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Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
American voters have been trying to tell political parties and elected officials what they want, and perhaps more importantly, what they don’t want. The question remains, will they ever listen? Will things ever change?
The Gallup poll has been asking voters the following question for at least once a month since 2004: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?” In December, they found that 42 percent of respondents consider themselves independents while 26 percent consider themselves Republicans, and 30 percent consider themselves Democrats.
Gallup notes this reflects a “broader trend toward an increasing share of political independents [that] has been clear over the past decade. At least 4 in 10 Americans have considered themselves independents in all years since 2011, except for the 2016 and 2020 presidential election years. Before 2011, independent identification had never reached 40 percent.”
While reviewing the historical data, I found that the highest percentage of those who consider themselves independent was in late January and early February of last year — a post-Jan. 6 effect? — with an eye-popping 50 percent.
Gallup then asked those who identified as independent to pick which of the two main parties they leaned toward more. On average, 8 percent identified as not leaning either way while 17 percent said they leaned Democrat and 16 percent leaned Republican. Political scientists consider the independents who responded with an ambivalent party preference as “leaners.” Leaners consistently vote for their political party at almost the same rates as people who answered Democrat or Republican to the first question. But these leaners are only that, they lean toward one of the two parties. It is important to recognize that they do not want to identify themselves with either party, nor do they want to pledge their loyalty to either party.
The election results of 2020 seem to coincide with the above data. Joe Biden won the presidency at a time when there was significant ticket splitting down ballot. In other words, voters may have voted for the Democratic candidate for president and voted for Republican candidates in other statewide and local races.
So what should we make of the fact that more voters identify themselves as independents than as Democrats or Republicans?
Americans appear to be unhappy with both political parties, and it is hurting our democracy.
The trend of voters who do not want to identify with one of the two political poles may suggest that there is a rejection of the nation’s bitter political polarization. Or voters view the two political parties through the lens of their extremes. Voters who lean Democratic may not want to identify with the overly woke progressives. Voters who lean Republican may not want to associate with conspiracy-theory-driven folks.
A recent NBC news poll has some more harsh statistics: 72 percent of Americans “say the country is headed in the wrong direction;” 70 percent “agree with the statement that America has become so polarized that it can no longer solve the major issues facing the country — and that those differences will only continue to grow;” and a whopping 76 percent of Americans believe there is “a threat to democracy and majority rule in this country.”
In his book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America,” political scientist Lee Drutman describes how “the two-party system is breaking our democracy, and driving us all crazy.” Drutman wrote the following in 2020, before the election: “As the stakes rise, the fighting toughens, it becomes harder to agree on what’s fair. Disputes divide the country further. Meanwhile, little gets done. … The parties double-down on the national identity questions that divide them, raising the stakes further yet.” This self-feeding loop results in “recycling the toxicity back into the system.”
Have no fear, Drutman goes on to describe the way this loop can be broken: a multiparty democracy in America. He also shares the steps needed to reform our electoral system to make that happen. A few of the steps in Drutman’s solution include ranked-choice voting, eliminating congressional primaries, and increasing the size of the House of Representatives.
America used to have four factions within the named two-party system. The four factions were: liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans. These factions broke up in the 1990s, and we’ve been barreling toward increasing dysfunction ever since, where moderates no longer have a voice.
Drutman offers hope, provided we don’t wait too long. He proposes steps that can be taken to heal our fractured democracy. It is time that the 42 percent start demanding representation and reform.