Robert A. Levine 8-19-14
Polls over the last two decades show that the percentage of the electorate calling themselves independent, moderate, or centrist generally runs about 40%. However, in some states, such as Massachusetts and Alaska, 53% of their citizens are unaffiliated with any political party. It also appears that the number of independent voters may be growing, given the disgust the populace feels for the current parties and the dysfunction in Washington. In a national Gallop poll last year 42% of voters self-labeled themselves as independent. These numbers do not include those individuals who are registered Republicans or Democrats and consider themselves moderate or centrist in orientation.
Given the fact that such a large percentage of Americans belong to the category of moderate, independent, or centrist, why aren’t their voices being heard in Washington and why do they have such minimal representation in Congress and state legislative bodies? And why hasn’t a national centrist third party arisen to provide moderates and independents with a voice, since recent polls have shown that a plurality of citizens would support such a party?
Perhaps moderate citizens are so fed up with the political process, with its corruption and partisanship, that they have abandoned their rights to the franchise and refuse to participate in what they see as a sham. Third party movements in the past have been successful in elections in individual states and regions, but have never gained enough traction with voters to be perpetuated or spread nationally. Those national third parties that did receive significant percentages of the vote were usually driven by a specific individual or idea, and fell by the wayside when that individual left the playing field or the idea lost its appeal. (For example, the Reform Party, Bull Moose Party, Progressive Party, Know-Nothings, Greenback Party, and so forth)
Though the problem of moderate under-representation in politics is endemic in the United States, it is seen universally in democracies around the world. Those who are more extreme and partisan in their political views tend to have power that is disproportionate to their numbers because they are more driven activists.
In the United States, there are a number of reasons why moderates and independents have been unable to manifest the political strength commensurate with their numbers. First of all, a duopoly of power by the Republicans and Democrats has colluded to obstruct the creation of a viable centrist third party on both state and federal levels. This includes various legislative tactics that make it as difficult as possible for third parties to get onto the ballot.
Secondly, closed primaries in most states don’t allow independents to vote for candidates unless they are registered members of that party prior to the primary. Party members who are willing to spend the time and effort to vote in the primaries are often those who have the most extreme positions and partisan views, with moderate party constituents disillusioned with the politics and neglecting to vote in the primaries. (It is difficult to excite prospective voters with slogans that emphasize pragmatism and compromise instead of red-blooded take no prisoners approaches to governing.) Thus the party’s nominees are more likely to be far left or right-wingers than moderate centrists.
Gerrymandering also plays a role in curbing the power of moderates. The aim of the state governments under one party’s control is to make certain districts safe for their party’s nominees for Congress and the state legislatures, by loading these districts with probable supporters and cutting out opponents. However, it also makes the nominees less likely to be moderate as there is no need for them to appeal to centrists, independents or members of the opposition party in order to get elected, as the political deck is stacked for them.
So the dysfunction in Washington (and many states) continues, with moderate centrist members of the two established parties a dying breed that will soon be completely extinct. Mobilizing the passive moderate middle to become activists and make our democracy functional again seems to be an overwhelming task, either through participation in the current parties or the creation of new centrist party. In fact, the chances for the formation of a national centrist third party appear to be slim to none, unless a charismatic figure with deep pockets comes along who is willing to take the plunge. Our democracy is in dire straits with no easy or straight-forward answers to turn the political process around.