Monday, November 3, 2014

Middle of the Road?

As the US approaches another big vote, with the Democrats pitted against the Republicans for control of the Senate in the midterm elections, I have begun to think of political parties in terms of freeway driving.

Most freeways (moottoritiet, in Finland) consist of two lanes in each direction, except of course in cities, where the amount of traffic often demands more, in some US cities six lanes or more. In Helsinki, they’re much smaller, with the broadest piece of moottoritiet having maybe only three lanes in each suunta (direction).

But for most stretches of freeway, both here and in the US, you’re limited to only two lanes, one slow and one supposedly fast.

Now, as everyone knows, the flow of traffic is something that hardly any driver is ever satisfied with. You grow impatient with the bozo driving a bit too slow in front of you in the right-hand lane, so you pull into the left-hand lane to pass him, only to be immediately tailgated by some even bigger bozo who wants to go faster than you do – that is unless, you yourself are already the fastest bozo on the road. Perhaps it’s no wonder that road rage erupts from time to time.

Two Lanes on the American Highway.
Photo: Coolcaesar

The problem is that most of us have a speed that we’re most comfortable with, and that’s usually different for everyone else’s preferred speed.

When I used to commute to work along Helsinki’s Kehä I (Ring I) during rush hour, I would sometimes daydream about a road with a lane for every desired speed. Let’s say that every driver wants to travel at one of 30 or so speeds (75 kph, 77 kph, 80 kph, 82 kph, and so on), and a separate lane existed for each of those speeds. How efficient that would be! Driving comfortably at your own speed, with no need to overtake anyone.

It would, indeed, be a great system. Except when the guy going 120 kph in the farthest left-hand lane (reserved for 120-kph drivers) suddenly needs to cross 30 lanes of traffic to make the next exit ramp. That could be viewed as a small flaw in the system. That, and the amount of land a 60-lane freeway would require.

Anyway, I’ve started to think about such a “mega-road” model when looking at politics. When it comes to all kinds of possible political issues, most folks have widely different views, to say the least. In the US, these might be taxes, capital punishment, military spending, social security, abortion, climate change, the deficit, guns – good lord, yes, guns. Most people hold a mixture of views on all these different, and often-divisive, issues.

Even people broadly identifying themselves as liberal or conservative don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue with the fellow travelers on their side of the political spectrum. Some Democrats might support airstrikes against the Islamic State, while others are vehemently opposed. Some Republicans might want a balanced Federal budget, yet not have a problem with gay marriage.

It’s no doubt frustrating having to vote for a candidate from “your” party who doesn’t share your point of view on some issue especially important to you. As they say, no one size fits all.

This is why the two-party system in the US starts to look like two lanes on a freeway. All those voters, with their different combinations of pet peeves and strongly felt convictions, are forced to “drive” in one of two lanes, compelled to go 80 kph, because there’s no lane for the 85 kph they’d prefer.

US voters with less mainstream political views, say Socialists or hard-core white supremacists, might not have much choice other than biting the bullet and voting for the lesser of two evils, even though neither the Republican or Democratic Party establishment support their point of view.

Of course, even in the US, parties are not completely monolithic, and people mostly vote for individual politicians, some of whom might be outliers in their own party. For decades, voting Democratic could mean casting a ballot for either a northern liberal or a southern segregationist, a schizophrenic arrangement if there ever was. Plenty of Republican pols today are happy enough to defy the GOP establishment if it means gaining the support of the Tea Party elements back in their home district.

This is not to say that alternatives to the GOP and Dems don't exist. In the race for senator for Georgia, in addition to Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, there is a third name on the ballot, Amanda Swafford of the Libertarian Party.

You can look at her campaign as an alternative for folks who feel the GOP doesn’t go far enough in ensuring a radical hands-off approach by government. You can also look at it as a chance to completely waste a vote. The most Swafford’s campaign can do, in reality, is dilute the vote count for Perdue, which is perfectly fine with me. Go Michelle!

This is the way it is with third parties in the American system. They are reduced to merely symbolic protest movements, appealing to only the most marginal of American voters. People often forget that there have even been Communist candidates for US president, not that this meant anything in practice.

The only impact of third parties is to sometimes cause one of the two mainstream parties to lose. Some Democrats still blame George Bush’s capture of the presidency in 2000 on Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who they see as diverting votes from Al Gore.

To skew the election outcomes even further, the American “winner-take-all” principle means that when a party loses, it really loses, even if it’s only by a tiny margin. Currently, the Democratic members of the Republican-controlled House are essentially powerless. Same for the Republicans in the Democratic-control Senatewhich is why I find the likely prospect of the GOP gaining control of both houses very depressing.

It’s a bit different in Finland, as in much of the rest of Europe. While Americans drive on two lanes of the political freeway, voters here can choose from eight.

In fact, they have more lanes than that. There are something like 17 registered political parties in Finland, though only eight of these garnered enough votes in the last election to send a member to parliament.

The three biggest parties have traditionally been dominant: the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus), the Center Party (Keskusta), and the Social Democrats (SDP). Smaller parties, such as the Left Alliance, the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats, also play some role in parliament and have often been included in government. In recent years, a newcomer, the anti-EU, anti-immigration Finns Party, has arisen to offer yet another option to the part of the electorate that feels strongly about those issues.

And being a smaller party doesn’t necessarily mean being shut out of government altogether. Unlike in “winner-take-all” America, the coalition form of government here means even minority parties can still play in the sandbox. The current cabinet is made up of ministers from Kokoomus and SDP (seven each), plus the Swedish People’s Party (two) and the Christian Democrats (one).

Whether all this means Finns are satisfied enough with their government, I can’t say, though they’re clearly less disaffected than Americans are right now (approval of Obama 45%, of Congress 13%).

While the political differences here might not be so hugely great in the final analysis (after all, Finns are known for consensus), so many parties to choose from means voting still comes down to more than simply a matter of “left or right”, “liberal or conservative, vanilla or chocolate, “Coke or Pepsi”.

As a new citizen with a chance to vote for parliament next April, I need to start thinking soon about which of those 17 lanes is more my own speed.


  1. I didn't early vote because we were on vacation. And early voting was curtailed by RepubliKKKan policy. But I'll vote today on the way home from work.

    We here in the USA have no real choice, at all. The so-called "two-party" system is a very nasty joke.

    1. I doubt it ever changes in a significant way. Switching to something closer to a parliamentary system would basically require a new constitution, and we all know that will never happen.