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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Time for Real Choices, Not Echos

It’s election time. Although most congressional races are so lopsided that incumbent re-election rates will continue to rival those of the former Soviet Union, citizens face critically important choices: elections for governors who must make tough decisions in these tight fiscal times, House and Senate races to determine control of a narrowly divided Congress and a host of ballot measures.

In this great democracy of ours, one might expect a surge of voter participation to show the world just how proud we are of self-government.

Think again. By all indications, voters are not excited or engaged. In fact, experts are predicting that barely a third of adults will go to the polls. That’s one of the lowest voter turnouts in the established democratic world for elections of a national legislature.

A host of reasons can be fingered, but there’s an essential one that many overlook. Our two-party system has reached a dead-end. The two-party system has its advocates, but any advantages it may once have provided are swamped by problems that are inescapable with today’s marketing technology and expertise.

As long as we limit credible choices to two, most campaigns will sink into a distasteful concoction of poll-driven sound bites, negative attacks and avoidance of important issues.

Democrats and Republicans may fight bitterly in Washington, but it’s getting nearly impossible to distinguish them during election season. In desperate bids to be all things to half the people, both parties blur lines on everything from corporate malfeasance and Social Security to even something as momentous as war.

Both parties are too quick to abandon principle and their heritage for the expediency of winning elections. Republicans talk nice about education and tough about corporate wrongdoers and advance plans to subsidize prescription drug costs-all traditionally Democratic issues. When stocks tumbled, they quickly buried the idea of funneling part of Social Security proceeds into private investment accounts.

Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership fell in line behind President Bush’s bid to oust Saddam Hussein, despite severe misgivings by most of their party’s voters. On the campaign trail they mirror Republican vows to be tough on crime, crack down on welfare cheats, increase military spending and balance the budget.

And of course given the zero-sum dynamic of two-choice politics, both sides won’t hesitate to bludgeon opponents. The quintessential campaign success of 2002 was a political ad in Montana’s U.S. Senate race that was so devastating that the opponent temporarily folded his campaign tent.

In our “winner take all” system, campaign consultants and their polls and focus groups have become political steroids-once used by one party, the other follows out of fear of falling behind.

Because of these modern methods, in close elections a small minority of voters has much greater influence than the rest of us. These are the almighty “swing voters” who have yet to make up their mind.

Think back to the battle for Florida’s senior vote in the 2000 presidential elections and the issues repeatedly stressed in national debates-Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security lockboxes. All are important, but other major issues were ignored. In the zero-sum game of “winner take all” politics, if you’re in the wrong demographic in the wrong place, you might as well be living on Mars.

Since my independent presidential campaign in 1980, events have only reinforced my belief in the need to expand viable choices across the political spectrum. To do so, we must change rules that make such candidacies all too rare.

First, we should adopt instant runoff voting to give independents and alternative parties a fair chance to compete without being “spoilers.” Attractive third-party candidates and independents could try to build majority support, without threatening major party candidates by their mere presence

Second, we must consider following the lead of most modern democracies in adopting forms of proportional representation, in which both those in the majority and minority win a fair share of representation. Only then will we have a truly muscular democracy, with credible candidacies across the spectrum that ensure important issues-and the people that care about them-are not left behind.

In an era when the public itself is becoming practically bystanders to elections, with decreasing participation and declining expectations, our “winner take all” system has failed us. A two-party system too easily can mean no choice at all. We need bold reforms to reverse these alarming trends.


John Anderson is a former member of Congress (1961-1981) and a former presidential candidate. He is now president of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), P.O. Box 60037, Washington, D.C. 20039.

(c) 2002, Center for Voting and Democracy

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services