Over the past five decades we’ve seen our major national political campaigns emphasize more the individual candidate than the party platform. Consensus is that this really got rolling with the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. Historian James MacGregor Burns has made this the subject of his 2006 book Running Alone, Presidential Leadership, JFK to Bush II. It may not be immediately obvious, but this has significant implications for both our democracy and the political party system that has grown up within it over two hundred-plus years.
Not too many years ago, one voted for political parties—the Party Ticket—because most were convinced that the party stood, most clearly, for what we believed insofar as government and governing. Voters held the party responsibility to make good on its pledges. Yeah, candidates were a consideration, but it was primarily the party you voted for. This made the parties relatively strong, and responsible. Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect; didn’t always work that well.
Today some vestige of this remains, but more generally we’re offered-up multiple individual personalities of one persuasion or the other. They run a largely arms-length—and largely independently financed—campaign under the Party’s banner, and whoever is the last one standing at the end of a seemingly endless and usually “closed” primary process, the Party is stuck with them: “the peoples’ choices,” or at least some of the peoples’ choices. Today candidates are tails that wag the party-dog, largely influencing the party platforms, not the other way around. This tends to diminish both the party and more importantly its corporate sense of responsibility.
Parties of yore had a long-term unity of purpose, one beyond simply financing and winning elections, which of course is paramount. They aggregated the ideological preferences for very large portions of the electorate and arrived at consensus—seldom unanimous—under the big-tent. Parties instilled discipline in their candidates and confidence in their followers. Individuals “running alone” have a similar unity of purpose in winning elections, but not the same long term outlook. Winning, now, for them is all. In many instances it’s perhaps more personal in motivation than political in objective. They lack the party’s ability to professionally discipline and motivate.
So either way, at the polls, are we still voting for a governing philosophy, or simply for a governor? That’s a tough question for many, and the correct answer may surprise you: Today we‘re voting primarily for narrow ideological political supremacy, not for responsible government, defined as the greatest good for the greatest number, if that was ever truly the case. In their political struggles for electoral supremacy today’s parties are increasingly alienating huge blocs of America’s voters. The days of the Big-Tents are over. Ideological purity seems today the party standard. One, or possibly even both today, may be heading in the direction of minor-party status, believe it or not.
Today’s two major parties no longer satisfy the political temper of the vast majority of voters. Their “tents” never really made room for everyone, but between them they could boast representation of about 78 percent of the electorate. Today, that has shrunk to around 62 percent; even that figure probably doesn’t represent the true political dealignment. As a result, today non-party registered voters—political Independents, or those declining to name a party—are a plurality of voters. They represent more voters than either the Republicans or the Democrats! Acknowledged or not, we have three main political factions, not two.
So, if these Independents are not supporters of one party or the other, how are they voting today? (Are your ready for this?) Same way they always have, and there’s the Catch-22, or insanity, so to speak, of American electoral politics! Their options are (1) not to vote; (2) vote for third parties, or (3) continue voting for the parties they have apparently rejected. Not to vote is equivalent of disenfranchisement; voting for 3rd parties isn’t acceptable (because few if any take this route) and voting the parties they have abandoned is coercion, plain and simple—and the politicians know it. What a way to run a liberal democracy!
There is nothing inherently bad or evil about political parties that are highly ideological or single purpose in focus. These have been around forever in our political system, and serve a purpose. But history has demonstrated they do not, and cannot, attract a significant following exactly because they are so extreme in their missions. The difficulty with extremely ideological parties arises when these are not the secondary tier of parties, but our leading parties. When this occurs, our electorate in general has no place to turn, politically. One of only the three options mentioned above seems the extent of possibilities.
The vast majority of political Independents are not apolitical or nonpartisan. Ideologically they tend to be conservatives and/or liberals to some degree and, support them or not, politically they thus “lean” towards the parties that generally represent their basic socio-political preferences. Why do they continue to vote for parties they have disavowed? Quite simply because if they want to vote—and vote along the lines of those social & political inclinations—they have no other practical option, agree with that party’s agenda and political approach to governing or not. That, or opt for the individual—of whichever party—they believe to be the least-worst choice!
No doubt spurred-on by dealignment, this latter alternative has, unfortunately, been gaining favor; putting more faith in individual candidates rather than in the parties. But as the parties have attenuated, losing mostly the less ideological among them, they have lost the moderation-drag of the big-tents of the past in the run-up to federal elections today. In this, our democracy forfeits its ability to hold those we ultimately elect to ideological moderation at the polls: Highly partisan primaries put forward highly ideological candidates. These then, in order to succeed at General Elections, present themselves more as “moderates,” which in most cases is hard to believe. Does this make candidates good or bad? Not necessarily; it just makes them tend towards immoderation in governing. It makes them more concerned for an agenda favoring the minority that put forward and supported their candidacy than for the larger electorate that ultimately elected for them, although they may really believe that what’s good for their goose is good for the gander. That shouldn’t be hard to understand; its basic human nature. But that tends, in turn, to make government much less effective than it might (or should) be, for all of the people, at least most of the time. Most Americans tend to prefer moderation and tolerance, in most instances.
The emergence of political Independents has facilitated this shift from party to personality as the parties become more ideologically “pure.”Once past their highly partisan primaries, candidates know that to win they must capture a critical amount of soft-partisans and the Independent vote, those political leaners. The problem facing individual voters is that they can never be sure just where on the spectrum from left to right these “running alone” candidates really fall, or to whom they are beholden. We do know that once the polls close, those Independents whom meant so much in deciding the race are usually left out of any consideration of the winning candidate’s governing agenda.
Today our democracy demands a majority vote to produce government inclined primarily toward the benefit of a minority of voters. So, independents having lost confidence in the party to do right look to individual candidates. What do they look for? Probably for some indication that they can have confidence in the candidate; some indication that his/her protestations of moderation are more than just the usual campaign rhetoric. But in the end, in most cases, what they have to choose between is two (and only two) candidates much more ideological than they would prefer: pick the least-worst. As I say, what a way to run a democracy.
Some believe that change for the better here can occur from within, brought on by the parties themselves. Several have of late written in support this. Unfortunately, that’s highly unlikely; the status quo favors the status quo. Not until political Independents, and their sympathizers, have some genuine discernible political alternative to consider as they ponder their vote will real correction here be a possibility. Is it any wonder that for so long so many have felt like we are heading in the wrong direction; that America is on the wrong track?
We need a change!
Thomas Richard Harry