Ketchup and the Two-Party Problem

A defense of third-party politics.

Seth Godin wrote about third parties in a blog post "Ketchup and the third-party problem". He says that those of us supporting third parties or their candidates are doomed to failure, and miss our chance to really influence the political field.

Needless to say, I find the arguement lacking, and merely a more passive aggressive method of saying that we should all vote for Hillary because otherwise we'll be doomed with Trump. I've snarked about it on Twitter. But I feel this deserves a bit more detailed of a rebuttal.


Sir Kensington's Ketchup is better ketchup. Most adults who try it agree that it's more delicious, a better choice. Alas, Heinz has a host of significant advantages, including dominant shelf space, a Proustian relationship with our childhood and unlimited money to spend on advertising.

The thing is, you can buy Sir Kensington's any time you want to. And when you buy it, that's what you get.

You're not buying it to teach Heinz a lesson. You're buying it because that's the ketchup you want.

No, you don't intend to teach Heinz a lesson. But there is a lesson for Heinz to learn by your purchase: That there is something about Sir Kensington's Ketchup that you and others prefer, and maybe something about Heinz that doesn't appeal to you. Heinz may indeed seek to make a better Ketchup as a result.

Or Heinz can simply rest on the fact that they still sell a lot of ketchup to a lot of people, and that there is room for other brands and for many of them to be successful in their own way in the marketplace.

The marketing of Sir Kensington is simple: If you want better ketchup, buy this, you'll get it.

Elections in the US don't work this way.

True, everyone else isn't going to force their ketchup on you, like Seth is trying to do to with political preferences.

I'm calling it a third-party problem because the outcome of third-party efforts don't align with the marketing (and work) that goes into them.

Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who ran against Bush and Clinton, cost Bush that election. The people who voted for Perot got Clinton, and it's pretty clear that the Republicans learned nothing from this, as the next winning candidate they nominated was... George Bush.

Ralph Nader, the third-party candidate who ran against Bush and Gore, cost Gore that election. The people who voted for Nader got Bush, and it's pretty clear that the Democrats learned nothing from this, as the next person they nominated was... John Kerry.

This all presumes that Perot's voters just wanted a better Republican, and that Nader's just wanted a better Democrat. Seth seems to be stuck in this binary thinking. No wonder he writes this piece to convince us to all join him in his false dichotomy.

[I'm calling it a 'problem' because I have such huge respect for people who care enough and are passionate enough to support change. The problem is that since Gus Hall, and then John Anderson and then the more recent candidates, just about all the changes that third parties have tried to bring to national politics have foundered. It just isn't a useful way to market change in this country.]

If enough people spent enough time, day after day, dollar after dollar, we could fundamentally alter the historic two-party system we have in the US. But it's been shown, again and again, that the easy act of letting oneself off the hook by simply voting for a third-party candidate accomplishes nothing.

Well, people join those third parties and/or support their candidates often because they've found that their attempts to influence the major parties have proven fruitless, sometimes met with outright hostility. Look at the candidacies of Ron Paul four years ago and Bernie Sanders this year for examples of this.

So for many of us, that path is even less fruitful that the third party route, sometimes even worse because it forces us to shut up about what we genuinely belive to get behind a lesser of two evils. We miss out on paticipating in genuine discussions on policy and governing principles, because he have to put out a disingenuous arguement for that second-worst candidate.

So for many, they have to support a third party, or believe that changing the system is absolutely hopeless, and withdraw entirely from politicas activity.

The marketing of the third-party candidate is: Teach those folks a lesson, plus, you're not on the hook for what happens. But...

No one in government is learning a lesson.

And you don't even get who you voted for.

The marketing of 3rd parties isn't "Teach them a lesson" any more than buying Sir Kensington's is meant to be a lesson to Heinz. A vote for something is a vote FOR something. Everything else is just second-guessing.

Even if it was the intent, would the candidates be any better if we were working on the inside? What's the point of being on the winning team, if you don't share the goals of that team?

Oh, and one fact gets ignored. Sometimes candidates that go up against the old party duopoly do win. Here in Maine, we've elected two independent governors, a senator, and several state legislators. Winning is possible.

The irony is not lost on me. A small group of voters who care a great deal are spending psychic energy on a vote that undermines the very change they seek to make.

Undermine? When neither of the old parties address my concerns, and is unlikely to ever do so, what purpose does it serve to join them? That dooms you to be a reluctant follower.

It's a self-defeating way of letting yourself off the hook, but of course, you're actually putting yourself on the hook, just as you do if you don't vote at all.

Letting myself off the hook? Letting myself off the hook would be giving in to despair, or becoming indifferent, and disengaging from the process.

No candidate has earned a majority of all potential (regardless of registration) voters, not once in my lifetime. Which means that the people who don't vote, or who vote for a third-party candidate, have an enormous amount of power. Which they waste.

Yes, it's on you. Your responsibility to vote for one of two people, and to be unhappy with that conundrum if you choose. And then work to change the system, and keep working at it...

My responsibility is to stand up to this falsehood of the binary choice. Giving up and joining the old parties will NOT create change. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's a difficult path. But NO, it not an irrisponsible choice.

It's merely inconvenient for candidates who want the simplicity of not being as bad as the other guy. Which is why we are in this dumpster fire of an election today.

But it's not like ketchup. With ketchup, you get what you choose. With voting, we merely get the chance to do the best we can on one particular day, and then spend years working for what we might want.

And with politicians who we don't want, who won't support the policies we want, how the hell are we going to get what we want? Seth doesn't offer up any insight on HOW one spends those years between election days.

It turns out that democracy involves a lot more than voting.

Damn straight. That sentence is one thing I'll agree whole-heartedly with Seth on.

Which is why I'm not a passive member of the Libertarian Party. I donate. I participate. I've been a delegate to conventions. I've been an elector for presidential tickets. I've run for public office. I serve in office. I recruit. I persuade. I write. I talk. I share my ideas. I argue.

Voting is just the opening bid, and I am highly invested in the Libertarian Party, and in participatory democracy.

Oh, and here's another thought experiment that I'll offer up to Seth: If binary voting is so great, would he rather have me voting FOR Trump instead of third party? Somehow, I think Seth wouldn't be quite so strident about third party voters if he thought by doing so, they would be helping to elect Hillary. I suspect he has no problem with the Repubicans who have given up on Trump and will vote third party instead; nor would he respect a GOP member who stood loyally by Trump in hope of being able to work for change within the context of a Trump presidency.

You want to sell me a moldy sandwich by teling me that I risk getting a moldier sandwich from the other guy? Either way I'd end up with a moldy sandwich, no matter what brand of ketchup you put on it.