Voting for neither major party, 1788 to 2012
Compared to the anti-establishment era that had only stirred awake during the 1960s but that charged forward with vigor during the '80s and early '90s, the past 20 years feel like we've stepped into The Twilight Zone. We have returned to the mid-century worship of Big Business and Big Government, though this time without Big Labor. And that is nowhere more evident than in the sights of people wrapped around city blocks, eagerly lining up to suck the cock of an authority figure like Steve Jobs or Barack Obama.
Sadly but predictably our Facebook feeds today are filling up with all kinds of childish gloating and naked worship of a political party, again harking back to the mid-century totalitarianism that we saw under Roosevelt, but that extended also to Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR.
If they'd voted for Obama while saying he was the lesser of two evils, they were going to hold their nose, I don't wanna but I gotta -- fair enough, they pass the test for being a normal human being. But the RAH-RAH surge that folks get from politics today is clearly the sign of a polluted mind. It's one of those diseases of civilization that is absent among hunter-gatherers, who are more egalitarian and strive to limit rather than encourage power-seekers.
That kind of pride in not being a slave to authority also shows up among pastoralists, although they do get organized at greater scales than hunter-gatherers do. The nadir of tribalism is found more in tropical gardening societies and in the factions struggling for elite control of settled agrarian societies. Like tuberculosis and vitamin D deficiency, that mindset seems to be on the wane in industrial societies. But as America continues to fragment, probably heading toward secession of smaller regions from the untenably large and unthreatened empire, we could see another eruption of tribalism -- and today's deluge of Facebook snark is hardly encouraging.
Well, now that I've got all the hot air out of my system, let's take a look at some hard data to see when voters were more conformist and when they were more into shaking the system up. I'm not taking into account which particular parties were the third parties, what they stood for, etc., since most voters are not very knowledgeable about the issues. A third-party vote is more of a vote against the mainstream than for the specific platform. I'm also not even looking at who the mainstream parties were.
All I'm interested in is how willing were people to spend (not "waste") their vote on a third-party candidate, to collectively buy a megaphone and shout the message of Not Takin' This Shit No More to whoever ends up occupying the White House. In their minds, that popular pressure is more important than squeezing a particular candidate into the Oval Office.
The graph below shows the percent of the popular vote that went to anyone other than the two parties with the greatest shares (click to enlarge).
Granted, the data are only at 4-year intervals, and there's a good deal of noise because of so many other factors influencing voting patterns. Still, the periods when people voted more for third parties fell within rising-crime times, whereas people in falling-crime times shifted toward complacency with the status quo. There was plenty of third-party popularity during the increasingly violent American Gothic period around the mid-19th C., leading up to the Civil War. Then it falls off a cliff during the Gilded Age.
We don't know when exactly the turn-of-the-century crime wave kicks off, but it's no later than 1900. So the third-party success in 1892 is a tough call. However, there was even greater support during the Jazz Age. As the world became safer during the mid-century, voters hardly opted at all to rock the boat.
Once the '60s got going, people got back into the rambunctious mood at the voting booth, throwing their support toward a Southern populist, no less -- talk about being anti-establishment. That continued further in 1980, and peaked in the 1992 election when Ross Perot -- who landed on Planet Earth with no earlier visibility whatsoever -- won nearly 1 out of every 5 votes. In the falling-crime period ever since then, we've returned to the complacent political behavior of the mid-century, where only 1-2% have voted for a third party in recent elections.
Why is there a link between the trend in the violence rate and people's willingness to vote for third parties? When there is a growing, palpable sense of disorder, the godlike attributes of authority are put to a litmus test, and not being omniscient, omnipotent, nor omnibenevolent, they fail pathetically. People see with their own eyes how misplaced the earlier faith had been, and they get more experimental -- unfamiliar dangers call for more trial-and-error, and keeping what seems to work. The hippie communes of the late '60s and early '70s did not last, but Dirty Harry did.
During a falling-crime period, people see the world getting safer and stabler, so whatever the experts and authority figures are doing, it seems to be going well. So, don't risk upsetting this welcome trend by making waves in the voting booth. The sad reality is that crime waves reverse of their own accord, meaning at the grassroots level where people begin cocooning more and thereby expose themselves less and less to criminals who would prey on them out in the open.
Attributing this decline in crime to the authorities sets the society up for yet another wave of crime, when people assume it's safe to come out and play again, and there'll be no need to worry about your safety or looking out for one another, because the experts and authorities have already driven crime down so low. This false illusion of a governmental safety net lulls them into waltzing out into dangerous situations unprepared. Only when faith in control-by-experts starts to unravel, do they wake up and -- while not fleeing back inside -- take more social, face-to-face measures to look out for and be looked out for by others in their community.