How the political spectrum shuts out progressives
“I’m voting for one candidate because I’m afraid of what the other is capable of.”
You hear something like this almost every time you have a discussion about the 2016 presidential election; people are not voting for a candidate, but rather, voting for the lesser of two evils. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton having won the nominations of the two major political parties, distaste toward our current political system has skyrocketed.
According to Gallup, as of August 2016, 52 percent of Americans view Clinton unfavorably and 62 percent have the same opinion about Trump. By these numbers, more than half of American voters dislike the two major party candidates in the election. So why is it that regardless of the opinions of a majority of Americans, voters are still only provided with just two options that have a realistic chance of victory? The superficial answer: the two party political system.
From the problem of the two party system emerges another issue, however. Namely, that the many sides of the political spectrum are not being represented by the two major parties. Because even though the Democratic Party has moved left in recent years, their views still constitute more of the center of the political spectrum while the Republican Party represents the right wing.
A center-right political spectrum
Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, said, “Left-wing Democrats have difficulty running against ‘Big Money’ Democrats” in the current political system.”
Svart said the two party system relegates many progressives to voting for the Democrats even when the Democrats aren’t representative of those voters’ views.
“Democrats [have] suppressed their own left flank,” she said.
Proof of this can be seen in the result of this year’s Democratic primary. When Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the race he was a “fresh face” for politics: a man who refused to be influenced by big money, wanted to take down Wall Street, actively supported the LGBTQ+ community, advocated for the legalization of marijuana, voiced a distaste for current wealth distribution, aimed to raise minimum wage and fought for the social equality of minority groups. For voters, especially millennials, this self-proclaimed democratic socialist was seen as the solution to the country’s domestic and economic flaws.
But in the end, it was Clinton who was victorious in the primary. And one of the reasons why Sanders supporters have been so frustrated with Clinton’s nomination is that Sanders’s views are far to the left of Clinton’s. Her nomination has increased the viability of the theory that we don’t exist on a left-right political spectrum, but a center-right one.
This is because Clinton, the supposedly liberal candidate of the two major party nominees, has taken a number of less than progressive positions during her presidential campaign. For example, during the primary, Sanders and his supporters criticized Clinton for accepting donations from Super PACs and large corporations. According to The Washington Post, Clinton has accepted $141.3 million in campaign funds from PACS. In comparison, Sanders accepted no donations from any sort of PAC or large corporations.
Additionally, according to a Fortune magazine article from September of 2016, Clinton has said she wants to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour rather than Sanders’s proposal of $15 an hour, and has proposed taxing the top income bracket of Americans under a 50 percent rate rather than over 50 percent. Clinton also does not support the full implementation of universal healthcare, does not advocate for the legalization of recreational marijuana and wants to maintain a military presence in the Middle East — all positions eschewed by progressives.
And as The Intercept reported on Sept. 30, in a private conversation with campaign donors, Clinton herself described her views as spanning from “the center-left to the center-right” of the political spectrum. In July, Clinton has also said, “I get accused of being kind of moderate and center. I plead guilty.”
The centrist position that supposedly “liberal” politicians like Clinton take in the U.S. has been criticized by left-wing politicians who feel marginalized by the limits of the spectrum, such as Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
“The two party system is the worst-case scenario,” Stein said in an interview with The Intercept. “In my view, the worst horror of all is a political system that tells us we have to choose between two lethal options.”
Professor Richard F. Bensel, Gary S. Davis professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, agrees with the notion that the U.S. leans toward a more center-right approach to politics in some respects.
“I do think that the United States generally is to the right of most nations with respect to economic issues,” Bensel said. “I also believe that the United States is to the left of most nations with respect to cultural and social issues (especially compared to nations outside of Western Europe).”
But if a voter holds progressive viewpoints on both economic and social issues, to fit within the confines of what the political spectrum offers, they often have to sacrifice their economic viewpoints to vote for someone who fits with their social views.
What happens next?
When left-wing American voters hit the polls in November, many will be compromising at least one of their political views, something that occurs far less frequently for voters in multiparty systems. Norman Solomon, co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org, said, “The options for leftist voters in the general election are quite circumscribed.”
Solomon agreed: “Electoral politics in the United States leans in a centrist-right direction,” he said. But he said overall, the country as a whole is more center-left.
Both Bensel and Solomon agreed that despite the increase in popularity for America’s minority parties, the 2016 election is not the potential end to the two party system or the center-right political spectrum.
“The Republican party will change quite a bit, but the ‘name’ will remain the same and that, at least, will survive,” Bensel said. “The Democrats will probably change very little in the next few years.” Solomon agreed that “the two party system remains quite entrenched” in the politics of the country.
Svart said one reform that could address this problem is moving to a parliamentary system. In countries that feature a parliamentary system, “political compromise” comes with a much lighter connotation than in the U.S. In Canadian politics, for example, there are 21 registered political parties that align with different viewpoints, each of which is active in the country’s political process.
Svart said a multiparty system would provide the opportunity for numerous parties to form coalitions and establish leftist policies that would not be created otherwise. This would provide individuals with the opportunity to vote for a political party that actually represents an individual’s ideology.
While most Americans aren’t clamoring for a move to the parliamentary system, the general idea of reforming the two party system would have the support of the majority of Americans. A Gallup poll from September 2016 showed that 57 percent of Americans think a third party is needed, up 11 percent from 2012.
But despite this, even at the state level, it is extremely difficult to get third party identifying representatives into office; the two exceptions out of the current members of Congress are Sanders and Sen. Angus King, both of whom identify as independents rather than an official third party.
Nonetheless, candidates like Stein have brought attention to the options on the left outside of the centrist part of the political spectrum occupied by Democrats. The attractive qualities of candidates like Stein show that although academics and activists like Bensel and Solomon speculate that the 2016 election is not cause for the end of the two party system and the limited political spectrum it produces, the anger that has been caused by the nominees of the two major parties is beginning to expose the negative aspects of the system.
So, the next time someone says that they’re voting for one candidate because s/he is the lesser of two evils, remind them not to blame the candidate as an individual; blame centuries of an engraved centrist-right, limiting political system.
Hannah Crisafulli is a freshman history major who is considering starting their own third party. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.