The United States is one of the few Western democracies that has retained a two-party system for much of its history. Sure, the names of the parties have changed from time to time and the political values espoused by the major parties are often unrecognizable from what they were generations ago, but the occasional flurries of interest in third parties have invariably crashed and burned. We're witnessing another one of those periods of pressure on the two-party system now and one wonders if this time the results might be different.
Of course, there were zero political parties at the time of our nation's founding, in large part due to the vocal and fervent opposition to parties that was espoused by none other than George Washington. Washington famously wrote that political parties "serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community" and so concluded that "they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."
Alas, those sentiments disappeared quickly with Washington's retirement from public life and we soon had Federalists arguing with Democratic-Republicans who were arguing with Whigs. But aside from brief flashes of relevance from the Populist Party, Socialist Party, Libertarian Party, Green Party and of course Independent Party, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have held down their duopoly in American electoral politics since the mid-1800s.
Rasmussen Reports, a national polling organization that is a consistently accurate predictor of U.S. election outcomes, reported this morning that the number of adults not affiliated with either major party increased by 1.6% in April. More specifically, the number identifying themselves as Republicans decreased 1.3% (to the lowest level for Republicans since July 2008) while the number of Democrats remained relatively constant. With this latest shift in the body politic, the percentage of adults identifying themselves as Democrats is now at 36.0% and the number of Republicans at 31.6%, while 32.5% say they are not affiliated with either major party. This unaffiliated number is at the highest level in six years -- other than a couple of months in mid-2007 -- and if it hits 33%, we will be in unchartered waters for U.S. political party affiliation.
It's naive to try to identify all of the contributing factors that have brought us to this point, but it's clear that American voters have never been more dissastisfied with how they are being represented by their elected officials. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed public approval of the job Congress is doing at a shocking low of 17% and even the most generous Gallup polling data shows both parties' Congressional delegations being viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of voters. Meanwhile, President Obama himself continues to struggle with his job approval ratings, which are still hovering right around 50 percent.
Moreover, it has been interesting to witness the virtual disappearance of a "middle" among elected officials at all levels of American government. Democrats who are pro-life are targeted in primary campaigns by liberal activist groups and their colleagues in the party who are viewed as too militant are likewise pressured by anti-war factions within the party. Republicans who are pro-choice have bullseyes painted on their backs by certain political action committees and those in the party who failed to oppose government spending programs during the economic crisis are now being systematically cut down by the burgeoning Tea Party movement. The result is that -- with occasional exceptions, such as Ben Nelson (D) and Susan Collins (R) in the Senate, Bart Stupak (D) and Joseph Cao (R) in the House -- there is no longer much of a middle remaining in Washington.
Against this backdrop, in recent years we saw Sen. Joe Lieberman leave the Democratic Party in primary season for not being liberal enough on foreign policy issues and Sen. Arlen Specter leave the Republican Party ahead of primary season for not being conservative enough on economic issues; these party switches illustrated that moderate voices are not terribly welcome in either major party right now. And this week, another shocker . . . were it not all so consistent. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a favorite of Republican voters and donors -- who was a leading candidate for the GOP presidential ticket as recently as two years ago -- announced that he will withdraw from the Republican Party and run for the U.S. Senate as an unaffiliated candidate. Many Republican Party officials dismissed this move as nothing more than a calculated political move by Crist, when he realized that he had no chance to defeat Marco Rubio (the candidate preferred by the conservative base of the Party) in the primary election. That is undoubtedly true -- at least in part -- but regardless of Crist's motive, this much is clear: another moderate candidate has discovered there is no place for him in one of the major political parties right now.
The lesson of U.S. history is that the two-party system is put under pressure when the major parties move into opposite corners and appear to be less interested in listening to voters who don't carry their banners in the streets. It's what elevated William Jennings Bryan as a Populist (although he remained a Democrat), Theodore Roosevelt as a Progressive (returned as a Republican), George Wallace as an Independent (went back to the GOP), and of course the serious and ultimately bizarre third-party run at the U.S. presidency that was made by Ross Perot in 1992.
By the way, for those who are inclined to see politics as globally interdependent, it's worth noting that another democracy in which the highest elective offices are typically the domain of just two major parties is also experiencing a similar phenomenon right now. In Great Britain, where the Labour Party and the Conservative Party compete for control of Parliament (and therefore the Prime Minister job) at each national election, the race has been turned upside down this year with the emergence of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. Clegg is unlikely to become the next Prime Minister, but his meteoric rise in the polls is likely to have a profound influence on the upcoming election and it also has many British political scientists speculating that the British political landscape has been permanently changed by the national relevance of a third major party.
Time will tell whether the 2010 surge in the number of American voters who do not affiliate with either major political party is yet another American flirtation with a possible emergence of a third party, or just a large audience of independent voters for Democrats and Republicans to court in elections. Either way, if political power in a representative democracy resides in the hands of the voters, right now the group with the ultimate power to swing election outcomes is the one that apparently has no loyalty to the two-party system.