The False Dichotomy of US Politics

The barrage of dubious negative advertisements and seemingly endless political rhetoric that comes around once every four years can only mean one thing for the American public: the US presidential election fast approaches. Yet for all the absurdity – and frankly preposterous hype – when US voters go to the polls to cast their ballots this election season, all but a few will vote Democratic or Republican. For a country that has historically prided itself on championing liberal democracy and freedom of choice it is of great concern to learn that the names of many 3rd party candidates will go unrecognised, or far worse, unnoticed November 6th. Indeed, the false dichotomy of US politics has become so far ingrained in the minds of the American people that many non-mainstream albeit forward thinking ideas, and perhaps more radically, the national interest have been increasingly relegated to fringes of irrelevance.

Image courtesy of ronpaulrevolt2008, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The False Dichotomy

Over the past century of US history there has been an undeniable march towards the homogenization of US politics, which has (for the time being) ended in the complete dominance of contemporary politics by the Democratic and Republican parties. While it is assuredly true that both parties bear substantive differences as evidenced by their disagreements regarding domestic policy, relative to many other countries the diversity of political thought and expression is relatively low. Simply watch the most recent presidential debate on foreign policy from Boca Raton last week, both candidates found themselves in agreement on a surprising number of topics.

Hence the fundamental question remains. How can two choices adequately represent the diversity of beliefs of an entire country? More important still, are there only two choices? The fact of the matter is that there are many more choices, but the majority of the American public is either ignorant or refuses to buy into their viability. This regrettable attitude constitutes a common logical fallacy called the ‘false dichotomy dilemma’. Such a fallacy involves an incorrect assumption of choice whereby only two alternatives are considered in a situation where others exist, often resulting in black and white thinking. These two party systems, once institutionalized, pose major problems to the greater public. Most importantly (as any current resident of the US will be happy to tell you), it leads to ‘zero-sum’ politics. In essence, the incentive becomes to be the least worst party rather than engaging in meaningful, constructive dialogue.

The Myth of the Wasted Vote

One of the biggest objections Democrats and Republicans aim at those who vote 3rd party is the myth that they are “wasting their vote” because those candidates have absolutely no chance of winning. Reasoning such as, “My vote is too important to waste, especially in ‘swing states’ that may decide the election” is prevalent across America, and by their reasoning, a “wasted vote” is one not cast for a candidate with a reasonable chance of victory. Opinions such as these, whereby the goal is to ‘game’ the system are no more than a sad reflection of the state of affairs: one of the most fundamental rights of citizens of liberal democracies is reduced to a sub-optimal choice between the least worst of candidates rather than those you agree with the most. This error in reasoning is easily illustrated with several examples, the first of which involves Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In a hypothetical situation where Romney led Obama by a landslide margin (say 40 percentage points), proponents of the principle above would be required to instruct all eligible voters to support Romney because any vote not cast for an electable candidate is wasted. For the purpose of this argument, it is also important to highlight the plausibility of casting the deciding vote in a presidential election. The likelihood of changing the outcome of one’s own state electorate, i.e., casting the deciding vote is 3.3×10 13. In short, you are twenty times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash on the way to the polls than to cast the deciding vote.

Consequently, contrary to popular belief votes for 3rd parties are far from irrelevant and have the potential for tangible consequences. Most importantly, a vote for any political party sends a political signal- it might not result in the actual election of an official, but common knowledge tells us main parties often react by subtly shifting and reforming their platforms to gain support of independent voters. To put this in perspective, the socialist party of America only received eight percent of the popular vote in 1912, which at the time seemed largely irrelevant. A more thorough and objective analysis of the case suggests otherwise, however. Over 25 years later in 1938, the entire socialist platform had in some shape or form been written into US law.

“The Big Three”

Broadly speaking there are three main third parties in the US that are reasonably well financed and manage to obtain ballot access in large numbers of states. In the spirit of November 6th and the current political happenings it is worth briefly familiarizing yourself with them.

Constitution Party

This is a right wing, very traditionalist party that draws support from “paleo”-conservatives. As a whole, the party emphasizes economic freedom, is socially conservative, and anti-war. Importantly, the party has a strong Christian influence that has appeal to a certain subset of the population. Running as the nominee is Virgil Goode, a former Representative from the 5th Congressional district in Virginia.

Green Party

The Green party is very left leaning party that endorses a single payer healthcare system. In addition, they are also against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan For many liberals disappointed with Obama’s first term, this party has great should have great appeal. The presidential nominee for the Green Party is Jill Stein, a long-time physician from Massachusetts.

Libertarian Party

Arguably the largest of the three parties mentioned, it receives the most ballot success. Often described as “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal”, they also support ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in accordance with their broader non-interventionist policies. For those worried about the mounting national debt and erosion of civil liberties, Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, may be the man for the job.


Albert Einstein once said that insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. Such a quote seems a fitting analogy for recent US politics when taking into account that fact that the American public has had a stubborn persistence to continually elect the Democratic and Republican parties over the past century despite an increasing national debt and two wars overseas.

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