Analysis The Center Can Hold Top Story

Where Is the Party of Middle America?

The largest group of Americans aren’t Democrats or Republicans, but neither.

United States Capitol Washington
Workers clean the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington DC in the early morning of January 8, 2021 (Victoria Pickering)

59 percent of Americans believe Democrats will “open the US-Mexico border” if they win the election on Tuesday. 53 percent worry they will cut police funding.

They won’t. Nor will they step up border enforcement or raise police budgets, and they should: illegal border crossings and violent crime are rising. But only far-left extremists believe in open borders and defunding the police. Few have been nominated by Democrats. Even fewer will win elections.

The other half of the country sees Republicans as the extremists: 56 percent believe a Republican Congress would ban abortion and overturn democratic elections.

There is more justification for those beliefs. Many Republican candidates support a federal ban on abortion. Many were complicit or silent when Donald Trump tried to steal the 2020 election. But the party is divided on both questions.

More than anything, the results of the CBS poll reveal that Democrats and Republicans believe the worst about each other.

What about the 40 percent of Americans who identify with neither party?

Middle America is exhausted

Not all self-described “independents” are centrists. Most vote consistently for one party or the other. When they change parties, it’s often permanent. The suburban moms and college graduates who left the Republican Party when it nominated Trump in 2016 voted Democratic again in 2018 and 2020. The unemployed and working men from union families who left the Democratic Party to vote for Trump have so far stayed loyal to the Republican Party.

At the same time, the share of independents is rising with every generation. Only a third of boomers call themselves independent. 52 percent of millennials do.

There is an “exhausted majority” of moderates and nonvoters, who are fed up with the polarization and vilification of the shouting classes. They don’t agree on all the issues, but they want to believe there is still more that unites Americans than divides them.

Largest group trusts neither party

Most Americans know Trump is an extremist, but they don’t think calling all of his supporters “semi-fascists,” like President Joe Biden did, is wise.

They don’t like Democrats’ softer line on crime, their indifference to homelessness and public drug use, and their inability to secure the border. They’re not impressed when the far left browbeats anyone who mentions these problems as “racist”. They also know that the same Republicans who promise to be “tough on crime” won’t do anything to control guns.

70 percent of Americans believe immigration is good for the country, but only 27 percent would increase it. A majority thinks too little is being done to prevent illegal immigration.

More Americans are pro-choice than pro-life, but a majority would restrict abortion after three months of pregnancy. (Similar to laws in Europe.)

Most support an all-of-the-above energy policy, including natural gas (which is less polluting than coal and oil) and nuclear (which emits no greenhouse gasses).

On most issues — climate change, crime, energy — the largest group of Americans, ranging from 35 to 38 percent, trusts neither party. Democrats hold a mild advantage on health care and gun violence, Republicans on the economy and immigration. Many Americans voting on Tuesday will feel they’re choosing the lesser of two evils.

Weak parties, and only two

Politics doesn’t have to be this way. In most European democracies, voters have higher trust in their political system, and they are more likely to vote on issues, and change their vote depending on issues, than Americans.

That’s because they can: they have more than two parties to choose from.

Longtime readers know I blame the two-party system for America’s polarization. It has conditioned Americans to think there are (only) two solutions to every problem. It has allowed Americans to imagine their identity around a political party. That is toxic to the usual give-and-take of democratic politics. If you feel every concession is an attack on your person, you’re not going to reward politicians who compromise.

The problem has got worse with gerrymandered congressional districts, closed primaries, the sorting of Democrats in cities, of religious and rural voters in the Republican Party, and the rise of partisan media.

Partisanship has become stronger, but political parties in the United States are weak. They don’t have paying members. Candidates may be endorsed but are not vetted by scouting committees or party elders.

Party leaders can be reluctant to use what power they do have: Trump was supported by a minority of Republican primary voters in 2016, yet few organized against him.

Tragedy

The tragedy, political scientist John Halpin argues, is that the best solutions often combine conservative and progressive elements.

Tony Blair, the three-time British prime minister and last Labour Party leader who won an election, understood that the left needs to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Democrats and Republicans? Not so much:

You rarely hear any Democratic politician say, “If you commit a violent crime, you’re going to jail for a long time.” Likewise, you rarely hear any Republican say, “We need to fight concentrated poverty and drug addiction in our cities to help reduce crime.” Democrats talk vaguely about reducing gun violence and Republicans talk vaguely about law and order and not much else.

Americans support legal immigration, but Democrats will do little against illegal immigration while Republicans, under Trump, have become opposed to immigration altogether.

The best health-care program would combine Republican-endorsed competition, between insurers and health providers, with a Democratic guarantee of health care for all. Americans can have either choice, from Republicans, or accessibility and affordability, from Democrats.

The best climate and energy program would use market mechanisms to clean up energy generation, industry and transportation. Instead, Americans must choose between Democratic subsidies and taxes and Republican global warming denial.

What can be done?

There are many ways to end the American duopoly: multi-member congressional districts, ranked voting and French-style runoffs would allow third parties to thrive without playing spoiler and encourage politicians to appeal to the center rather than the extremes.

I would also shift power to where Americans live. Convert Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands and the Pacific territories into states. That would give Democrats more votes in the Senate. Turn cities from single-member, Democratic-held districts into multi-member congressional districts. That would add big-city Republicans to the House. The Electoral College should be abolished — or expanded by giving populous states more votes.

If these ideas seem far-fetched, consider the alternative: moderating the two parties from within.

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