Nationally, a plurality of voters don't belong to a political party. That doesn't mean they are looking for middle ground, or a new party. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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There’s a persistent notion that America’s two major political parties – the Democrats and Republicans – are too far apart ideologically and that another group should fill the gap.

Several prominent politicians and would-be politicians are again launching an effort to create a third major party, simply called “Forward.”

There’s a major problem with these efforts, and it’s likely why past efforts at middle-of-the-road third parties have failed in the recent past: They are based on a false assumption that “independent” voters actually exist.

To be clear, most Americans are fed up with what is happening in Washington, D.C. As the founders of Forward note, 80 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. But, there are likely hundreds of reasons – many of them contradictory – that Americans feel this way.

Many people who are fed up with Democrats feel that President Joe Biden and many Democratic members of Congress are too moderate, or at least not aggressive enough in pushing their agenda, even in the face of Republican opposition. These people want action on climate change. They want a woman’s bodily autonomy protected. Some want higher wages and better paid leave policies. Some want universal health care. These things, by the way, are generally popular with most Americans, regardless of their party affiliation. I should also note that Maine has made progress on many of these issues with Democrats in charge in Augusta and that Democrats in Congress have unsuccessfully pushed for many of these things too.

These voters aren’t looking for Democrats to be more “in the middle.”

Likewise, some conservatives believe that the Republican Party is too moderate. They want lower taxes and a border wall. Some want a national ban on abortion and same-sex marriage to be illegal. (To be fair, this is what the national GOP platform basically says, but they haven’t turned it into reality yet). Some are even ready for armed conflict if their priorities aren’t met.

These people aren’t likely to make common cause with the disenfranchised Democrats who feel their party is too timid.

Yet, those who register to vote as “independents” or unenrolled, are the largest voting bloc in the U.S., and their numbers have been growing. Unenrolled voters outnumbered registered Democrats and Republicans in Maine for years, but Democrats currently have the edge in registered voters.

So, what does it mean to be “independent”? It doesn’t necessarily mean that a voter is middle of the road and not aligned with either major party. Studies have found that three-quarters of independent voters are aligned with either the Republican or Democratic Party, which is part of the reason that despite a plethora of independent candidates, party nominees are typically the winners of elections.

But, given the negative connotations associated with both parties – and their heightened bickering — voters don’t want to acknowledge their party leanings.

 “They’re not actually changing their views on politics,” Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona and co-author of the book “Independent Politics,” told FiveThirtyEight last year. “[Independents] are simply recusing themselves from publicly identifying themselves as a partisan.”

It isn’t what voters call themselves that is the problem with our politics. It is a whole host of things, many of which like campaign finance and redistricting, the Supreme Court has made harder to fix.

It is the vast amount of money spent by powerful individuals and interest groups to influence elections. It is the time candidates spend and the contortions they perform to secure some of that money.

It includes the filibuster, which Republicans — currently the minority party in the U.S. Senate — have used to stop action on a host of important issues in recent years.

It is partisan gerrymandering, which has allowed parties to configure electoral districts to their advantage.

There is a new threat, an outgrowth of former President Donald Trump’s persistent lies that he won the 2020 election: Attempts to install hyperpartisans in positions, such as election clerks and secretaries of state, that control elections. Several 2020 election result deniers won primaries earlier this week.

And, there is the growing nastiness of politics in general. A small subset of voters is increasingly hostile toward politicians and policies they don’t like. They don’t shy away from harassing and threatening public officials. This likely discourages qualified, innovative people from running for office at a time when we need new ideas and new energy.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it shows where reformers should devote their attention if they want to change our national political climate. Creating a third party isn’t the answer.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.