To find the greatest irony of this year’s presidential election, look no further than any one of the national polls conducted since the final presidential primaries took place in June.
Majorities of voters disapprove of and mistrust each major-party presidential nominee. Three-fifths of the electorate views Republican Donald Trump unfavorably, and less than one-in-three voters describe Democrat Hillary Clinton as “honest and trustworthy.” Third-party candidates—little-known even to some of their most ardent advocates—are earning historic levels of support. Libertarian Gary Johnson, who won less than one percent of the vote in his 2012 general election run, now regularly polls in the double-digits, backed by a ragtag coalition of millennial voters and political independents. And for the Republicans and Democrats who have decided to toe the party line in November, negative voting is more common than ever, with over half of Republicans and nearly as many Democrats viewing their votes more as opposition to the other party’s nominee than as affirmative support for the candidate they have chosen.
Dissatisfaction with the American political process has spread to nearly every corner of the national fabric, and for some voters, the sense of disillusionment could not be stronger. According to an editorial which appeared this month in The Boston Globe, over a third of likely voters from both parties agree with the statement that “the election will be rigged.” These are not wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who believe that their fellow Americans will cast more votes than the law allows. They simply have lost all faith in the system. For them, democracy has died. No matter their choice, nothing will change.
In reality, however, democracy is far from dead—and therein lies the irony. Today, though voters almost entirely control whom the major political parties nominate, their dissatisfaction with the process and the candidates it produces has reachedrecord-breaking heights.
The 2016 presidential primaries granted voters near-total control over the selection of party nominees. The vast majority of Republican delegates were bound to vote for the winners of their states’ primaries or caucus elections. In the case of the Democrats, a cadre of unbound superdelegates—composed of party leaders and long-time party loyalists—exists ostensibly to counter popular impulses, but it never does. In 2008, superdelegates threw their weight behind Illinois senator Barack Obama instead of their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, on account of the groundswell of popular support behind his campaign. This year, Hillary Clinton was the clear choice of Democratic Party voters, having won nearly four million more votes than Vermont senator Bernie Sanders over the course of the primaries. For the Republicans, Donald Trump won even more decisively, earning nearly six million more votes than his closest competitor to secure the nomination.
For both Democrats and Republicans, the modern presidential primary is democratic to its core—a far cry from the mid-twentieth century, when this process first took shape. State party bosses dominated the old system, exerting power over their crops of convention delegates in order to sway the outcome in favor of their preferred candidates. The national conventions of yore were private affairs, taking place in the backrooms where public input was nonexistent. In the early decades of the twentieth century, some states began to enshrine primary elections into law, but it was not until the late seventies that the Democratic Party became the first to bind delegates, requiring each to vote for the candidate chosen by voters in his state’s primary election. Before then, the results of primary elections were merely a suggestion for party leaders to consider—or, more often, to disregard.
Strangely enough, voters seem to recognize how much power they hold over party nominations. Though few participate in the primary elections as a percentage of the American population, turnout has surged across the board over the past decade. In 2008, the hotly contested race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama crushed turnout records in 23 states across the country and helped set a new record for primary election participation nationally. And this year, the G.O.P. has led the charge, with Republican turnout reaching its highest level “since at least 1980.”
If higher turnout is not sufficient to show that voters are getting what they bargained for during the presidential primaries, Donald J. Trump’s nomination should be. The entirety of the political establishment aligned itself against Mr. Trump during the primary season, mounting a fierce challenge to his candidacy when it looked like he might actually win. But when the voters spoke repeatedly in favor of his candidacy, handing him victories everywhere from Florida to New York, there was no escape from the inevitable. Party leaders begrudgingly began to back Trump’s campaign in late May, and by the start of the national convention in July, they were mostly united behind Mr. Trump. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus squashed the last-minute efforts of some delegates to torpedo Mr. Trump’s nomination at the convention and has spared no mercy for Republicans who continue refusing to support their party’s nominee.
So we return to our dilemma. If voters are getting what they voted for, what can explain the pessimism of the American public about both major party candidates? The answer is political polarization.
One clue can be found in the partisan breakdowns of support for each candidate. Despite a virulent media narrative proclaiming rampant defections from members of his own party, Mr. Trump commands overwhelming support from Republicans. In early June, as the G.O.P.’s bitter primary battle drew to a close, political analyst Harry Enten from FiveThirtyEight—the brainchild of Nate Silver, the famed numbers guru—indicated that “Republican voters are rallying behind Trump as if he were any other nominee.” The same has held for Mrs. Clinton among Democrats, despite her early troubles converting Bernie Sanders’s most progressive backers.
Part of the reason for the remarkable show of unity within each party is the shrinkage of partisan coalitions. Over the past decade, as political parties have accelerated their shift away from the center, the percentage of Americans who identify with either party has shrunk considerably. According to Pew Research, nearly two-fifths of the country now call themselves political independents—almost a 10-point increase from 2004. Over the same period, both political parties have watched their ranks shrink.
The Pew studies also reveal that Republicans and Democrats alike are doubling down on their most ardent constituencies instead of broadening their appeal. Even as the percentage of Americans identifying as Republican declined six points over the past decade, a majority of whites from the Silent Generation—those born between the 1920s and ‘40s—now call themselves Republicans. Similar gains are visible among evangelicals, two-thirds of whom now view themselves as Republicans or G.O.P.-leaners. Meanwhile, Democrats have increasingly come to rely upon college graduates and young non-white voters to compensate for lost support among whites and older Americans.
The consequences of these trends toward polarization and consolidation are two-fold. First, with the hardening of core constituencies and the loss of centrist voters, both parties have come to favor candidates who are more extreme relative to the center, speeding the exodus of moderates who could have balanced against this impulse toward extremism or, as many within the party would call it, ideological “purity.” Second, moderate voters and independents increasingly seek alternatives to the major parties. Some of these voters tune out entirely, indirectly increasing the influence of partisans over nominee selection and general election outcomes. Others turn toward third-party candidates. In a poll from early September, Libertarian Gary Johnson took first place among independents who do not lean toward either party, besting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by seven points.
Americans have lost faith in their democratic institutions for good reason. With both major parties fleeing the center, more voters have been left behind than ever before, and this year, they are locked into a false choice between two awful candidates.
When creating the Constitution of the United States, our nation’s framers built a system of checks and balances in order to control the worst impulses of government. When one branch grows too strong, others may control it. In politics of today, however, the checks upon the two-party system have failed. By catering to their core constituencies at the expense of middle America, the Republican and Democratic parties have insulated themselves from the moderating force of independent voters, taking advantage of their long-time place as the central actors in American politics to force upon voters an impossible choice between two extremes.
To create balance again, independent voters must exercise their considerable political power and rebel against this system. Third-party threats have produced some of the most extraordinary and important political transformations in American history—including the victory of the anti-slavery movement under Abraham Lincoln, the first president and the father of the Republican Party.
Fortunately, ending gridlock in Washington will not take a Lincoln. A strong third-party movement, drawn from a broad, deep coalition of disaffected partisans and political independents, could put enough pressure on the two-party monopoly to force them to the center—or to carve out just enough space for a new party, a moderating force in American politics.