Americans are getting more and more dissatisfied with their political parties. Recent surveys show that both parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans. President Joe Biden is …
Americans are getting more and more dissatisfied with their political parties. Recent surveys show that both parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans. President Joe Biden is underwater in his approval ratings, as is former President Donald Trump. It is becoming common that those at the highest levels of government consistently have approval ratings below 50%. As polarization increases and the parties become more extreme, those in the middle feel that they are left out of the political conversation.
Political parties certainly are becoming more extreme. Part of the reason for this is the speed and ease by which we spread information. With news channels and social media allowing political leaders to nearly instantly distribute their message to a national audience, almost all politics becomes nationalized. School board races are now viewed through the same lens that people view presidential candidates. Local issues are ignored in favor of whatever the national political issue of the day is.
As a result, political parties have become more homogeneous. Gone are the days of conservative Southern Democrats and liberal New England Republicans. Rather than building complex coalitions that allowed each party to talk to a wide variety of voters, the new American political party is based on allegiance to one of two political sides: left or right. You are one or the other, or you are not welcome in either group.
For those in the center-right or center-left, this creates an uncomfortable situation. The party that they identify with feels less like home, but the other party is even more unrecognizable and unappealing. Median voters are left voting for “the lesser of two evils” rather than for a party that they feel speaks for them.
We see this play out first-hand here in Wyoming. Our Republican Party apparatus routinely makes headlines based around the conflict between those who would push voters out and those who would bring voters in. The primary divide in our Legislature is not between the two political parties, but is between the extreme and mainstream members of the Republican Party. Anecdotally, many of those I talk to about the state of politics in Wyoming end up lamenting the way our state is headed and the way they do not feel at home in their own party anymore, whether that be Democratic or Republican.
The problem this causes is disengagement, which itself turns into a self-perpetuating cycle. As the parties move more to the extremes, fewer of the voters in the middle feel at home in that party. Those voters disengage, either through dropping their party registration or failing to meaningfully participate in the process within the political parties. As a result, their voices are not heard in the process and the party is left with only the voices encouraging further moves away from the middle. We see this in national political statistics, as independents now far outnumber the members of either political party. Of registered voters nationwide, in 2022, both Republicans and Democrats had only 28% of registered voters, and 41% were registered independents.
Disengagement is understandable, but it also results in a system wherein the parties are only going to get more extreme as voters in the middle of the political spectrum drop away. Even though it is counterintuitive, the solution to dissatisfaction with political parties is more engagement, not less. Leaving the parties to the zealots will only result in the parties continuing to run to the extremes, likely to their own detriment. The parties depend on the votes of the median voter to obtain and maintain power. Why should that voter not have a voice in the political party system?
Political parties should welcome this engagement, although ideological extremists are unlikely to. The goal of a political party should be to garner the support of enough voters to win and further your policy proposals. A party that is ideologically rigid but consistently gets 40% of the vote is as powerless as a party that gets 0%. Voices that speak to the mass of voters in the middle are key to ensuring that political parties can actually do what they are intended to do: govern.
For those dissatisfied with the direction of politics in this country, it is clear you are not alone. However, there is a solution and that is for you to participate in the process, especially within our political parties. Politics cannot be left solely to those on the extremes. Political views fall on a spectrum, and whether you are on the edges or in the middle, it is important for you to make your voice heard and for those in power to listen.
(Cheyenne attorney Khale Lenhart is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at email@example.com.)