Bipolar Politics: The Beginning and End of the Two-Party System

Modern American society is built on the twin concepts of “democracy” and “freedom.” But if we truly believe in democracy and freedom, then we have no alternative but to get rid of the archaic laws that force us to vote for only one candidate.

Bipolar Politics 

Do you enjoy being forced to choose between one of two candidates?

Now, you may say, "There are other candidates on the ballot." But you are unlikely to vote for any of them. Why? Because you don't want to throw your vote away. Why do you feel like you’re throwing your vote away by voting for one of these other candidates? The main reason has nothing to do with money, TV exposure, a conspiracy, or anything of the kind. It has to do with one thing only: the fact that you are legally required to vote for one candidate and one candidate only.

Like two candidates? Go ahead and try voting for both of them—your vote will be thrown out. It will be considered “spoiled,” an “overvote.” And this small law, enshrined in the legal code of every state in the US, is the primary reason why we have a de facto two-party system at every level of US politics, from the town to Federal level.

Plurality Elections

Plurality elections are elections where the winner simply receives the most votes. At first glance, this system almost makes sense. Shouldn't the person with the most votes win? Yes, but not if voters are forced to vote for only one candidate.

Todd Akin, the disgraced Congressman from Missouri who made the comment about "legitimate rape,” won the Republican primary for Senator with only 36% of the vote. But the second-place candidate had 30% and the third-place candidate had 29.2%. Now, do you think these near-60% of voters who voted for the second- and third-place candidates may have preferred either one of them to Akin? We'll never know, because their preferences for anyone other than the single candidate they chose weren't taken into consideration.

However, it is likely that if these voters were allowed to vote for more than one candidate, then many of them would have also voted for someone else and not Akin--meaning that the second- or third-place candidate might have won, having had broader overall support amongst voters.

Another example: Mitt Romney built up enough early “momentum” to win the Republican presidential primary by winning most or all of the delegates from New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio, even though his percentage of votes from those states was, respectively: 39%, 46%, 35%, 47%, 41%, and 38%.

Was Mitt Romney the most broadly supported candidate amongst Republican voters? We'll never know.

When voters are forced to vote for only one candidate, similar candidates are likely to “split” votes, meaning that candidates with less broad overall support can win.

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I get why plurality elections are stupid, but what about requiring a majority (more than 50% of the vote)? Doesn't that solve our problems?”

Runoff Elections

A commonly proposed remedy for a situation where no candidate receives a majority of votes is to hold a “runoff” election between the top two finishers. But this also poses problems. In some cases, a candidate who would beat all rivals head-to-head fails to advance to the runoff. This means the so-called “majority winner” of a runoff election is not necessarily the candidate with the broadest overall support. Take a look at this example:

35% Liberal > Moderate > Conservative
33% Conservative > Moderate > Liberal
32% Moderate > Liberal > Conservative

In this case, although it seems counterintuitive, the Liberal and Conservative candidate would advance to the runoff, even though the Moderate candidate would beat both in a head-to-head contest.

The Fiction of the Majority

Here’s another example:

Choose one:
- Hitler
- Stalin

In this case, where there are two candidates on the ballot, unless we have an exact tie we are mathematically guaranteed to produce a majority winner. But just because voters may prefer one of these candidates over the other does not mean that voters actually support that candidate.

This is the fiction of the majority. It is a complete mathematical fabrication that makes it seem like the winning candidate has the support of more than half of the voters. In reality, voters may not support either of these candidates but may feel obligated to vote for “the lesser of two evils.”

The Solution: Approval Voting

So what can be done? The answer is simple--so simple that even a child could understand it. We need to remove the restriction that forces you to vote for only one candidate. Ballots could now read, "Vote for any and all candidates that you wish." This is called Approval Voting.

If you support only one candidate, that's fine too. But now voters who support more than one candidate will no longer be forced to arbitrarily vote for only one.

Why is this so beneficial? Imagine you are a progressive who supports the Green Party candidate for president. You may not love Barack Obama, but let’s say you definitely prefer him over Romney. Because you are currently forced to vote for only one candidate, you are likely to vote for Obama and not the Green Party candidate because you don't want to waste your vote on someone you don’t think can win--you want to make sure your preference for Obama over Romney is counted.

Our current laws encourage you to vote strategically, giving your one and only vote to the candidate you think is more likely to win, not the candidate you most want to win.

But if you are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, you can vote for both the Green Party candidate and Obama (if you so choose). And the votes are still counted like before--the candidate with the most votes wins. Now, however, you can vote for any and all candidates that you support. You can give an honest vote to your favorite candidate, in this case, the Green Party candidate. And you can support Obama over Romney, just like before.

Of course, this reasoning works just as well regardless of your political views. Say you are a Libertarian or Tea Party supporter who does not love Romney but prefers him over Obama. You are now free to vote for your favorite candidate and Romney (if you so choose), ensuring that your vote benefits the candidates you like while also registering as a vote 'against' candidates you dislike.

The true advantage of Approval Voting is that it significantly diminishes strategic voting. Because you are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, there is no longer a near-guarantee that only one of the two “front runners” will win, freeing you up to vote honestly for any and all candidates you support. Say you hate both Obama and Romney equally: you can now feel excited about voting for another candidate, since you know that he has a chance to win if enough other voters--who now feel free to vote for him in addition to Obama or Romney--support him as well.

Once we are no longer forced to vote for only one candidate, the candidate with the broadest overall support will win.

Even Better: Score Voting

Let's say Approval Voting feels a little “funny” to you. “I get it,” you might say, “but it seems weird to vote for two candidates when I don't feel exactly the same about both of them. Let’s say I'd give one of them a 10/10 and the other a 7/10. I support both--and I hate the other candidates, but I'd like to be able to distinguish between the two.”

You have just made the ideal argument for Score Voting, a simple voting method where you give each candidate a score, say from 0-10, and the candidate with the highest total score wins. It's basic arithmetic. Most importantly, Score Voting guarantees that the winning candidate has the broadest overall support. It's even better than Approval Voting, because now voters can further distinguish between multiple candidates that they support (and do not support).

The End of Bipolar Politics: What Must Be Done Now

In summary, Approval Voting means simply voting for any and all candidates that you wish. Score Voting means simply scoring any and all candidates that you wish. In Approval Voting the candidate with the most votes wins. In Score Voting the candidate with the highest total score wins. Both of these simple solutions are only possible if we stop forcing voters to vote for only one candidate.

We live in a world where people have subtle opinions about many things, from politicians to restaurants to apps to movies. When companies like Zagat wish to score the best restaurants in New York City, they do not force voters to pick only one they like and ignore all the rest; they let people vote for (or give a score to) any and all restaurants that they wish. This is how companies such as Zagat,, Yelp, IMDb, and the Apple App Store help us select the best from amongst multiple options.

This is not a complicated solution for politics. It requires only one thing to get started: voters must understand that the reason we have a de facto two-party system in the US is because we are forced to vote for only one candidate. Once that law is changed, we will no longer be slaves to “bipolar politics,” forced to choose between the lesser of two evils for fear of wasting our one and only vote. We will now be free to express our preferences honestly about any and all candidates on the ballot.

Modern American society is built on the twin concepts of “democracy” and “freedom.” But feeling forced to choose between two candidates is often not a huge step up from having no choice at all. If we truly believe in democracy and freedom, and wish to do more than merely talk about them theoretically, then we have no alternative but to get rid of these archaic laws that force us to vote for only one candidate.


New York University's Steven Brams explains how approval voting works:


Eric Sanders is a New York City-based screenwriter, playwright, and producer who has been active in the voting reform movement since 2005. He is a Board Member of The Center for Election Science, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to election-related scholarship. 

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.