In Canadian politics there is a fable called mouseland. Mouseland is where the mice lived and played.
They even had politics and voted on Election Day for their favorite political party. A political party made up of big, fat, black cats.
Soon it became clear that the Black Cats were not looking after the best interests of the mice. The Black Cats weren’t bad; they were educated and respectful. The only problem was that all the legislation favored cats and not mice. For example, the Black Cats made a law that every mouse hole had to be large enough for a cat’s paw to fit through it. Another law was passed regulating how fast a mouse could travel when chased by a cat.
These mice were not foolish. They soon realized that they had to vote out the Black Cats and they did. They replaced the Black Cats with the White Cats. The White Cats then passed their legislation. Every mouse hole had to be square and twice as large. Now a cat could get both of his paws inside the mouse hole.
After that the mice switched back to the Black Cats. Then they went back to the White Cats. After a while they tried new combinations. A few years ago they voted for a cat that was half-black and half-white; they called him Hope & Change, but that did not work either. They voted for white cats with black stripes and black cats with white stripes. None of it worked.
Finally, a small mouse had an idea. He suggested that they stop voting for cats and start voting for mice. Do you know what happened to that little mouse? He was labeled a terrorist and thrown in jail.
Treat yourself and watch Canadian politician Tommy Douglas (the father of Medicare) narrate the original story on YouTube. My favorite line is the last one when Douglas reminds us that mice and men can be locked up, but not ideas.
This story was used in the mid-20th Century in Canada when leaders of the New Democratic Party were trying to break though Canada’s two-party system and compete with the Conservatives and Liberals on a national level. The New Democratic Party is a social democratic party that was started by voters who felt there was little difference between Liberals and Conservatives; both parties were dominated by wealthy business interests and seemed disconnected from ordinary citizens.
After decades of trailing both major parties in Canada, the New Democratic Party had a breakthrough in 2011 elections when it received the second highest number of votes. For the first time in it's history it became the official opposition. Because of this success, Canada is now seen as having a multi-party system.
So this is where you want me to tell you it can happen here and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, not so fast. I like this example because Canada has a first-past-the-post electoral system just like we do in the United States. That is the system where the winner of an election is awarded all of the votes with no reward for the also-rans.
Most political scientists will tell you that a country’s electoral system determines how many parties can be competitive in elections. This was first noticed by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, the namesake of Duverger’s Law. Duverger’s Law states that first- past-the-post systems produce two major parties. Any third parties will enjoy short-term success only; eventually they will be overwhelmed or merge into one of the dominant parties. If they do have long-term success it usually comes at the expense of one of the existing major parties.
This means if a third party loses you are stuck with the original two-party structure. If a third party wins, an existing party will usually co-opt it, and you are stuck with the original two-party system. In the unusual case of a third party having long-term success and avoiding being co-opted, it will usually drive out one of the original two parties, and you are still left with a two-party system. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Already in Canada there is talk of a merger between the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. Even if a merger never comes to pass, the stronger of these two parties may end up absorbing the weaker one. There have been accusations that the New Democrats are starting to adopt more moderate positions like the Liberals in order to broaden their appeal to voters.
If all three parties in Canada remain competitive long-term then it may provide a lesson for us here that a third party is possible. The first step is educating more voters about the need to vote for mice.
Enlightening the masses is a slow endeavor. In the mean time, I will give you a second solution to bring forth a third party: proportional representation.
Proportional representation is an electoral system where a political party gains seats in the legislature in direct proportion to the number of votes they receive at an election.
This system virtually guarantees a third political party will level the playing field with the Democrats and Republicans. Most of the advanced democracies have it, and where it has been introduced the two-party hold on the voting process disappears. In fact, it usually leads to a fourth or fifth party being competitive on the national stage.
Making a third party gain equal footing in American politics will not be easy, but it can be done. You can try the mouse or the proportional representation approach. For best results, I recommend both.
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