Americans are generally forced to come down on the side of either Democrats or Republicans when voting. However, a large number of us don’t strongly identify with either party and have a more complex relationship with politics and government. Most of our identities are not tied to politics; but, increasingly, politics is lurking behind the identities important to us – family, religion, gender, race, region, etc. And those identities are becoming more tribal and sorting to one of the major parties. For instance, being a regular churchgoer or being secular didn’t predict party affiliation twenty years ago, whereas today it does.
Increasingly tribal and sorted Americans are also creating more division within the parties… the pragmatic left-of-center Democratic establishment vs. the populist left liberals and the pragmatic right-of-center Republicans vs. the populist right conservatives being the most talked about. Pew Research finds nine distinct political ideologies based on values, attitudes and party affiliation. Each party coalition consists of four distinct groups. There is also one group of “Bystanders”, who are young, mostly minority, not registered to vote and not really interested in politics or government. Although these nine ideologies aren’t new, divisions between them are changing.
The largest group in American politics are “Independents”, representing about 39% of the electorate, followed by Democrats at 32% and Republicans at 23%. However, 44% of “Independents” lean toward the Democratic party and 41% lean toward the Republicans (political scientists call them “closet partisans”). While these “closet partisans” reliably vote for their favored party, they are less politically engaged, not warm toward the party they lean to and sit out elections more often. Can we blame them? No one likes being forced to choose between what feels like the lesser of two evils. Half of Millennials consider themselves “Independent”. Understandable in today’s highly partisan environment. So when forced, the Democratic and Democratic leaning total is 50% of the electorate and the Republican and Republican leaning total is 42%.
We’ve noted before that our political parties and media are dominated by the more extreme left and right activists and ideologies. Pew Research quantifies the phenomenon by showing that while the far left “Solid Liberals” and the far right “Core Conservatives” make up only 29% of the general public, they represent 45% of their respective parties’ voters and 45% of the politically engaged, giving them outsized influence.
Democrats and “Independents” voting Democratic agree on the social safety net core value of the party. They tend to agree on government responsibility for healthcare coverage and changes to give blacks equal rights with whites. Where the Democratic leaning groups differ is believing hard work determines success (“Solid Liberals” stand out on not believing this), how much government should regulate business (44% are skeptical of regulation) and whether we should focus on problems overseas (44% want less attention). The less affluent “Opportunity”, “Disaffected” and “Devout” Democrats feel government is “wasteful” and that voting doesn’t really give them a say in how things are run.
Republicans and “Independents” voting Republican for the most part agree with the smaller government, lower tax rates and fairness of the markets core value of the party, with the exception of the “Market Skeptics”, who want to raise corporate taxes and believe the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Most leaning Republicans agree government is unable to afford more help for the needy and blacks that can’t get ahead are responsible for their condition. The Republican leaning groups are divided by immigration (only 36% strongly think immigrants burden U.S.), global involvement (36% not really positive about global market expansion) and acceptance of homosexuality (only “Country First” strongly believe society should discourage).
Although there are significant differences between the four groups that generally vote Democratic, as well as between the four Republican groups, 92% of Americans reliably support one of the dominant parties, although voter turnout between the groups is wildly different (and generally what swings elections). The remaining “Independents” that don’t lean toward one of the two major parties, which includes an estimated 5% of the electorate considered “floating voters” (they’ve cast votes for both parties in the past), the .46% of registered voters who are Libertarian, and the slightly smaller Green and Constitution Party members, just aren’t enough of a force to motivate either party to become less partisan or adjust their ideologies. Americans really don’t have viable options beyond Blue or Red. Perhaps if we could motivate some of the 88 million Americans who aren’t registered to vote, we might create more choice.
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