The duopoly of American politics: an allegory

Fun fact: despite the United States being home to more Internet service providers (ISPs) than any other nation in the world, the vast majority of the country’s households only has a few ISPs to choose from—usually one cable ISP and one telco ISP. For many, there is no real choice at all. Incidentally, this nightmarish oligopoly was facilitated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which passed both chambers of Congress with near-unanimous bipartisan support and was signed into law by neoliberal idol Bill Clinton.

Similar to the ISP market, the American market for political representation is maddeningly inefficient, corrupt, and limited in choice. Thanks to our first-past-the-post system used in most elections in America, the electoral success of third parties is minimal and extremely sporadic. In any given election, chances are you only have two real choices—and that’s if you’re lucky and live in a “competitive” district. So far, I have been a registered voter (with no party affiliation on paper but a “closet Democrat” in practice) in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Disregarding the last of these, here is an allegory I would use to characterize the experience of someone on the “far left” in states with competitive elections.

A loyal AT&T customer, hereby dubbed “AT&T loyalist“: ‘Tis the season to renew Internet service. Are you going to sign up for AT&T again?

Me, also an AT&T customer: Well, yeah. I’m getting AT&T just like I always have, because the only other choice is Comcast and they suck major ass.

AT&T loyalist: Great! You’re making the right choice. You’re right that Comcast totally sucks; AT&T is so much better! We should pat ourselves on the back for supporting AT&T!

Me: To be honest, it’s not even that AT&T is that much better. I actually have a lot of problems with AT&T, too. Don’t get me wrong, AT&T’s internet speed and reliability are clearly at least a little bit better in general, and it’s nice that they don’t openly show disdain for me whenever I contact them. But they engage in similarly gross practices to Comcast when it comes to unfair pricing, data caps, and hidden fees, for example.

AT&T loyalist: Oh no, you’re doing a BoTh SiDeS. News flash, AT&T and Comcast are not the same! Stop with the bothsidesism!

Me: I know both sides are not exactly the same on every issue. Clearly I prefer AT&T to Comcast. I just pointed out some major areas where both are pretty horrible, and I wish AT&T would respect us enough to acknowledge and improve on these shortcomings. In fact, while AT&T’s differences from Comcast are enough for me to continue choosing AT&T, these differences seem almost non-existent to a lot of underappreciated people who can’t be bothered to actively choose between the two. In fact, I bet if AT&T would more seriously tackle some of these issues, we could get more people to sign up for AT&T.

AT&T loyalist: Nuh-uh, you are actively harming AT&T and helping Comcast. Do you want Comcast to become more powerful? Because that’s what you’re doing right now by criticizing AT&T.

Me: But I criticize Comcast at least as much as AT&T. I’m just trying to discuss the facts, and the fact is that AT&T has issues.

AT&T loyalist: No, stop pointing out AT&T’s issues, you are only helping Comcast. You should at least shut up until after this renewal cycle, save your criticisms of AT&T until then.

Me: I don’t like your suggestion that AT&T’s success is predicated on there being less discussion around the facts, on people being less informed. Sure, choose AT&T over Comcast, but people should at least know what to expect from either of them. Plus, I do criticize AT&T plenty outside of renewal cycles; I happen to think it’s just as important, if not more so, to levy the same criticisms now, when the public is paying a bit more attention than usual and when we have more leverage than usual to actually pressure AT&T into committing to our demands.

Me: I gotta say, it’s a bit frustrating that when I criticize AT&T outside of renewal cycles, your response is dismissive and basically amounts to “So what? You’d rather have Comcast instead?” And when I criticize AT&T during renewal cycles, you use the bogeyman of Comcast to deflect any and all concerns. It almost seems like AT&T and their loyalists just want to immunize themselves against criticism and have no real interest in improving their services.

AT&T loyalist: You are clearly in cahoots with the Comcasters! I’ve heard you speaking ill of the great AT&T CEO, how dare you malign our most effective #resister against Comcast!

Me: Have you considered that AT&T CEO is not truly on our side? That it’s AT&T CEO who is actually in cahoots with Comcast Leader? AT&T CEO has a net worth of over $200 million and has the same friends and stakeholders as Comcast Leader. Sure, AT&T CEO made a big theatrical show of tearing up a written copy of Comcast Leader’s speech. And sure, AT&T CEO tweets some epic clapbacks and creates viral sound bites that dunk on Comcast Leader. Yet, actions speak louder than words and at nearly every critical juncture AT&T CEO has given the stamp of approval on Comcast Leader’s desired policies. Every time when Comcast opposed major regulations that protect consumers, AT&T was right there with them. Why can’t we, as voters on the same side, stand in solidarity with each other the way that AT&T and Comcast stand in solidarity for their shared class interests?

AT&T loyalist: We can stand in solidarity by signing up for AT&T and supporting AT&T’s executive board! You realize that if Comcast is the more powerful of the two companies, you have zero chance of seeing the reforms you want, right? You know that your best chance of actually getting the things you want is by making sure AT&T is the one on top, right?

Me: Yes, that’s why I am choosing AT&T, as I’ve already said. This is known. What I am talking about is that second part—we need to talk about what actually needs to change after AT&T is in power. You know, how we can hold AT&T accountable and actually make those reforms happen. To do that, we at least need to acknowledge the areas where AT&T has fallen short—yes, in some cases just as short as Comcast.

AT&T loyalist: AT&T is Fast, Reliable, Secure™, it’s Internet You Can Count On®. And that’s all there is to it! We must uncritically support AT&T and #resist Comcast and its evil leader.

Me: Sigh. Have a nice day.

To point out the obvious, AT&T are the Democrats and Comcast are the Republicans in this analogy.

I have noted in the past that party loyalty is extremely stupid. At this point I am convinced that many voters identify with one party or the other largely for aesthetic reasons, particularly in the suburbs where erstwhile Republican voters are finding that the GOP has fallen out of favor in their social clubs. These wine-sipping suburbanites are more than happy to cite Trump’s lack of decorum as a chief reason to vote blue in the most recent election cycles, yet many of them will flock back to voting for Republican hacks once the GOP swaps out Trump’s loud, brash brand of conservatism and once again props up candidates with a Romney-esque facade.

People treat politics like a spectator sport, and political parties like sports teams. This is why our politicians can so easily get away with swindling us while enriching themselves. For the masses of proles, it’s all just Bread and Circuses, without the Bread.

In many ways, political discourse is far worse than sports discourse. Imagine a Chicago Bulls fan getting shouted down by their fellow Bulls fans for saying “Jim Boylen is a bad coach.” Now try walking into a room of Republicans and suggesting that Donald Trump has any faults, or walking into a room of Democrats and suggesting that Joe Biden has any faults. With the heightened political polarization of America, the tolerance for intra-party dissent has shrunk (and it was never that great in the first place).

We must demand ranked choice voting if we are ever to break out of this hellish duopoly of Donkeys and Elephants. If leaders of the status quo parties genuinely fear losing votes to third parties, then they should push RCV harder, too.