The signs that American political life is in a bad way are so abundant that one would have to be completely clueless, or disconnected from the news, not to see them. The fact that Donald Trump has a real shot at returning to the White House speaks for itself. Has the two-party system outlived itself? A new Pew Research Center poll shows the idea of alternative parties is increasingly popular, but making it viable won’t be easy.
If you’re looking for evidence that we’re in trouble, the Pew poll, conducted in late June and early July, offers plenty. Republicans and Democrats don’t simply disagree but hate each other. In 1994, 21% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats said they had a “very unfavorable” view of the other party. Today, 62% of Republicans and 54% of Democrats hold such a view. When asked about specific traits, nearly three-quarters of Republicans and nearly two-thirds of Democrats say that members of the other party are more immoral and dishonest than other Americans.
There’s plenty of other dispiriting stuff in the Pew poll: About half of Republicans —51% — express a preference for politicians who publicly endorse Trump’s claim that he was the real winner of the 2020 presidential election. But one of its more interesting details is the growth in frustration with both major parties. Not surprisingly, this sentiment is found most often among independents and young people.
The share of Americans who hold an unfavorable view of both the Republican and the Democratic parties, which stood at just 6% in 1994 and 16% in 2008, is now up to 27%.
According to the poll, 30% call themselves independent and 16% call themselves "something else." Nearly half of independents, regardless of whether they describe themselves as leaning Democratic or Republican, are in the “pox on both your houses” camp. What’s more, 59% of independents — and 38% of all Americans —say that the statement “I often wish there were more political parties to choose from in this country” describes them extremely or very well.
These numbers must be music to the ears of political mavericks like Andrew Yang, the erstwhile presidential candidate and would-be New York City mayor. Last month, Yang, in partnership with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman — one of a nearly extinct breed of moderate Republicans — launched a new centrist party called the Forward Party. Its slogan is “Not Left. Not Right. Forward,” and it invites frustrated Americans to join in the search for common ground.
Obviously, a third party faces huge structural disadvantages in an electoral system geared toward two major parties. Those that have emerged over the years quickly faded or merged into the mainstream party. And, while the Forward Party has had some fundraising success, its coffers are only a small fraction of what Democrats and Republicans raise.
But those aren’t the only problems. Frustration with the two major parties can stem from many different causes. For some, the problem is that neither party is libertarian enough; for others, it’s that neither is sufficiently populist or socialist. If you mostly agree with Republicans but don’t like the GOP’s anti-abortion-rights stance, you won’t find too much common ground with someone who mostly agrees with the Democrats but thinks they’re too pro-abortion rights.
Still, a strong political organization that explicitly eschews allegiance to either major party can have a positive effect simply by counteracting partisan tribalism, which often pushes people to embrace or reject a position simply because of the party label attached to it. That alone would be, indeed, a step forward.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.