Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’”
by Bob Dylan, 1964
America is in turmoil for a lot of reasons – weather and natural disasters, economics and income inequality, crime and violence, and many more. But add to that, in every instance, there is a political component contributing to the madness. Debates over climate change, taxes and trickle-down economics, and gun control have fractionated the nation. Who we are as a country is no longer defined by the character and achievements of America’s people; it is the behaviors, proclamations, and policies of our politicians that dominate the news. Politics is a hydra, eliminate one head and two more appear, and voting the snakes out of office is time consuming and frustrating. We the people are unwittingly complicit. Most of us acquiesce to the two-party system. It’s all we’ve ever known. But the two-party system is in trouble … and should be.
The Representation Paradox
Since FDR, most people have identified with the Democratic Party. The Democrats also held the most political power until 1985. After a decade of flux, Republicans achieved parity in the number of political offices they held, even though more people still identified with the Democrats. That’s the representation paradox. As it is said, Republicans know how to win elections but can’t govern; Democrats know how to govern but can’t win elections.
Fareed Zakaria of CNN has claimed that “When you tally up their representation in Congress, state legislatures and governorships, the Democrats almost have their lowest representation in about 100 years” (6/10/2018). His assertion was verified by Politifact.
But those changes don’t coincide with Americans preferences for a political party. Preferences for the Democratic Party dropped almost ten percent from the mid-1980s until now.
The data in the second graph came from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Gallup organization. Since 2004, Gallup has conducted surveys of thousands of Americans at least every month. The surveys ask: in politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent? Independents were also asked: As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party? These results are actually different from official election registrations, which are controlled by individual States, and may be more reliable because of factors like closed primaries and political gaming.
Democrats currently make up around 30% of Gallop survey respondents. Democratic-Leaning Independents make up another 17% of respondents. Together, they represent about 47% of Americans.
These estimates fluctuate over time. The thin lines in the following graph show the variability in the monthly Gallup surveys. The smoother black lines are 2-year moving averages that show short-term trends. The percentage of survey respondents who identify themselves as Democrats appears to be decreasing in favor of Independents.
Fivethirtyeight suggests the changes may be attributable to diverse young urban populations whose more liberal attitudes are not well supported by traditional Democratic politicians.
Republicans currently make up around 27% of survey respondents. Republican-Leaning Independents make up another 15% of respondents. Together, they represent about 42% of Americans, still less than the Democrats’ 47%. And while the percentage of self-identified Republicans appears to be decreasing, the percentage of Republican-leaning independents appears to be increasing, so there is an equilibrium.
Solid Independents (Independents who do not lean toward either Democratic or Republican Parties) make up around 9% of respondents. Democratic-Leaning Independents make up around 17% of respondents. Republican-Leaning Independents make up around 15% of respondents. Together, they represent about 41% of Americans. Independents are the largest group that survey respondents identify themselves as and have the greatest growth, but because of the two-party system, hold the least political power.
There are a number of reasons that have been cited for the changes in party preferences. Americans may be turned off by the partisan wars in Washington, they don’t identify with either the Democratic or the Republican party, they don’t want to be labeled, or they feel that being independent is the “Spirit of America.” Also, ybeing an Independent means being undecided.
Long-Term Trends in Party Preferences
Since 2004, more Americans have called themselves Independents (41%) than either of the two major parties, Democrats (30%) or Republicans (27%). The percentage of all Independents is only slightly less than the percentages of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents (42%), and only about 5% less than the percentages of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents (46%).
2004 to 2018
|Republican and Republican-Leaning||
|Democrat and Democratic-Leaning||
Furthermore, over the fourteen-year period, the trend in Americans considering themselves to be Independents is increasing, while the trend in Americans considering themselves to be Republicans is flat, and the trend in Americans considering themselves to be Democrats is decreasing.
These preferences for one party or another don’t correlate perfectly with actual votes because of the two-party system. Most voters don’t consider independent candidates to be viable and some independent parties are not even listed on ballots and have to be written in.
“The increase in Independent voters demonstrates that a polarized two-party system no longer represents the majority of Americans, who are demanding an alternative to a system with such extreme divisions. … While an Independent voter may still have to choose between a Democrat and Republican in the end, the rise in independent voters signals a much-needed change in our traditional two-party system. Future candidates will need to expand their political views, and drop the exhausted party line, if they want to attract the support of the Independent voter.” Krosbie Carter. 2012. Why Many Americans Are Registering As Independents, Instead of GOP or Democrat.
Given these trends, a wise Democratic candidate-for-office will not forget their largest constituency – Independents. Don’t expect a blue wave if you denigrate independent voters by saying they were the reason Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Slogans like Vote Blue No Matter Who carry no weight with Independents. Mudslinging alienates everyone. If you want to capture the minds of Independents, and they do vote more with their brains than their hearts, tell them specifically what you will do (caveat: if you win back Congress) to improve the country.
The conclusion of the story is that Independents are on the rise, Republicans are going nowhere, and Democrats are in decline. If Democrats want to reverse their loss of political power, they must change. Barack Obama brought change, only not as much as many of his supporters hoped for. Still, he is remembered as a great President. But Hillary Clinton was not the additional change Americans wanted. Trump promised anti-change, a return to a Spartan American state that never existed, and he has delivered in ways his supporters never imagined. Now we must look for change again, perhaps the progressive change many Independents support.
As Bob Dylan said:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
“The Times They Are A-Changin’”
by Bob Dylan, 1964