In the United States and most democracies, voters don’t primarily use elections to choose between competing ideologies or plans. First and foremost, voters use the ballot to depose those they think failed to govern efficiently. Elections are often a referendum on the party in power.
This makes sense. Whether are not you share the general ideas with the party in power, if those running the country appear incompetent or corrupt, voters will remove these failures from power. Similarly, if the people in power improve conditions for the voters, the voters will logically assume they are doing something right and will keep them in power.
For example, in American presidential elections, the determining factor isn’t usually the platform of the candidates, but how well the economy grew under the leadership of the incumbent party. This is why during the great recession across many democracies (and even several dictatorships) we saw mostly an anti-incumbent swing, not a worldwide ideological shift.
Sadly, what this means in our two party system is that voters can end up electing a party they don’t like or agree with simply because it’s the only way to unseat the incumbent party. The opposition party doesn’t even need to come up with a more popular platform, they just need to be the only other option. Most perversely in our current system, the opposition party even has political incentive to use their incredible powers as a “minority” to sabotage the economy to hurt the President’s party.
If we had election systems, like proportional representation or even instant runoff voting (IRV), that allowed for more than two viable political parties, this situation would be improved. With more political parties, the electorate could still achieve the main goal of deposing a perceived failure and yet also give voters the choice between several competing visions on how best to fix the problem.
In a better democracy liberals should have a way to remove a failed Democratic Party from power without directly or indirectly endorsing conservatism and conservatives should have way to unseat a failed Republican Party without empowering those promoting liberalism.
It would also lessen party claims to big mandates for their platforms, when really the message from the voters was simply that they wanted the incumbent out of office. This can be a serious issue.
Tonight at 7:00 pm eastern time, Firedoglake is having a members webinar with Krist Novoselic and Rob Richie from Fairvote.org to discuss the problems of the current structure of our election system and the reforms that would fix some of these problems by giving voters greater choice.