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Embracing independence, not political parties, will help save our democracy

Embracing independence, not political parties, will help save our democracy
© Greg Nash

The American political system has always been uniquely detached from many of the core values of the American experiment: freedom, progress, competition and innovation. How is it possible that we can walk into a grocery store and select from dozens of brands of breakfast cereal, and yet our choices for the leaders of our country are generally effectively limited to one of two options? 

Despite the near daily warfare between the Republican and Democratic parties, they have masterfully collaborated to create a political duopoly marked by anti-competitive practices that make viable alternatives nearly impossible. Meanwhile, the consumers of American democracy have become increasingly dissatisfied with their choices, leading to renewed and intensified calls for an organized third-party to crash through the barriers erected by the two parties.

But there is an alternative that is both more practical and critically unconstrained by the corrosive toxicity of political parties. Like the nation’s founders nearly 250 years ago, it is time for voters to embrace and support independence.

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American disenfranchisement from the two major political parties is not a new phenomenon. A recent Gallup poll generated buzz by revealing that support for a third party has reached 62 percent, an all-time high.

That demand has not manifested in mass voter migration to minor political parties, of which there are several that operate at the state and federal levels. The current largest and most successful minor party, the Libertarian Party, received just over 1 percent in the 2020 presidential election, and it currently has elected only two of the over 7,900 federal and state elected officials. 

Translation: Voters have wanted an alternative to the two-party duopoly for a long time, but supporting candidates in a different party is not seen as a solution to the problems plaguing our democracy.

That doesn’t mean voters are resigned to accepting the status quo, begrudgingly sticking with the two parties on the notion that one represents the lesser of two evils. In its most recent poll, Gallup found that for the first time since starting to measure party affiliation in 2004, 50 percent of Americans self-identify as independents.

 While political independence unmistakably has momentum on the voter registration front, that alone won’t translate to achievement at the ballot box, particularly when candidates running outside the two-party system face daunting roadblocks that are designed to curtail their efforts. Independent candidates – who often lack the traditional support infrastructure of a partisan candidate – face discriminatory ballot access laws, less access to public financing and the notoriously daunting stigma of being election “spoilers.”

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The political reform community has recently been rallying around efforts to level the playing field for candidates who are challenging the two Goliaths in our politics. Election-reform initiatives like ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan primaries, campaign finance and ballot access reforms all widen the pathway to victory for independent candidates.

The last piece that is missing is the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome: a cultural shift in our politics that embraces the notion of supporting viable independent candidates in their efforts all the way through Election Day. Doing so will require undecided voters, whether affiliated with a political party or true independents, to reject the fearmongering tactics that will undoubtedly be deployed by the parties in the closing days of an election. 

Voters distraught by our endlessly dysfunctional politics will need to remember who bears responsibility for the status quo and acknowledge the truth: You can’t spoil something that has long been sour.

Jared Alper is the founder of Common Sense Strategies Group and a political strategist focusing on democracy and government reform.