Why I Am (Still) Not a Democrat

American voters need to stand up against the tyranny of two-party rule

Several years ago, in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, a colleague and former editor asked me to write a piece explaining my recent decision to leave the Democratic party and re-register as an Independent. The article, which I titled “Why I Am Not a Democrat,” never ran (I think, in those heady days of Hope and Change, it simply wasn’t good form for the progressive press to take aim, even tangentially, at the party of the savior of the Left, Barack Obama). And so the story disappeared into the abyss of my C-drive, where it has remained ever since, lost among the unsent letters, half-finished short stories and other typographical detritus that accumulates there.

I thought of that story last week, the day after seven would-be GOP presidential contenders met for the ninth time in Las Vegas to trade barbs and try to convince members of the faceless monolith known as the Republican party that they have what it takes to beat the incumbent president and do a better job of running the country. As I reflected on Rick Perry and Mitt Romney’s slugfest, Herman Caine’s asinine tax plan, and how much Michele Bachmann must really like the taste of her own foot, I was reminded of what led to my decision to drop my own lifelong party affiliation and join the millions of Americans who choose to vote unfettered by partisan identity.

It was midway through the 2008 primary season as I watched the Democrats play out the very same dance the GOP now entertains us with—wooing me with their plans and promises—when I suddenly realized that once the nomination was sealed and the party’s candidate took the stage, my role would be over. By virtue of my stated political identity, the candidates would stop campaigning to me as an individual voter and see me instead for the big D on my registration card. My vote—for all intents and purposes—would lose its power.

So I changed my affiliation to nonpartisan (which in Pennsylvania means sacrificing my vote in either primary—a story for another time) and lo and behold, a funny thing happened during the general election: The candidates, both of them, started talking to me—well not me individually but all those unaffiliated “independent” voters, like myself, who were suddenly so important. For the record, I voted for Obama, but not once during the campaign could he take that vote for granted. And as far as I was concerned that gave my vote power.

That is not true for many Americans, who remain chained to the elephant or the donkey in the interest of pseudo-political identity, even though as a group they are not really satisfied with either party. So voters do what comes naturally in such a situation: More often than not, they vote against the candidate they don’t want in office instead of for the candidate they do. A common refrain among Republicans these days is, “anyone but Obama,” and we hear about the “lesser of two evils” so often, you’d think he was a candidate in every election.

But there is something we can do to regain our power as a voting base. Follow me and drop your party affiliation. If we keep the candidates guessing about which way we will vote, maybe they’ll speak to us candidly as a group of individual voters instead of patronizing us as a guaranteed support base.

Fact is, by registering support for one party or another, we give tacit approval to an electoral system that is not truly representative: a system that critics like University of Minnesota political scientist Lisa Jane Disch call a “tyranny of centrism,” where voting is “a ritual of consent performed by citizens who reproduce the system even as they are persuaded by the trappings of the campaign that they are making a choice.”

There is more than a little truth in Disch’s assertion. Our self-perpetuating two-party system has locked American politics in a virtual revolving door of faux populism and broken promises cloaked in the illusion of choice. Instead of substance, we get wedge issues; instead of depth, we get catchy slogans; instead of governance, we get deadlock.

Nowhere is this more evident these days than in the legislature, where members of Congress are engaged in a veritable civil war at the behest of their party masters. It’s a sad fact that it is nearly impossible to get elected in this country without support from one of the two main parties, which is why Democrats or Republicans control 95 percent of the state and federal offices in the U.S. What that means is that principled lawmakers who come to Washington with the goal of doing right by their constituency find they have a separate, and ultimately more powerful constituent they owe allegiance to: their party’s leadership.

Absent a truly representative system—such as those in European proportional democracies, where every party that gains more than five percent of the vote is given a voice in the legislature—we are destined to suffer the gridlock of bifurcated governance until we express our power as a truly independent voting base.

It is sadly ironic that in the realm of political representation, our beacon of democracy has been bested by the citizens of most of our western counterparts. Germany’s Bundestag hosts five parties, the Italians choose their leaders from five major parties and at least a dozen minor ones, while our neighbor to the north, Canada, has six political parties represented in its parliament.

Despite there being no constitutional basis for it, our two-party system has risen to the level of religion, such that candidates associated with Democrats or Republicans are seen as credible while third-party candidates are relegated to the fringes and written off as unelectable.

But I’m happy to report that’s starting to change. According to the Pew Research Center, this year for the first time, there are more people who identify themselves as Independent than they do Democrat. (Independents already outnumber Republicans.) Over the past year the number of self-identified Independents has continued to increase, and we now account for more than a third of voters.

At the same time more than half of Americans say the time is ripe for a third party, a sentiment that was echoed earlier this month by Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who told Yahoo’s Daniel Gross: “There’s a hole in the middle of our politics. If you had a credible independent candidate who came in, I bet you’d have 30 or 40 percent of the country.”

Separately, this election cycle a group called Americans Elect will seek to nominate a third-party candidate by popular vote, independent of any political party, and hold its own convention, using the Internet. It will be a political first if they can pull it off. The group has collected more than 1.5 million signatures and says it is seeking ballot access in all 50 states.

Ultimately, the two-party system leaves little room for variation, meaning that most Americans are forced to make substantial concessions when choosing which party to support. Somehow that seems decidedly un-American.

Looked at in this way, it’s not surprising that so many citizens choose not to vote at all. Since the 1960s less than half of eligible voters have turned out for Congressional elections, putting the U.S. near the bottom of Western democracies for voter turnout in legislative elections.

Yet rather than affirming the existence of some mass apathy, the decision not to partake in the system should be seen for what it is: an organic, albeit largely unconscious, protest against an uninspiring process. In other words, low voter turnout is a symptom of the problem with American politics, not the cause of it.

In a country that has only recently connected with the radicalism that made its very existence possible, I submit that a mass transition to political nonaffiliation may be our best hope for salvaging what’s left of American democracy.