How to vote in a late-stage two-party system

No voting system is perfect, but one of the worst systems that is even remotely compatible with democracy is the one known as first-past-the-post. In the simplest form of this system, each voter gets one vote per contest. A contest may have more than two candidates. The candidate with the most votes wins, even if they got less than 50% of the vote. And it is winner-take-all — the second-place candidate gets nothing.

A first-past-the-post rule inexorably gives rise to a two-party system, in which two political parties dominate. Each party tries to ensure that they run one and only one candidate in each race. Running two similar candidates would split the vote, most likely causing the opposition candidate to win.

A two-party system can work. But it is theoretically possible for it to reach a stage where one of the parties stops being willing to make deals with the other, yet continues to win elections. After that, either one party will legislate alone, or if neither party has the power to do that, the result is gridlock.

I offer my thoughts on how a rational voter should vote under such a system, should this hypothetical situation ever occur in your hypothetical country.

Note that this is about regular elections. It is not about primary elections, where voters select the candidates who will run in a later election. Primary elections are different, and are not discussed here. But be careful! Sometimes the authorities will sneak an actual election onto the ballot of what is advertised as a primary election.

Tips on voting under such a system:

  • Figure out which of the two dominant political parties you prefer, based on their policies and goals. If you’re not sure, pay attention to the worst of the big things that the parties want to do, not just a few emotionally charged issues. Do not be distracted by the displeasing arrangement of deck chairs outside your cabin on the Titanic. Look at what the parties do, or try to do, not necessarily what they say. Pretend this is real life, not sports team fandom.
  • Though I may call it a right, don’t think of voting as a right, or as a privilege. Think of it as a civic duty. You’re not expected to enjoy it.
  • Vote in every election. Don’t be deterred by the seeming futility of it. Your enemies don’t go looking for excuses not to vote. They just vote, every time.
  • Vote a straight ticket. I.e., vote for the same political party in every race. I know this sounds bad and lazy, but the political party matters much more than the individual politician. This is not a hard and fast rule, but exceptions are rare.
  • If you like having the right to vote, do not vote for a party that is trying to mitigate or eliminate that right. It doesn’t matter if you like everything else about that party. After they no longer need your vote, they will be free to change their positions, and you won’t be able to do anything about it.
  • Vote for one of the two leading candidates, even if you hate them both. Voting is all about choosing the lesser evil. It is a rare luxury to be able to vote for a candidate you actually like. Only if it is absolutely certain that your vote will not make a difference, should you even consider voting for a candidate outside the top two.
  • Don’t vote to “send a message”. When the game is at a critical point, it’s too late for a training session.
  • Voting is about having some say in the future. It is not about the past. It is not how you reward or punish a politician or party for things that have already happened, or failed to happen.
  • Suppose the politicians you voted for won, but failed to do the things you wanted, due to insufficient power or political capital or funds. That’s a good reason to vote in favor of reelecting them, and giving them more of what they need to get the job done.
  • If you don’t like the direction the nation is moving in, vote for the party that is closer to your own positions, whether or not that party is currently in power.
  • If you like the direction the nation is moving in, vote for the party that is closer to your own positions, whether or not that party is currently in power.
  • If you don’t like the voting system: Sorry, but you play by the rules that exist, not the rules you wish existed. The best you can do is to vote for electable candidates who share your desire to change the system. But don’t expect results anytime soon.
  • A vote for a third-party candidate is not a vote in favor of a more-than-two-parties system. It simply doesn’t work that way. Your vote will help those who prefer a one-party system.

Other things to think about:

  • The “long game” is an effort to oust members of your own party who are insufficiently ideologically pure, at the price of losing some elections in the near term. You can only play the long game if you have a lot of time, and you trust the other party to protect the right to vote, and you trust the other party not to burn everything down while they have the opportunity.
  • Even if your party wins, you will not get all of the changes you want. You may not get any of the changes you want. Sometimes, it takes all of a party’s power just to keep things from getting worse, or to slow the rate at which thing are getting worse. If that is the best you can get, that is what you should vote for.
  • Maybe the reason your politician hasn’t done the thing you wanted is that he predicts it would cause his party to be annihilated in the next election. That is a legitimate reason not to do something.
  • It takes much less power to tear things down than to build them up. The tearer-downers have a big natural advantage. Expect them to win a lot of battles, even if they are in the minority. As a side note, if you want to build things up, voting to tear them down first may be a suboptimal strategy.
  • The alternative to whatever is happening now isn’t a continued lack of progress. It’s whatever the other party wants to do.
  • As the song says, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

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