Norman Thomas on Electoral Reform
|February 14, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Norman Thomas on Two-Party Monopoly and the Need for Electoral Reform
Top Socialist Called for More Democracy
Norman Thomas is the man who ran national campaigns for President more times than anyone else. Thomas also did more to popularize socialist ideas in the USA than anyone else. Although The Progress Report opposes socialism, we find many of Thomas’ views to be worth note. Here is an excerpt from his 1951 book, A Socialist’s Faith.
Not only our framework of government but our rules concerning political parties make it extremely difficult for a new party to grow to major dimensions. Since the rise of the Republican Party under conditions which have not recurred, there has been no successful development of a third party in terms of continuing numerical strength.
Many so-called third parties, Populist, Prohibition, Progressive, and Socialist, have appeared. Some of them have, elected local officials and even congressmen. Collectively, they have had a disproportionate influence upon state and national legislation, but none of them has come near to power in a Presidential campaign. Most of them have been absorbed again into the amorphous Democratic and Republican parties, whose power to absorb contradictory elements often has seemed proportional to their lack of principle. This is a situation which I have found that few foreign observers understand.
It arises primarily from the fact that we do not have a parliamentary but a presidential government. In parliamentary democracies, it was only necessary for a socialist or labor party to elect a few representatives and make a good record. Their representation could rapidly snowball. In the United States, every four years the election of all members of Congress is subordinate to the election of the President. It is only the exceptional man in an exceptional situation who can command much individual attention for his own campaign for Congress or even the United States Senate in a Presidential year. Often the average congressional candidate can scarcely get audiences at his own meetings and the money he and his party spend on broadcasts for him is largely wasted.
From time to time liberal, progressive, and radical blocs have risen in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they never have yet preserved a continuing momentum, much less grown into a political party, because every four years they have had to subordinate their principles and program to the question: which of the two major party contenders for the Presidency would they support? Presidential candidates, able men or mediocrities – for whom all the people have a chance to vote, absorb the popular interest in elections. More and more that interest has boiled down into a choice between major candidates because anything else was “throwing away your vote.”
One could argue stridently or eloquently that there is no worse way to throw away your vote than to vote for what you don’t want and get it; that minority parties and protest votes have had an influence on American politics so great that their supporters were, in a sense, far more important figures on the political scene than an equal number of the mob who voted Republican or Democratic.
It made small impression. Even Gene Debs, a romantic and beloved figure among workers, never got more than a million votes — that were counted — and that in a year when he was unjustly confined to prison and his major opponents were those complete medidcrities, Harding and Cox. My vote in 1932 and Henry Wallace’s in 1948 can only be explained (as over against the popular interest in our campaigns) by this obsession of the voters with the two-party system.
If Americans could vote for a President on a preferential ballot in which their second choices would count toward a majority once their first choices were eliminated, the results might have been very different. But actually Americans who concentrate almost all their political interest on the Presidential campaign cannot vote directly for President at all. They vote, state by state, for members of the Electoral College who, in the plan of the framers of the Constitution — a plan which was a dead letter from the beginning — would then, in their wisdom, choose the best man far President.
Each state has as many electors as it has senators and congressmen. To make matters worse, so far as the democracy of the Presidential election is concerned, the winning parry in each state takes all the electors. A plurality of one vote in New York State is as good as a million. It delivers all forty-seven electors to the victor.
Moreover, disproportionate representation of sparsely populated states and Southern discrimination against Negroes result in grave violations of the principle “one man, one vote” when it comes to the election of the President. Thus, in 1948, one voter in South Carolina had almost the weight of eight voters in New York in the Presidential election.
As a result of these things, the United States can have and has had Presidents duly elected by a majority of the Electoral College who were in the minority in the popular vote. The last example was Benjamin Harrison. It is quite the usual thing for defeated candidates or their supporters to calculate with what a relatively small shift of votes in certain states they might have been elected without having achieved a popular majority. This sort of thing is fraught with danger in the American system and a fear of it operates emotionally against a third-party candidate.
This fear is given additional support by the further fact that un- der the Constitution, if no candidate should get a majority of the Electoral College, the election is thrown into the House of Representatives where each state, New York with its 3,000,000 inhabitants, and Nevada with 110,000 (census of 1940), would be entitled one vote. In the campaign of 1924, the cry, “a vote for La Follette [the Progressive and Socialist candidate that year] is a vote to send the election into the House of Representatives,” lost that vigorous campaigner hundreds of thousands of votes, thereby greatiy discouraging what had looked like a strong movement toward a class farmer-labor party in America.
Each of the two large political parties, moreover, is in reality less of a national organization than a federation of forty-eight state parties with a common name and a common interest in winning office at Washgton — scarcely more. Each state has its own rules and from 1912 on, when the big Bull Moose scared the politicians (and especially after 1932), the tendency in many states has been to make and interpret election laws so as to monopolize the ballot for the two big parties. It is exceedingly difficult and expensive in such important states as Ohio, Illinois, and California for minority parties to stay on the ballot or to get on by petition.
Indeed, in those states and many others the law has so many sticky provisions that a rigid enforcement of it by hostile administrators can be used completely to deny effective choice to the voters, except as between the major candidates. This, for example, appened in New York, whose law is not one of the worst, in the campaign of 1946. It was not “reactionary” Republicans, but “liberal” Democrats, with the full knowledge and consent of such professedly ardent liberals as Herbert Lehman, formerly governor and then candidate for the United States Senate, and James Mead, candidate for governor, who were so desperately anxious to win an election that they managed to have all those minor parties thrown off the state ballot which had nominated independent candidates for governor and United States Senator. (But no technicalities were invoked against the Liberal and Communist parties. The first had endorsed Mead and Lehman; the second had withdrawn its candidates against them.)
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