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What if we don't like cola anymore?

Jack Lessenberry

I was asked a thoughtful question this weekend by a listener named Paul Jordan, who agrees that politics in this country seems to be broken and increasingly dysfunctional. So he wonders: If this is in fact true, why do we get only two choices – meaning two major party candidates?

“Why does it seem that we can only vote for Coke or Pepsi? What if we don’t like cola anymore?” He noted that there are other candidates on the ballot, candidates mostly ignored by the media.

And he asked the classic chicken-and-egg question: “Are they minor candidates because they are ignored by the media, or does the media ignore them because they are minor candidates?”

Well, the answer to that question is yes. Both things are true. Now, classic mainstream media usually don’t ignore third parties entirely. Newspapers often do one obligatory story where they survey the minor candidates and report on their views. But they don’t get much attention because they aren’t seen as a serious threat to win.

Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the problem is much deeper. The real reason none of the other candidates get much attention or many votes is money. Forces supporting Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer are spending millions and millions on TV advertising.

That’s mainly what gets them noticed. Mary Buzuma, the Libertarian Party candidate, Paul Homeniuk, the Green Party candidate and Mark McFarlin, the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party standard-bearer, don’t have the money for broadcast commercials.

And as a result, odds are that none of them will get even one percent of the vote. My listener understands this perfectly well, but asks, “Isn’t it the media’s role to explore their views?”

Well, of course he’s right. We should do that; one of our jobs should be to entice our readers and listeners into the marketplace of ideas. But there’s a deeper problem still.

By accident perhaps more than design, our governing system has functioned as a two-party system, right from the start. Early on, some parties like the Federalists and Whigs became extinct, but they were immediately replaced by another major party.

This is partly because we have no proportional voting or representation; it is winner-take-all, in every race. But governing presents even a greater challenge to any third-party candidate who might be successful. Let’s say that by some miracle, a third-party candidate was elected governor.

That has happened in a number of states. But when they took office in January, they would face a Legislature filled with nothing but Republicans and Democrats, almost none of whom would have any natural incentive to make an independent look good.

Which means almost the only way any independent could function would be to affiliate with one of the major parties. That’s why the two independents now in the U.S. Senate caucus with the Democrats. In the past, others have with the Republicans.

Historically, the role of minor parties in this country has been to raise issues or causes that then are co-opted by one of the major parties. That might change someday, if a voting bloc founded a new party that elected enough congressmen to hold the balance of power. But that’s never happened.

At least, not so far.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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