American Politics for Geeks

Let me try to explain American politics in terms that Slashdot geeks can understand.

The Democratic and Republican parties are kind of like Apple and Microsoft. Neither is inherently evil, but in their never-ending quests for more power and more profit, they end up hurting a lot of people along the way. Things are always best for ordinary people when the two major companies (parties) are evenly balanced against each other, and ordinary people are abused the most when one is dominant.

For example, Microsoft is illegally abusing its monopoly on desktop computers by integrating programs into their operating system, buying up their competition, making exclusive deals with OEMs, etc. Similarly, the Republicans are abusing the fact that they are in control of both the white house and congress by redistricting in Texas in such a way that Republicans get an unfair advantage, and appointing an ultra-conservative to a federal appeals court using an obscure loophole even though Democrats were willing to filibuster (a last-resort method that allows the minority party to legally postpone voting on the most partisan of bills, forcing the majority party to compomise).

The Democrats are hardly innocent, though. Thanks to millions in campaign contributions from lawyers and groups such as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the Democrats almost always vote in such a way that makes lawyers wealthier at the expense of everyone else. For example, Democrats oppose medical malpractice reform, even though the evidence clearly shows that limiting punitive damages to a reasonable amount like $250,000 can keep both healthcare costs, and the premiums that doctors have to pay to insure themselves, from spiraling out of control.

The situation is worse than ever right now because the leadership of both parties is farther from mainstream than they have been in many years. Kind of like when Microsoft released Windows Me and Apple released Mac OS 9 - the worst operating systems either of them had released, ever. It's amazing that more Republicans aren't upset with Bush, since he's the exact opposite of a fiscal conservative. Thanks to his tax cuts and bloated budgets, the U.S. has the largest deficit in history. Most Republicans haven't actually saved money because of Bush's tax cuts anyway, because although federal taxes went down, local taxes, state taxes, and property taxes have all gone up in the last three years, not to mention health care costs, which have gone up by even more for most people. (Of course the richest of the rich still came out ahead, but remember that about 50% of the country is Republican, so most of them are clearly not rich.) But the Democratic leadership is no better. The Democratic leadership got the majority of the Democrats in Congress to vote in favor of the pre-emptive war in Iraq even though the majority of Democrats either opposed the war altogether, or opposed going to war unless we had the full support of the U.N.

So what's the political equivalent of open-source software, like Linux, Mozilla, OpenOffice, and FreeBSD? Third-party candidates, of course. The big two players (Microsoft and Apple, Republicans and Democrats) like to make everyone think that there are only two choices. They actually work together to make sure that it's almost impossible for a third-party to enter the race at all. In the computer world, companies require licensing fees in order to use the technology required to interoperate with them, thereby making it impossible for free and open-source software to compete. Apple and Microsoft are both guilty of this. In the political world, both the Democrats and Republicans have changed the rules so that it's almost impossible for a third-party to win anything. For example, they're not allowed to debate the Republicans and Democrats on T.V., and the congressional districts are Gerrymandered so that third-parties have no chance of winning them.

Imagine if we had instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for one candidate, you'd vote for all of the candidates you're happy with, or perhaps you'd rank your top three. Then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, one at a time, until one is left. That way, voting for a third-party would never be "throwing your vote away", and the polls would suddenly reflect how people really feel on a number of issues, rather than simply reflecting which of the two major parties most people are willing to compromise with.

One last analogy. The current media situation is kind of like if you had to get all of your computer news from Microsoft and Apple press releases, plus a few 'totally unbiased' analysts like Laura DiDio. So if you want to learn about politics, stay away from all television news. At worst it's horribly biased, and when it's at its best it's very incomplete, never telling enough of the story before going on to the next headline. Use Google News to learn about the major headlines, then read a few different takes on each story. Consider reading both left-leaning and right-leaning news sources, as well as everywhere-leaning, and then making up your own mind.

- Dominic Mazzoni, Jan. 19, 2004