The major American political parties are in crisis. The proportion of American voters who register as independents has reached 40 percent, rising about 10 percentage points since 2000. A few months ago, unaffiliated voters surpassed Republicans in North Carolina and are quickly gaining ground on the Democrats — that party is actually losing registrants as the state’s population grows. The approval ratings of the two parties have cratered and both are far below water — a sizeable majority of Americans now view each unfavorably. In 2016, the Republicans picked a nominal member for president, the Democrats almost selected a non-member.
This should be a good moment for Republicans. They hold the White House and have majorities in the House and Senate but, as demonstrated by the Obamacare repeal and replace debacle, can’t seem to get anything of significance done. The party might also be on the verge of civil war, as a number of Senate incumbents face insurgent primary challengers supported by Steve Bannon and encouraged by the success of Roy Moore in Alabama.
The Democrats ought to be ready to take advantage. Yet they too are a shambles, torn over policy and strategy. The most strident voices call for the party to continue pursuing identity politics, an approach that’s rapidly eroding the core of their dominant New Deal coalition, the white working class.
The reasons for the parties’ difficulties are diverse and deep. But they seem driven largely by a virulent rejection of the institutions of 20th century America. It’s a reaction that’s perhaps making the 21st century one of fear and uncertainty.
There are many such institutions, and they are in retreat. NATO, which did so much to manage and then win the Cold War, now seems superfluous. The conventional nuclear family has been ripped apart by financial necessity and social changes. “Bourgeois” values such as individual responsibility and hard work are demeaned as racist hate speech in higher education and media circles. The pews of mainline Protestant churches, whose congregants led the country to the pinnacle of world power, are empty.
Our military and veterans are viewed as a kind of boorish elderly live-in relative. They may have done a lot of valuable things in the past, but now they’re just expensive and embarrass us in front of friends — what with all that flag-waving and national anthem stuff. As for the police, they have become enemy No. 1, and not least among elites who live cloistered lives where the protection of law enforcement is normally unneeded. When you think of America like this, it becomes clear the parties are simply another family heirloom that has been trashed.
Just like Aunt Mary’s cracked Waterford crystal vase, they aren’t easily replaced. Plausible alternatives are neither practical nor desirable. One is that a major new party or parties will emerge. But the electoral system remains inhospitable — there’s little immediate prospect of reforming campaign finance, ballot access, and voting rules — and the public is wary. In 2016 candidates not named Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton got only 6 percent of the vote. No Labels, a group committed to the appealing notions of “bipartisanship” and “problem solving,” which many see as a prototype for a centrist third party, has little to show for its work.
A second, sort of “partyless” politics could plausibly work only at the presidential level, where an independent individual with a personal power base campaigns and governs outside of the existing system. Funny enough, we’re experimenting a bit with that now. I’d argue that it doesn’t work and, whether because Trump conforms or is not re-elected in 2020, will not last.
So might we get our party system back? For many that can only happen if the process of ideological polarization, such a feature of today’s politics, is reversed. Divergent policy positions are not inherently damaging, however. They can give voters meaningful choices and energize public debate.
The problem is we no longer enjoy a party politics where combatants argue over policy using a shared set of values. So, unlike much of the post-war period when Democrats emphasized equality and Republicans liberty within the confines of the country’s founding principles and a joint commitment to its collective success, many partisans today are staking positions outside this terrain. Allegiances are to groups other than country and its traditional components, such as church and family. Core individual economic and political freedoms and established democratic practices enshrined in the Constitution are no longer respected.
And therein lies the parties’ problem. They are unappreciated because we have rejected the foundational values on which they and the other institutions that made this country the envy of the world were built. It’s not so much them as it is us.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.