Sure, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz won in yesterday's Iowa caucuses, the first actual votes cast in Election 2016. Each candidate has problems within their parties but each is unmistakably part and parcel of the Democratic and Republican operations (Clinton, at the very least, may be even more "establishment" than Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents).
Which makes it easy to forget something that's truly amazing about last night's tallies, regardless of how you feel about either party or any of the individual candidates: The second-place finishers aren't even real members of the parties for whose nominations they are running.
Bernie Sanders, an avowed "democratic socialist," won his Senate seat as an independent. Sure, he caucuses with the Democrats and many of this policy positions fit easily within the Donkey Party's tent, but it's nothing short of amazing that he's the one given Clinton the scare of her lifetime.
Similarly, Donald Trump, who has registered to vote with both Dems and Reps in the past and is a proud supporter of universal healthcare, is nobody's idea of a rock-ribbed Republican. Just ask the bully boys at the party organ National Review, who burned an entire issue explicating the case "Against Trump" (for starters, they noted, he is a "menace to American conservativism" who inherited his money!).
If you ever wondered whether the wheels were coming off the traditional parties, take a second to survey the wreckage in Iowa, where two interlopers won silver medals and are leading handily in next week's New Hampshire primary. This may all change, but the damage has been done. Not only are these guys forcing party folks to break a sweat in the primaries, they are chiefly responsible for record and near-record turnouts. Last night, the number of GOP voters increased by 50 percent over 2012 and the Democrats will come close to equaling the outcome seen in 2008 when Clinton, powerhouse herself, faced two rock stars, Barack Obama and John Edwards. About 45 percent of each party's voters last night were attending their first caucuses.
This is all to the good. As Matt Welch and I argued in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America, the two major parties are pretty much played out. In just the 21st century alone, each has wielded power and wielded it poorly, often delivering something very different than what their rhetoric suggests they believe in. Republicans delivered massive deficits and nation-building after carping about the value of limited government forever. Democrats brushed aside civil liberties concerns here and abroad while also prosecuting wars without even a fig leaf of constitutional approval. Obamacare is the only major entitlement that had essentially zero votes from the opposition party, undercutting any pretense to centrism and compromise.
As Matthew J. Dowd, a political consultant and analyst who has worked both sides of the aisle, writes in The Wall Street Journal:
A majority of Americans are frustrated at our current political system and the duopoly of our parties, and the fastest-growing segment of voters is people registering as independents. Yet many commentators still argue that all voters predominantly choose between the two parties and that there is no room for independent candidates. The much-discussed anger among voters–of all stripes–stems in part from feeling made to choose between two unsatisfactory options, with no real alternatives. For years, with each election, voters seem to throw one party out to try the other and see if it works differently. So far, nothing has really changed….
Two independents are not just doing extremely well. They are major players creating havoc for the establishment in the nomination process. This shows the broken nature of the two political parties and the depth of the desire for change from the status quo. It is an incredible development that Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump, men who have very little party allegiance, are creating the most energy in their respective campaigns for party leader.
Dowd likes what he sees: "The power of independents across the United States, outside the electoral college, cannot be underestimated…. This cycle is likely to be an accelerator for the success of independents locally and at the state level–developments that can only be good for our democracy."
Read the whole thing (including discussion of a possible third-party run by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg) here.
The Democrats and Republicans were parties before the Civil War. While America's first-past-the-post system essentially guarantees there will always only be two major parties, the respective ideologies of those parties have changed many times. In the late 19th century, for instance, "Grover Cleveland Democrats" were very much like today's libertarian-leaning Republicans. Currently, neither party is truly a national party in that it has broad support among voters. As Dowd notes, the fastest-growing designation in politics is independent and even when you strip away voters who lean R or D, there's a growing number of people who just can't be bothered to affiliate with one tribe or another.
The nation is, as a whole, socially liberal and fiscally conservative. We want a government that's out of the bedroom and the boardroom, one that spends less and does less. And until we get a party—or two!—that speaks to that great and growing group of crypto-libertarians who just want to get on with a life that will mostly be lived beyong politics, you can expect more independent candidates at all levels making life difficult for traditional party types.
CNN has been tracking what it calls an index of libertarianism that is keyed to two questions:
Back in 1992, only about 50 percent agreed that "government was doing too much." In 2014, that figure was at 58 percent (down slightly from a 2011 peak of 63 percent). In 1993 (the first year the question was asked), only 42 percent said that government should not favor one set of values. In 2014, that figure was 55 percent, an all-time high.
So in the early 1990s, the composite score for libertarian beliefs was around 92 points. It's currently at 113 points.
As Trump's unmasked xenophobia and Sanders' idiotic economics show, those independents will likely speak to the fears and anxieties of voters rather than their aspirations. All the more reason for Democrats and Republicans to start recalibrating their party's identities so they are more fully in touch with the plurality, if not majority, of Americans.