Our deep dive on polarization last month showed how America’s politicians are more divided than voters. While division in Congress is at the highest level since Reconstruction, the ideological balance of Americans shows little change during the last forty years. The majority of us favor a middle ground between the two parties. Unfortunately, our politicians and media frame everything as left vs. right or Democrats vs. Republicans, even though 40% of voters don’t identify with either party. The result is increasing voter dissatisfaction and political disengagement (36% of eligible voters, 88 million people, are not even registered to vote), which further increases the partisanship. Perhaps it’s time for a strong middle ground third party or more Independent candidates?
The terms left and right originated early in the French Revolution and referred to legislative seating arrangements where the aristocracy sat on the right and the commoners on the left. According to Wikipedia, political scientists have frequently noted that a single left-right axis is insufficient for describing political beliefs and often include other axes. The most common approach is to separate economic and social dimensions where the horizontal left-right axis defines economic views and the vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis defines social views. See where you fall using this quadrant approach on the Political Compass, the Nolan Chart and the Political Spectrum Quiz. You can also see where members of the political parties fall, learn how states compare on each of the four dimensions, and run your own demographic comparisons. Not surprisingly, a majority of people end up toward the middle.
According to the National Center for Constitutional Studies, our founding fathers viewed the political spectrum differently. Their goal was to discover the “balanced center” between anarchy with no government, law or systematic control and tyranny with too much government, control and political oppression. Their system of “People’s Law” was designed to maintain security, justice, and good order, but not enough to abuse the people. The checks and balances were to keep government from moving to the left or right along the political spectrum – “vibrating between too much and too little government”, according to Jefferson. Although the founders were not against political parties, or “factions” as they called them, and didn’t address them in the constitution, they warned about the dangers of political influence exercised by unelected people leading to party-oriented contests like we have today.
How then did our two political parties gain such a stranglehold on American politics? Simple. Republican and Democratic controlled state legislatures took control of who gets on the ballot in the late 1800’s, essentially forcing voters into a two-party duopoly. Even if a third party can get on all the necessary ballots, our “first past the post” electoral approach renders them to the role of “spoiler”, since all the energy tends to go toward the two existing parties. For a third party to break through it has to appear as popular as either of the two existing parties, which has never happened (George Washington is the only U.S. President elected as an Independent, since he had no formal party affiliation).
Although Vox reports that a recent Gallup poll shows 68% of Americans currently like the idea of a third party, getting people to agree on what that party looks like is not that simple. Vox conducted a voter survey to find out where a third party might fit – 11% of those surveyed want a party more liberal than the Democrats, 17% want a party more conservative than the Republicans, and 22% want a party more centrist than the two existing parties. Of course, responding to an abstract third party is different than responding to a candidate. A strong charismatic independent or third-party candidate could conceivably garner enough support and enthusiasm in any given election.
Despite the fact that 2/3 of Americans want more choice and 1/3 think neither party represents them very well, the two parties maintain strong footing very difficult to change. Plus, equally distributed dissatisfaction and frustration among liberals, centrists and conservatives, creates a kind of equilibrium that’s not likely to topple in one direction or the other unless there’s a jolt issue that reorders the political landscape. The better option might be electoral reforms, such as proportional voting, that reflect the diversity of opinion in the American public. Regardless, the current level of voter dissatisfaction clearly indicates our current system might not be sustainable. What do you think?
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