Why America will never have a third party

It’s election season in America, and once again lots of people who are dissatisfied with their choices are calling for the creation of a third party.  But I’m sorry to say that will never happen – at least not without major changes to the Constitution.

America has never had a third party that had any major impact at the presidential level that has lasted for more than one election cycle.  There have been times when one of the two parties came undone and another rose to replace it (when the Federalists died, to eventually be replaced by Whigs, or when the Whigs died and the Republicans were born).  But when a third party did well at the presidential level (never winning, but having an impact – 1912 and the Bull Moose Party, 1968 and the Dixiecrats, 1992 and whatever Ross Perot called himself), the party did not survive beyond an election cycle or two.

I thought about that the other day.  There seems to be something about our system that keeps a third party from getting big.  And I think I’ve figured it out.

(Note: I feel confident that political scientists have already figured this out.  I don’t claim a unique genius.  But it made for some interesting thoughts, so I figure I’ll write up my explanation.  And next time online I have to tell someone that we won’t have a third party, I can just link to this.)

In the American system, for the most part, our elections are winner-take-all.  Further, they are first-past-the-post – whichever candidate gets the most votes, even if it’s less than a majority, wins the election.  There are no run-offs, and coming in second doesn’t gain you anything.

The implication is that if you have a large number of people who can work together within one party, they benefit from doing so.  Let’s look at an example.

Suppose we have two parties: the Cat Party and the Dog Party.  The Cat Party controls 60% of the electorate while the Dog Party has the other 40%.  So the Cat Party will win the election.  Would it make sense for the Cat Party to break into two other parties – say, the Siamese Party and the Persian Party?

Suppose the Siamese and Persian wings each control half of the Cat Party.  So they could break away and form their own parties, with each ending up with 30% of the electorate.  But in that case, both would lose the election to the Dog Party and it’s 40% support.

So there’s a strong incentive for the Siamese and Persian wings to stay together.  After all, while each would prefer its own candidate to win, each would also prefer any Cat candidate to a Dog.

If there were a way for Siamese and Persians to form a post-election coalition to put the coalition candidate in office, as happens in parliamentary systems, it would make sense for them to stay distinct parties.  But as long as the person who gets the most votes in the election gets the office, there’s a strong disincentive to have multiple parties.  And  making such changes would require changes to the Constitution.

(I’ll note that our system does have this in common with parliamentary systems: both encourage coalitions.  It’s just that parliamentary coalitions tend to be between parties and form after the election, while in our system the coalitions forms within the parties and unite to contest the election.)

But it goes further than that.  In American history, the two parties tend to be of roughly equal strength.  And I think that’s also built into the system.

Look again at the Cat and Dog parties.  In the real world, parties are not just cats and dogs.  They are coalitions of groups, each of which has its own set of priorities.

Suppose, for example, that a piece of the Cat Party cares most about having milk with dinner.  Suppose the Milk Coalition consists of 8% of the total electorate.

Non-milk Cats might say hey – we can win without the Milk Coalition.  So let’s not bother supporting milk policies – they just use up resources that we’d rather apply to other things.  We don’t need them, so why bother?

But the Dogs need more voters to have a chance at winning.  And they don’t really care all that much either way about milk.  So why not start supporting milk in order to get all those Milk Coalition voters into the Dog Party?

We’ve seen over the past fifty years a number of such shifts.  As one example, the GOP has become the party of strong national security, so those Democrats who care most about strong military and foreign intervention have shifted over to the GOP as the Neo-Conservatives.  In this and other cases when one party came to dominate, things eventually balanced out and the parties ended up at rough parity.

So to those who want a third party in this country, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  Unless, of course, you find a way to change the way our elections work.  And I don’t see that happening.

And to those who want their party to become a permanent majority, you’re equally out of luck.  By the nature of things, while you might get short-term dominance, things will balance out over time.

Note: I’ve just discovered that this phenomenon has a name.  It’s called Duverger’s Law, and it even has its own Wikipedia page.


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Visiting the cliff dwellings

Ever since I’ve heard of them, I’ve found the native American cliff-dwellings fascinating.  So while Julie did her class today, I visited one – the Puye Cliff Dwellings.  They did not disappoint.

They are less than an hour from Santa Fe.  But the drive, which goes through several Indian reservations, is remote and beautiful.  The last six miles go across empty scrublands.  At the end, you find the cliffs.

To do the tour, you climb up steep staircases, ladders, and even steeper rock stairs.

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The view from the cliffs is spectacular.

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The dwellings a long line of caves that once had structures built out of them.

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I loved them.

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At the top of the mesa, we were met with a rain and hail squall that did nothing to dampen my spirits.

There were several adobe buildings.

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There was a kiva, an Indian holy place.  It’s a chamber dug into the ground with a roof that you enter through a ladder.  The Pueblo Indians used an underground chamber because they believed people emerged from the earth.  So when you emerge from under the earth to the surface, it is like being reborn.

We entered the kiva, but were not allowed to take pictures.  Here’s a photo of the outside.

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This was a marvelous trip.

I followed it up by visiting nearby Los Alamos.  All in all, it was a bit disappointing.  There really isn’t much there to see – one small history museum, another museum describing the science work done there for the Manhattan Project and now.  The one thing that gave me pause was full-scale models of the Little Boy and Fat Man atom bombs used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These included detailed descriptions of the design aspects of the bombs.  Rather chilling.

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Then I picked up Julie and we took a Ghosts of Santa Fe tour.  Much fun, though I was the skeptic of the bunch.  But while I don’t believe in ghosts, I certainly believe in ghost stories.  And the tour had many wonderful ones.

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A good day!


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Santa Fe and art

Santa Fe has more art galleries than any other city I’ve seen.  They have several sections of the city devoted to galleries.  And many of the galleries have art decorating their outside.

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Our gallery attendance is limited by Julie’s class.  But we did walk down Canyon Road, where many of the galleries are.  And there were late-night hours at the Railway gallery section on Friday, so we got to visit those.  I particularly liked some videos by Mary Reid Kelley (link to here site here) which come weird visuals, odd humor, and history geeking – three of my favorite things.  I found her work inspiring – I wouldn’t be surprised to see her influence cropping up in some of my future films.

There’s also several native American artists with work for sale.  They line the Santa Fe Governor’s Palace.

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We bought some gifts there, but I shall not share details, thus avoiding spoiling some surprises.

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New Mexico!

Julie is taking an encaustic print-making class in Santa Fe.  (Yeah, I’m not sure what that means either.)  Which sounds like an excellent excuse for us to do some travel.

We’re here now.  Our first day, we left on an appallingly early plane.  But that gave us most of a day in Santa Fe, a day in which we visited six art museums.  Saw some nice stuff too, though no photos were allowed for the best stuff.  But here’s one of me with a statue at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

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The second day, Julie went to class.  I worked in our B&B.  Got a fair amount done.  But when I picked her up, there was still time for a hike through mountain trails.  And lovely trails they were.

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I also find myself greatly enjoying the strange plants of the southwest.

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Day three: Julie in class again.  I worked half a day, then spent sometime museum hopping in downtown Santa Fe.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the New Mexico History Museum, both the exhibits on New Mexico history and special exhibits on the Harvey Girls (waitresses imported to the west, largely from Kansas City, to work at high quality restaurants built as the railroads moved into the west), pinhole cameras, and artistic representations of Mary done by artists from the Americas.  Here’s a rather disturbing “Lady of Sorrows,” including a wig made with human hair.

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More to come…

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Why I am avoiding online arguments

I have been trying very hard of late to avoid online debates.

It’s hard.  I’ve been engaging in online debates of one sort or another for almost 25 years now.  I have strong opinions on things, I love a good debate, and it’s difficult to turn away when I see someone arguing for a position that I think is wrong.

But here’s the thing.  I think online debates tend to push us further apart.  And it strikes me that there are enough forces in this world operating to divide us, and now is a time when division is particularly problematic.

I think most of us would agree on a certain basic set of values.

  • We don’t want the government to tell us how to live our lives.
  • We want everyone to be able to live their lives in peace, comfort, and health.
  • We have respect for those who are willing to put their lives on the line for our society.
  • We think that government has a role to play, but where possible we’d rather see people be able to manage without it.
  • We respect the right of others to make their own choices.
  • We believe that people should be able to do what they want with their property.
  • We think our society should be fair and give equal opportunity to all.
  • We want our nation to be strong and do well.

I’m sure I could think of others.  I’m sure you can too.

When an issue involves only one of these values, it’s easy.  But there are many issues where different values are in conflict.  And often different people will weigh the different values differently and thus come down on opposite sides of the issues.

Sadly, online discussion in these cases usually comes down to, “You don’t believe in value X, so you are a bad person.”  “How could you possibly take position Y – that must mean you don’t believe in value Z, so you are terrible.”  And that generates more heat than light and only ends up pushing us further apart.

I had a friend named Walt who passed away last year.  While I am a staunch supporter of the Democrats, he was an equally staunch support of the GOP.  We often disagreed about what the government should do.  Our debates could get fierce.

But every now and then, we stepped back.  We dove deeper into the issues.  And invariably, we found that our differences came down to differing ways of applying and balancing our similar core values.  We actually agreed a lot more than we disagreed on the fundamentals, even though you’d never know it if you only looked at our political arguments.

With Walt, our debates were a kind of sport.  Debating politics can be a lot of fun.  But we could do this because we knew each other well, liked each other a lot, and could assume good will on each others’ part.  For a lot of online discussions – the kind of thing that seems to happen on Facebook – discussions take place between people who barely know each other.  Or often don’t know each other at all – one rubs against friends-of-friends in comment threads and the only thing you know about each other is what is said online.  It’s hard to make an assumption of good will in such cases.

I am trying hard to avoid those conversations.  If I do not know someone well enough to honestly assume good will on his part, I’m going to try my best to avoid entering the fray.  I won’t always succeed – a 25-year-old habit is hard to break.  But I’m going to try.  I’m going to try to assume good will on the part of others that I meet online, and I’m going to hope that they will assume the same of me.



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Summing up Italy

We’ve been home for a week now.  I still haven’t started organizing all the photos, but I suppose it’s time to sum up our Italy experience.

Best Part of the Trip

Joe: Walking around the ruins of ancient Rome, imagining the things that had happened there, telling Julie stories of those days.  The moment when I realized that the road I was on was most likely the road that Cleopatra took into town, and was certainly the road that all those Triumphs took – Scipio, Caesar, etc.

Julie: Florence and the amazing Uffizi Gallery and all the art therein.

Best Meal

Joe: Enzo e Piero in Florence.  The food was terrific, the atmosphere relaxed.  It felt like it was run by a family (which I believe it was) and was completely comfortable.  And did I mention the terrific food?

Julie: Ristorante Quadri in Venice.  Again, the food was terrific.  The service was much more formal, but still friendly.  (A lot more expensive too!)

Best Tour

Joe: Hard choice – either the Pompeii Trip or the ancient Rome trip that included a ground-level visit to the Colosseum.  (Though neither was my favorite guide – both guides were good, though.)

Julie: Rome Catacombs and Tombs.  Combines the gruesome with the soulful – two things that Julie loves.  Also had the best guide of any we had all week (and Joe agrees with this).

Note: we did a total of ten guided tours during our trip, all set up with City Wonders tours (http://citywonders.com).  They weren’t all amazing, but they were all good.  I’d recommend them for tours in any of the places they do tours.

Best Travel Tool

Joe: His iPad.  I arranged a data plan that would work in Italy.  The iPad was amazingly helpful.  I navigated everywhere using Google Maps.  We chose restaurants using the TripAdvisor app (another thing I strongly recommend: their tool for finding nearby restaurants was incredibly helpful).  I could look up miscellaneous details online at a moment’s notice, and amuse myself with Wikipedia articles on things we were seeing.  And even find Julie a good shoe shop in Rome.

Julie: She got a book on Rome, and later one on Florence, that showed how the sites looked now and back then.  Julie had a lot of fun holding up the images of the ancient glories next to the actual sites.

Favorite piece of Art

Joe: Bernini’s sculpture of Daphne and Apollo at the Borghese Gallery.

Julie: A medieval painting of the Annunciation at the Uffizi.

Favorite City

Joe: Rome.  I’ve never been anywhere that had so much truly vital history.  Astonishing.  Plus, I find that I really like the baroque style of both art and architecture, and Rome is a great center for that style.

Julie: Florence.  Hard to deny the draw of the Renaissance.

Best Concierge

Joe and Julie: The staff at the Porta Faenza in Florence.  They recommended great restaurants and helped us find shops that had things that we were specifically looking for.  By contrast, the concierges in the other hotels tended to direct us to touristy restaurants and did not have useful information.

Some useful travel tips

  1. To find a good gelato shop, ignore all those shops with bulging mounds of colorful gelato in a display freezer in the window.  The gelato bulges because it has artificial stiffeners in it, and it’s so colorful because of artificial coloring.  Instead, find a place where the gelato is stored in simple canisters in a freezer, and where the colors are muted.  These kinds of places are few and far between (I found one in Rome, two in Florence, and one in Venice), but they are worth the search: the gelato in them is amazing.  The best gelato I had was at Edoardo’s right next to the Duomo in Florence.  Truly amazing stuff – I had it there twice and each bite was like a taste explosion in my mouth.
  2. Be careful of the taxi drivers in Rome.  There is a fixed cost of 48 Euros to get from the airport into Rome, but other than that insist that they turn on the meter.  (And insist they don’t turn on the meter if you’re coming from the airport.)  And make sure you monitor the route they take.  This isn’t always an issue: we took four taxis in Rome and only one tried to rip us off.  But there was that one.  (He didn’t succeed.)
  3. Be careful where you look for masks in Venice.  Most are Chinese imports – even when they say otherwise.  We went to Ca Macana, where they make masks.  You can even paint your own there.  Great masks.
  4. Don’t stand in line for tickets at the Colosseum.  Walk a couple blocks to the entrance to the Roman Forum.  There’s no line and the ticket is good for both the Forum and the Colosseum.
  5. When visiting a crowded art museum like the Uffizi, make sure you’re there around closing time.  The crowds thin out and you can actually get close to the famous paintings.  Sometimes these museums will have late hours one night in the week: those are great times to visit as there are no crowds.  (We also used that hint when visiting the Louvre a few years ago.)
  6. Do your research on restaurants.  As I mentioned above, Trip Advisor is a great resource.  The hotel staff may be a good resource or they may just direct you to the tourist traps.  Be careful!

I’m sure there are more.  But we found the above particularly useful.

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More Venice

Another day in Venice.

A visit to Santa Maria della Salute.


A photo op on Punta della Dogana.



I feel the water in the Grand Canal.  (Had to, really.  Couldn’t be avoided.)  It was warmer than I expected.


A visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Modern art.


Pizza for lunch in a square with pigeons.



Another walk across the Grand Canal.


A visit to Murano Island, home of the Venice glassmakers.  Here’s one making a glass horse.


A visit to Burano Island, home of the Venice lacemakers.


An amazing dinner, followed by waltzing in the Piazza San Marco.

And a truncated blog post.

So ends our last full day in Italy. What an amazing trip.

Tomorrow is a travel day, but I shall have some summary posts over the next week or so.

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It was a grand day on the Grand Canal. Well, on and about the Grand Canal, anyway.

First it was a tour of the Doge’s palace. Lots more art, some pretty impressive rooms, and an arsenal full of various deadly toys, including this pretty little cannon.


Here I am in one of the many huge meeting rooms in the palace, which served both as the home of the Doge and the meeting place for the various legislative bodies. (Venice was a republic, complete with a Senate, with the Doge being an elected official who functioned more as a president-for-life with limited powers than as a king.)


And here was a bit from the map room. Note that “Terre Incognite d’anthropofagi” means “Unknown land of the cannibals.” Isn’t Latin fun?


After that, we wandered around the city, including a visit to the Galleria d’Accademia, the museum of Venetian art. Here’s a saint who had a particularly bad end, though having a hatchet in his head doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any.


Then a stop on the Rialto Bridge.


And that evening, a nighttime tour of Venice, complete with Gondola ride.



Finally, on the way back to our hotel, we stopped by one of the three open-air restaurants with live music on San Marco Square and we had a couple drinks.


They tell us that Venice has a population of 60,000, and any given day it has 200,000 tourists.  In some ways, they say, it’s turning into a giant theme park.  There’s something sad about that.  But on the other hand, every now and then it’s nice to visit a theme park, and we certainly enjoyed our day in Venice-land.

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Italian Road Trip

A delay in posting today.  Bad internet at this new hotel, but it seems to be working now.

We left Florence today. Just to mix things up a bit, we decided to rent a car and do a road trip.

The drive through Tuscany was gorgeous. The Apennines are beautiful mountains. Think of driving through the Shenandoah during spring, only with higher mountains and fewer forests, and you’ve got an idea of what it looks like. No pictures, alas – I was busy driving.

We decided to make a stop in Ravenna. Ravenna was the capital of the Roman Empire in the west for a while right at the end, largely because it was easily defensible at a time when the Romans were taking it on the chin from a lot of sides. It also served as the capital of Justinian’s attempt to recapture the western Roman Empire about a century after it had fallen. As a result of all this, Ravenna has some beautiful mosaics from the late Roman Empire and early Byzantine Period. I had heard that they had the best Byzantine mosaics outside of Turkey, and from what I saw today, I can believe it.



There’s also marvelous Romanesque architecture, a pleasant change after Renaissance Florence and Baroque Rome.




As to one other thing we saw…

Remember a couple postings ago when I mentioned seeing Dante’s Tomb in St Croix Basilica in Florence? Here it is.


Today we also saw Dante’s Tomb, this time in Ravenna. Here it is.


What, you say. How does Dante manage to have two tombs? Well, there’s a story there.

Dante came from Florence. But the city fathers of Florence took offense over something Dante wrote, so they exiled him. He spent the rest of his life roaming around Italy, and he ended up in Ravenna, where they happily took in the famous poet. Dante died there and his hosts buried him locally.

At this point, Florence decided that they really wanted him back. Apparently there’s nothing that Florence likes better than a dead Florentine – much more than a living one. So they asked Ravenna for the return of their famous poet.

Not a chance, said the people of Ravenna. We took him in when you kicked him out, and now we’re keeping him.

A few years later, a Florence man was elected pope. Send back Dante, said the pope, who was much harder to refuse than the city fathers of Florence.

Oops, said Ravenna. We seem to have misplaced him. So sorry, but we can’t accommodate you.

Florence apparently built him a tomb anyway. And a couple centuries later, a coffin full of bones was found hidden away in Ravenna with a note saying that this was Dante. And it appears that it actually is.

And so Dante has tombs in both Florence and Ravenna, though only the Ravenna one is inhabited.  And to complicate things further, in Ravenna they shifted his remains about a couple times over the years, so he actually has at least three tombs here in Ravenna.  Supposedly he’s in the big one above, though at this point I’m not sure how anyone could  know for certain.



So where are we now?  Well, if the buses are boats, then it must be Venice!


What a fun city – more to come later.

Meanwhile, here’s some other pictures of our day.




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Another day in Florence

And so ends another day in Florence.  Nothing too spectacular today: we visited the Palazzo Vecchio, the palace of the Medicis when they first came to power.  We visited a modern art exhibit.  We visited several churches.  We ate a great dinner and the best gelato I’ve found in Italy.  All in all, we ended up at several of the second-string attractions in the city, but had fun doing so.  And tomorrow we’ll be off to Venice.

But first, the pictures.  For those of you back at home living through the ebola panic, rest assured that you are not alone.


For those of you who have been seeing Julie’s pictures posted on Facebook, here’s an example of how she’s taking them.  Her camera gear is much easier to carry than mine!


For those of you who like to collect artistic oddities, here’s a piece of art that made me ask, “Did I just see what I think I saw?”


It’s not clear in that picture, but Diomedes (or maybe it’s Antaeus – reports vary) is grabbing Hercules’s manly bits.  Here’s a closeup of the deed being done:


This is a statue in the great hall in the Palazzo Vecchio.  The Medicis identified with Hercules.  I’m not sure what it means that Hercules is getting grabbed like that in their great hall, but there it is.  (It should be noted that Hercules went on to win this fight.  A mighty man indeed!  But I wonder if they had this scene in the recent Hercules movie.)

Here’s a picture of Julie wearing a new headband that she got at an exhibit we saw of Picasso and other Spanish modern art.


And here’s a picture of me next to the shop selling the best gelato we’ve had in Italy.  (Gelato is kind of like ice cream, and frankly I don’t understand the difference.  There’s lots of gelato all over Italy, and I’ve been eating an average of 1.5 cones a day.  But this place, called Edoardo’s, next to the southeaster corner of the Duomo, has the best I’ve tasted.  At some point I’ll share the terrific rules taught us by a guide on how to find good gelato shops.)


And then we visited the churches.  Three churches.  Wonderful religious art.

But let me make a brief digression on the strangeness of medieval/renaissance religion.  Catholicism was awfully strange back then.  In particular:


Every one of those golden objects in the display cases is a reliquary.  A reliquary is a special case used for the display of a relic, which is usually the bone of a saint.  For example, here’s a reliquary for Saint Sebastian, the saint who is usually depicted getting shot full of arrows.


And here is a closeup in which you can see the displayed bone.


This is supposedly one of Saint Sebastian’s bones.  A great holy object.  Worthy of veneration.  And prayer.  To a bone.

To which I can only say, Ewwwww!

Of course, one of my favorite museums in Washington is the Army Medical Museum, where you can see bone fragments from two murdered presidents and the leg bone of one Civil War general, not to mention the bones and organs of many other less distinguished dead people.  So perhaps I’m not one to talk.

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