eligible voters stays home on Election Day; and two, a much smaller number of voters throws their support behind third-party candidates.

Support for such candidates surged in 2016, when Democratic and Republican voters both selected historically unpopular nominees. And though, for whatever reason, former Vice President Joe Biden is far better-liked than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was, third-party votes could still be sizable in this election, especially as young people grow more and more disillusioned with their political options.

The candidate of choice for the renegade left in 2012 and 2016 was the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein, a Massachusetts internist and onetime member of the Lexington town meeting. This year, that portion of the left is behind the Green Party again, but Dr. Stein has been replaced by Howie Hawkins, a teamster, construction worker, and truck unloader by trade who has worked as an activist for labor and environmental justice since the 1960s.

Hawkins seems like a good, well-intentioned guy, but almost no one should vote for him. The choice this year is between a neoliberal (who has undergone a significant shift leftward, though leftists can be forgiven for being skeptical of the career centrist’s new turn) and a fascist. Even if you think, as some leftists do, that neoliberalism creates the conditions that pave the way for fascist movements, there is a vast gulf between the two. Biden will never call for the deportation of his political opponents. (And never forget, or become one of, Arendt’s “people who were still without experience in the mysteries of totalitarian government [and] dismissed [the virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism] as ‘mere propaganda.’”) Biden will never try to sabotage the postal service to win re-election. The cruelty is not the point of Biden’s movement, and Biden will have the basic foresight, competence, and willingness to prevent 199,881 (and counting) Americans from dying in a pandemic.

But little of this matters to most of Hawkins’s supporters. I know of no polling on the issue, but in my experience, the vast majority of leftist third-party voters readily acknowledge that they would prefer a Biden administration to a second term for President Donald Trump and that indeed they would have preferred a Clinton administration to a Trump administration altogether. Their reasons for voting third party usually have less to do with calculations of the relative merits of Democrats and Republicans and more to do with non-consequentialist philosophies of voting. It is not, in other words, that they think both paths of the trolley problem are equally bad; they just don’t want to pull the lever either way and for various reasons, don’t think they have to.

(Occasionally, one comes across a third-party voter who is an open accelerationist and who thinks that four more years of Trump might make the people so miserable that it will speed along the revolution. These people are a small minority in all sectors of the left, so I will not spend much time on them except to say that their view of things has a remarkably bad track record.)

Among the most common of such reasons is that a person’s vote is sacred and that it belongs to them and only them. Democrats who invoke the slogan “Vote Blue No Matter Who” or tell leftists that “a vote for a third party is a vote for Trump” are “vote-shaming”: they are interfering with everyone’s sacred right to make a private vote. (Incidentally, the idea that a non-binary vote is a vote for Trump is deeply problematic, not normatively but descriptively. A vote for anyone other than Biden is a vote not necessarily for Trump, but for whomever wins the election; in Hank Green’s formulation, “not voting is like half a vote for the greater of two evils.”) It is true, of course, that everyone has a right to a secret ballot and a legal right to vote for whomever they want, but that does not mean that it is inappropriate to judge someone’s choice if one learns it. There are many things for which one has a right to expect privacy and freedom and simultaneously does not have a right to expect not to be judged—voting for Trump, for instance, which I suspect most leftists agree is a bad thing that should be objected to if made public. It is “your decision” if you vote for Hawkins if you so wish, much as it is “my decision” if I keep a journal of original Pinochet-themed erotica if I so wish, but that does not give either of us a right to expect positive-to-neutral responses if we decide to go out and tell other people about our respective decisions. Your vote may be sacred, but it is an action, and if you take it, you may be held responsible and accountable.

There are some consequentialist arguments for voting third-party: for instance, that third parties receive funding from the Federal Election Commission if they reach a certain small threshold—five percent—of votes cast nationwide. This is true, and it’s actually a good reason to vote for a third party—if you live in a completely Blue or Red state, Vermont, say, or Wyoming, but not North Carolina or Ohio or even Oregon or Indiana. And in light of Trump’s aforementioned efforts to wield the federal government and skew the election in his favor, your threshold for sufficiently safe Blueness to vote third party should be significantly higher than it would be in a normal election.

In a similar but separate vein, supporters of third parties will argue that voting for third parties is the only way to bring down the two-party system. The two-party system, the argument goes, is only held up by people’s perception of it; thus, the only way to do away with it is to vote for a third party.

If only it were so. Alas, it is not; the two-party system is not ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is true that the Democrats and Republicans are only the alternatives because that’s what everyone has come to collectively believe, but the fact of there being two alternatives is baked into our constitutional system—that is why the Framers, having expressed their dread of two-party systems, immediately set about forming two parties around which to organize; they had no choice. There are two main reasons for the two-party system’s endurance: one, ours is a non-parliamentary government; and two, our voting is based on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) model—that is, a model wherein the candidate with the most votes wins.

Parliamentary systems are based entirely on legislatures dominated by coalitions. There is a prime minister, roughly equivalent to a combination of the Speaker of the House and the president here in the States, and they do usually belong to a party, but they are not simply voted into their position by members of parliament (MPs), the way the Speaker is chosen here. Instead, various parties in parliament have to come together to form a coalition that can agree on a prime minister and cabinet (a “government,” in parliamentary parlance). This fosters a system with two dominant parties, such as the Conservative and Labour parties in the United Kingdom (UK), but with auxiliary parties that exercise real sway, since it is often the case that neither dominant party has enough MPs to form a government on its own. Thus, voters have a wider variety of options to choose from, and the tendency toward two and only two major positions on any given issue that exists, thanks to the pull of party unity, in the U.S. is far weaker. And it is relatively easy for the two dominant parties to change; until the early 20th century, the dominant parties in the UK had been Liberal, not Labour, and Conservative, and the UK’s two parties have been abnormally stable since then. Presidents from eight parties have held the French Presidency since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 (the President since 2017, Emmanuel Macron, is from the En Marche! party, which Macron founded in 2016 for the then-upcoming election), and Israel has had six or seven dominant parties, depending on how one makes the calculation, since 2009.

For better or for worse though, converting the U.S. to a parliamentary system would require a complete overhaul of the first two articles of the Constitution, which seems like a dim likelihood given the difficulty Americans have in criticizing the Framers even for indisputable evils like slavery. A more promising root at which to strike is the FPTP system. The reason this system fosters a two-party system is the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect, which I have kept implicit throughout this article, is the fact that when people in a FPTP system vote for third-party candidates, they hurt the binary candidate for whom they would vote if they were to vote for one.

To see how FPTP inevitably leads to a two-party binary, consider a group of nine friends, consisting of five vegetarians and four extremely inconsiderate meat-eaters, deciding where to go to lunch. If they vote with FPTP, the results might look like this: two votes for a salad joint, three votes for a South Indian restaurant, and four votes for a steakhouse. The vegetarians might object that this is unfair—there are more of them than there are meat-eaters, and what are they to do now?—but they had an agreement that whichever choice got the most votes would win, and now the omnivores will feast on rib-eye while the herbivores sit in deprived discomfort.

Now, imagine that for some reason, the nonet decides to meet for lunch again. The vegetarians won’t make the same mistake this time. They might get in touch with each other beforehand and decide that they can agree on South Indian, which three of the five prefer, and the next election will yield five votes for the South Indian restaurant and four for the steakhouse. The one vegetarian who really dislikes Indian food might not be happy with this arrangement, but it’s better than a steakhouse.

The goal in an FPTP election is not to come up with the option that has the widest appeal; it is to come up with an option that will get more votes than any other option. It takes strategy. And so two parties form, not because people perceive them to be the only options but because those movements that do not confine themselves to the available options fail and die out, à la Darwin. That’s why the Framers found themselves with parties on their hands a few years into the Washington administration: forming and sticking to one of two parties was the only way to wield any power. (To say that the Framers wanted power is not to criticize them for being power-hungry. Everyone wants power, and everyone should want power; “love without power,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it, “is sentimental and anemic.”)

But how else to organize elections? What to use as a barometer for the will of the people if not whichever candidate gets the most votes? The answer, increasingly popular in recent years, is ranked-choice voting. Under a ranked-choice voting system, voters do not put down one choice. Instead, they put down some larger number—three or four or five or six or 10; the precise number doesn’t much matter—of choices in order of how much they would like each choice to win. Starting with whoever gets the fewest votes, candidates are then eliminated, and the ballots cast for them go to the next choice on those ballots. When one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold—that is, when they receive a majority rather than a mere plurality of votes—they win. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is how we now organize elections for Student Union and Caucus positions here at Stuyvesant.

Ranked-choice voting gets around the spoiler effect, making the two-party system untenable. No one has to worry that voting for Hawkins or Jo Jorgensen or any other third-party candidate will hurt one of the viable options because as long as they have a viable option somewhere on their ballot, they’re doing what they need to do. Thus, if the U.S. adopted a ranked-choice system, Americans would not feel obligated to limit their prospects to the Democratic and Republican candidates; if, as many of his supporters believe, the only thing stopping Americans from electing Hawkins is their collective fear, he would now win the election. If, on the other hand, enthusiasm for him topped out at seven percent or so of the voting population, that seven percent could put him down first, and Biden second or third or fourth or fifth, and vote their conscience while also averting fascism.

(Those wanting to know more should watch the YouTube creator CGP Grey’s election structure videos.)

Like shifting to a parliamentary system, the adoption of ranked-choice voting would mark a major shift in how the U.S. operates elections. It would, however, be a much more viable change, for a few reasons. One, it would involve no constitutional amendments. This matters because it is by design extremely difficult to amend the Constitution and because it will be very hard for anyone to make the “Our great founders instituted first-past-the-post voting on this continent as a gift from God” argument; in addition to the fact that FTFP is much less fetishized than the three-branch system, voting in the U.S. has changed enormously over the past 231 years in a way that our basic federal structure has not. Two, and relatedly, it can be adopted state-by-state. The support of three-quarters of states is not needed to adopt ranked-choice voting. The support of one quarter of states is not needed to adopt ranked-choice voting. All that is needed is for one state to adopt the practice, and it can—which brings us to three: ranked-choice voting is already here. Maine adopted it in 2016 and has already held elections with it. The state didn’t burn down. Others should follow in its footsteps.

If you really hate the two-party system—as you should; it’s suffocatingly undemocratic—you should push for the structural reforms that will drive it out of existence. But to ignore the fact that those reforms are necessary to get rid of the system, to pretend that the two-party system will go away on its own if we just plug our ears to it and sing, “La, la la” is ineffective and irresponsible. So agitate for ranked-choice voting in your municipality and state. It can be done; it has been done. And I’ll be right there alongside you.

But you’re not going to tear down the two-party system by voting for Hawkins. In a battle where one of the sides poses a direct and existential threat to American democracy, all a vote for Hawkins will do is nothing. In other words, if you cast your vote this November for Hawkins, you should relish it; it may be your last.