Further Gloss on Duverger’s Law: When Third Parties Matter

This piece expands upon an earlier essay entitled “Duverger’s Law: Why American Third Parties are Hopeless Fantasies.”


Third parties do not win elections in two-party systems. The reasoning is simple enough. If only the candidate who receives the most votes for a given seat wins (i.e., if there is a single district plurality electoral system), then it avails voters little to vote for a candidate who lacks the support needed to win at least more votes than the first runner-up. Minor parties will merge with similarly-minded larger parties to avoid splitting the vote between one another, which would spell defeat for them and potentially elevate an ideologically-opposed party to victory. Similarly, voters will choose the party that maximizes the return for their vote—i.e., the one that most resembles their personal ideology and that best stands a chance to implement it. Simply put, voters want to vote for what they believe and they want to win.

This principle is known as Duverger’s Law, named after the French sociologist who formulated it. Four years ago, I wrote a brief explanation of Duverger’s Law amid calls by some to abandon Mitt Romney in favor of a third party. My motive then, as now, was to provide readers with factual information so that they may objectively decide for whom they will vote. It was not, as some have interpreted, to foreclose voting for third parties in all circumstances. In light of this apparent confusion, I have decided to reopen the issue and to provide additional gloss on whether and when to vote for third parties.

As an initial matter, political science merely provides the information needed to make an objective decision; it will not dictate what that decision should be. A set of discrete facts remains just facts, however abstract or concrete they may be. Those facts only become meaningful in the context of a particular end. For example, consider the man who first harnessed fire. However impressive his discovery, the discovery alone did not teach him how or even whether to use that knowledge. Instead, it was with regards to the pursuit of his own life that he applied his knowledge to provide himself with warmth and cooked food.

In politics, the end is implementing a particular political ideology. Achieving that goal requires taking Duverger’s Law and other political science principles into account, proceeding in a manner that is most likely to produce a favorable outcome under the circumstances. In single-district plurality systems, implementing one’s political ideology is usually best accomplished by complying with Duverger’s Law—that is, by joining like-minded voters and voting for the best of the two most likely options. This should come as no surprise. Duverger’s Law is not merely a limitation on one’s available options. It also reflects the most effective strategy for achieving political victory in single-district plurality systems, one which most voters have already adopted.

But what about when implementing one’s preferred ideology is not possible with two of the major candidates? For most elections, the answer is as mine was in 2012: pick the major candidate least pernicious to one’s political ideology. Though the lesser of two evils will still be evil, so too will it be lesser. In a system in which one of the two evils will unavoidably be elected, the lesser is preferable.

However, there are times in which both candidates are equally abhorrent. These circumstances are rare. The multi-faceted nature of politics often produces slight but meaningful nuances between candidates. But where such nuances do not exist, or when the net of two candidates’ platforms and characters are equally evil, the choice between the two becomes irrelevant. The individual voter has lost any meaningful opportunity to pursue the implementation of their political ideology through their choice of the two major candidates.  It is in these situations in which third parties become relevant.

In the absence of distinguishable options, a third party vote serves to spoil one of the two major parties—preferably the one most generally aligned with one’s political interests. If third party defectors succeed in spoiling a major party, they will have effectively conveyed three simultaneous messages. First, they will have demonstrated that the major party needs them to achieve victory. Second, they will have demonstrated their willingness to deny that victory unless the major party changes course. Third, they will have demonstrated the ideological direction in which the major party must move to win them back: the ideology of the third party.

If there are no palatable third party options, not voting may prove to be a similarly effective option. Parties are extremely cognizant of whether their core voters show up to the polls or not. If a party notices that their voters (particularly their registered voters) failed to go to the polls, they will quickly attempt to ascertain why and strive to increase turnout in the next election. The effect is heightened if the party’s down-ballot candidates outperform the candidate at the top of the ballot, as it will emphasize that the candidate himself—and not necessarily the party as a whole—is the cause of his own defeat.

Of course, the effectiveness of such votes or non-votes largely depends on whether major party leaders will recognize their error and rectify it. Where the errors are deeply entrenched, one cannot expect a single election to rectify them. But it is a start.

Duverger’s Law Applied: 2016

In the context of a capitalist political ideology—one in which the government’s sole function is the definition and protection of individual rights—the 2016 election may present a context in which a third party vote or a non-vote is rational. One the one hand, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is merely a coda to an extensive political career of typical leftist policies that abridge economic rights, an unabated contempt for the laws that Clinton finds inconvenient, and a deeply damaging foreign policy not vastly different from that of George W. Bush. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s ethnonationalist populism has reinvigorated the Jim Crow Dixiecrats that still linger in the Republican Party, and his personal life and political inconsistencies reveal a man devoid of both moral character and political fitness for office. Both are repugnant to the principles of capitalism. But one will win the election.

On this Election Day, the question for capitalist (or even most traditionally right-wing, capitalist-leaning) voters is this: for whom should we vote? In light of our electoral system and the sordid options before us, for whom do we vote in self-defense and in defense of individual rights? All the available answers are unpleasant, and this election presents highly difficult factual questions about which rational men may disagree. But if the goal is capitalism and the defense of individual rights, then three rational options present themselves:

  1. A reluctant vote for Donald Trump. This option may come as a surprise after the above discussion on third parties. However, it is arguable that Trump is the lesser of two evils. I have never seen that case argued convincingly, but as stated, rational men can disagree on questions of fact until convincing evidence has been provided one way or the other. Those who vote in this manner do so on the belief that Trump, in his best moments, is better than Clinton on issues like America’s foreign entanglement in the Syrian conflict or regulations that stifle economic production. The disadvantage for Trump is that his best moments are fleeting. In the total context of his character—or rather, his absence of it—the ultimate question is whether his best moments will outweigh his worst. Trump’s ethnonationalism and misogyny make that hard to believe, not to mention his avid opposition to free trade and his vociferous support of traditionally leftist policies like single-payer government healthcare. But so long as one votes for Trump as a matter of reluctant self-defense against Clinton, rather than as an enthusiastic endorsement of his collectivist deficiencies, then the vote falls within the realm of rational options.
  2. A third party vote or a non-vote. The two candidates’ histories present a strong case that both are equally dangerous to individual rights. While neither deserve to occupy the White House, a third party vote or a non-vote concludes that they are equally undeserving. The difficult issue is that they are undeserving for different reasons: Clinton for her leftism, opposition to capitalist principles, and her poor moral character and Trump for his ethnonationalism and misogyny, his political volatility, and his absence of moral character. Balancing the relative danger of these two candidates is in many ways like asking whether a rock is as heavy as a stick is long. However difficult it is to compare Clinton and Trump, it is perfectly rational to conclude that, taken as a whole, both candidates present equal dangers that should be avoided. Because of Trump’s distinctively fascistic brand of ethnonationalist politics, this option seems more factually consistent than the first. And if the polls are to believed, many voters will take this option on Election Day—surpassing third parties’ 1.73 percent of the popular vote in 2012 and potentially denying both major parties an outright majority of the popular vote.
  3. A reluctant vote for Clinton. Whatever the difficulty of weighing Trump against Clinton and concluding that one is better than the other, it is possible to conclude that—though a Democrat and a leftist—Clinton is less dangerous to individual rights than Trump. Her record as a moderate Democrat is well-known and extensive, falling well short of Bernie Sanders’s twenty-first century Bolshevism. The risk she poses to individual rights is of a predictable leftist variety, which may be preferable to Donald Trump’s erraticism and his courting of white nationalists. And while experience is not a panacea for her (or any candidate’s) extensive defects, Trump’s inexperience and intemperance could potentially do far more harm than Clinton’s more integrated policy positions. (For example, consider whether a candidate who must be blocked from Twitter by his own staff should have access to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.) Again, a vote from Clinton should merely be a reluctant act of self-defense against Trump, not an enthusiastic endorsement. But in an election such as this, even a vote for a leftist may be more consistent with capitalist principles than a vote for Trump.

Though none of these choices are ideal, a choice must be made. As for me, I have determined that there is enough of a distinction between Clinton and Trump to hold a preference between the two, and my preference is for Clinton. It is absurd that the weakest Democratic candidate in decades should be preferable against the usually more capitalist Republican Party, especially when the Republican Primary involved the most accomplished field of contenders in a generation. But after decades of philosophic rot within the GOP, Republican voters chose a staunchly anti-intellectual brute over a number of young Senators like Rubio, Paul, and Cruz; experienced governors like Bush and Jindal; and even worthwhile “outsiders” like Fiorina. Without Trump, one of those candidates would almost assuredly have reached the White House. But in light of Trump’s incomparable incompetence, deep-seated aversion to moral character, and dangerous appeals to mid-twentieth century ethnonationalism, I am wholly devoted to ensuring that he does not reach the Oval Office. I was part of #NeverTrump during the primary, and so I remain.

That said, I understand those who cannot bring themselves to vote for Clinton—even those who vote against Clinton via Trump. Once the election is over, those holding capitalist principles will reunite in opposition to whomever wins the presidency. And opposition will be needed, both against the eventual president and against Republicans who would continue to either yield ground through unprincipled compromise or through sheer incompetence.

Regardless, the key point remains: though a third party vote in an electoral system such as ours is usually detrimental to one’s political ends, that may not be the case in this election. The major parties’ failures to provide worthwhile candidates now, more than ever, justify their abandonment in favor of a third party vote. That third party will not achieve victory, but where victory has already become unachievable, one may at least lay the groundwork for the next election.

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