In an NBC/WSJ poll earlier this year, only 1 in 10 adults agreed that the two-party system in this country was working fairly well.
This means that both parties are leaving a lot to be desired, according to voters, and many are coming to see the radical need for an alternative. In fact, 38% of respondents said the country needs a third party, the highest number who have said so since this poll began tracking the question in 1995.
And a third party that makes it its raison d’etre to represent the rest of the electorate might get a good look by voters in this environment.
Contributing to the need for an alternative party is the feeling that politics is dividing us up – and leaving a lot of us out. And the choices we’re usually left with, Republican or Democrat, aren’t good enough.
The immigration disconnect
Just take this example from one of the early Democratic primary debates in June, when candidates were asked whether they supported decriminalizing our borders –that is, repealing Section 1325 of Title 8 of the US Code, which makes crossing the border without official inspection a misdemeanor offense.
Nine of 10 hands shot up.
As of an August tally by Politico, 14 Democratic candidates, some of whom are no longer in the running, had supported decriminalizing the border. For many progressive voters, the idea likely seemed necessary. After all, President Donald Trump was using the statute to detain and separate asylum-seeking families at the border.
Dem Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted: “Border policy: As @JulianCastro mentioned in the #DemDebate, it’s time to repeal Section 1325 & 1326, the statutes this admin is using to mindlessly throw people in cages. We have to take these proceedings out of criminal code and into civil code. Torture accomplishes nothing.”
What made the moment astonishing for anyone remotely in touch with voters – or who had read recent polls – was that this idea was far outside the mainstream. What many saw as simply ending the mechanism to determine whether immigration was legal or illegal is not popular.
According to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll among registered voters conducted shortly after that debate, decriminalizing the border enjoyed a paltry 27% of support.
But this was a Democratic primary – the candidates were at least speaking to their base, right?
No. Only 45% of Democrats thought decriminalizing the border a good idea, versus 47% who didn’t. When broken down even further, only 34% of moderate Democrats supported it, while 58% did not. And those coveted independent voters? Only 24% of them were on board.
Here was a policy proposal supported wholly by at least 14 Democratic candidates for president, and in some part by others, that had been resoundingly rejected by the majority of America, and also the majority of their own voters.
What was going on here? What were Democrats thinking?
The politics of extremes
This is emblematic of our new politics of extremes. In recent years, ultra-progressive voices on the left and only the Trumpiest of positions on the right seem to be winning out, while more moderate voices in both parties are going extinct.
On the right, just look at the fates of Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican Senator forced into early retirement for his pushback against Trump, or Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican congressman whose centrist views within his party prompted him to resign before finishing his term, leaving his seat vacant. (Dent is now a CNN political commentator). And the pileup of Republican retirements grow almost by the day.
Over on the left, there is some unity in common cause against Trump, but Democrats are also eating their own. Ocasio-Cortez pushed her Queens predecessor, former Rep. Joe Crowley, out after 20 years in that seat. Voices like those in “the Squad” – Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ayanna Pressley – get far more attention than their moderate counterparts.
A so-called “alterna-squad,” a group of moderate Democratic congresswomen including Rep. Abigail Spanberger, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, Rep. Elissa Slotkin and Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, has far less recognizable names. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, none, for example, has been on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Meanwhile, as Democrats and Republicans swing for the extremes, millions and millions of Americans are left without real representation. The 2020 primary is elucidating that. A line I’ve heard over and over again from moderates and independents after a Democratic debate is something to the effect of, “Well I can’t vote for Trump, but I’m not with those guys, either.”
In preferring to quadruple down on their most ardent base supporters, the parties are missing a wide swath of voters in the middle who are turned off by both the style and the substance of their increasingly absolutist proposals and their insistence that “finding common ground” is for wimps and traitors. (Just ask Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden how well it went over when he called Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.”)
Despite the rancor and fire-breathing on both sides, most voters are somewhere in the middle on any host of issues, even the most “divisive.”
The silent middle majority
Take abortion. “[M]ore than half of US adults take a non-absolutist position,” according to Pew. Only 12% of voters say abortion should be illegal in all cases, and 27% say it should be legal in all cases. The rest of us – the majority – agree it should be legal but with restrictions.
Gun control is another issue in which the majority often goes unrepresented.
A number of gun control proposals enjoy wide bipartisan support, even among Republican voters. Polls show 72% support requiring background checks for private gun sales. And yet, the majority of Republican lawmakers refuse to even consider that widely popular measure. Shouldn’t those voters feel betrayed by that?
Immigration, though, perhaps best encapsulates the political parties’ willingness to ignore majority opinions, even inside their own parties.
While Democrats are clear on wanting a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants, and Republicans frequently say that they don’t, what neither seem to get is where they share common ground.
Believe it or not, a majority of Republicans (54%) believe there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in this country legally – a path to legal status – if they meet some requirements over time.
And as it turns out, that’s what undocumented immigrants seem to prioritize as well. If we’re to believe the naturalization rates following former President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty bill, by 2009 only about 41% of those legalized had become American citizens. More than citizenship, many immigrants want to be able to come out of the shadows and work here legally.
So why are we arguing over citizenship instead of passing legal-status legislation, which enjoys majority support and even Republican support?
Legislative solutions aren’t profitable
Here’s the easy answer to that and other head-scratching questions about who is actually representing us: Solving problems isn’t as politically profitable as keeping them broken.
Whether on immigration or gun crime, health care or climate, the two parties thrive when these issues remain broken. Democrats can fundraise off and run against xenophobic, gun-crazy, poor-hating, gas-guzzling Republicans, and Republicans do the same against open-border, gun-banning, wealth-redistributing, coal-killing Democrats.
Meanwhile, a majority of voters are left hanging with unsolved problems, somewhere in the middle of this never-ending scrum.
As much as it seems like Republican voters just want to “own the Libs,” and Democratic voters are happy being “the resistance,” it might surprise you to know that there are plenty who actually want cooperation between the parties.
Just after the 2018 midterm elections, in which Democrats took back the House, a full 46% of Democratic voters said they thought Democratic leaders in Congress should cooperate a great deal or a fair amount with Trump over the next two years.
Even more astonishingly, 77% of Republicans said Trump should cooperate with Democratic leaders in Congress.
All of which is to say that neither party seems all that concerned with where voters in the middle are on policy or tone. That’s likely only going to get worse.
A party by the middle and for the middle
A third party could fill this void. This party wouldn’t be ideological in nature, as those already exist. It wouldn’t take this position or that one, and it wouldn’t have a charter or a platform committing to a fixed value set. Its only commitment would be to represent and support the majority of moderates and independents on every issue, wherever they are.
For example, right now independents represent 38% of the electorate, including those who say they lean Democrat or lean Republican – a.k.a. moderates. According to Pew, a third party representing these voters right now would support gay marriage and legalizing marijuana, it would oppose building a wall along the US-Mexico border and oppose increasing tariffs between the US and trading partners, and it believes that some government regulation is necessary to protect public interest and that a smaller government providing fewer services is best.
That third party would also lean pro-abortion – keeping Roe v. Wade in place – but would add some restrictions as to when and under what circumstances abortions should be given.
It supports stricter gun laws, background checks on all gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons. It doesn’t, however, support a mandatory assault weapon buy back, and it believes mental illness is a bigger cause of mass shootings than the availability of guns.
It would support raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels and believes human activity is causing the climate to change.
In other words, it would represent the unaffiliated middle that isn’t on either extreme. There wouldn’t be any litmus or purity tests. It would support and run candidates who pledge to represent the middle, and not chase either party as they move further and further to the fringes. The party wouldn’t have to contort itself to defend its leadership, because it would be driven by voters themselves.
One of the benefits of this sort of party is that it can’t, by definition, attract demagogues, cult figures or egomaniacs. Campaigns are framed around voter polling, not personality or promises of pie-in-the-sky change that only a few are demanding. The only promise is to listen to you and legislate accordingly.
Naturally, the biggest hurdle to a viable third party is the parties themselves. Both hold enormous influence over the presidential elections, from managing donor lists to unleashing get-out-the-vote apparatus.
There’s also the debates. Since the 1987 Commission on Presidential Debates was formed, both parties have fought to keep third-party interlopers out of the televised events. Ross Perot only won his place on the 1992 debate stage because both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton demanded he be allowed to participate, both thinking they would benefit.
So long as the parties control the means of production, so to speak, third-party candidates will be seriously disadvantaged.
Finally, whether an alternative party in today’s age of personality politics is realistic is a question for another essay. But just imagining a third party that isn’t swayed by cable news hosts, preening politicians, special interests, that isn’t designed solely to enrich coffers and play to an ever-shrinking base, but exists simply to reflect the moderate majority lowers one’s blood pressure almost instantly.
Because let’s face it: the two-party system, in all its absolutisms, is leaving many of us without representation. And if America’s future is in the hands of these two parties alone for much longer, we’ll all be politically homeless eventually.