BY A. LAWRENCE CHICKERING AND JAMES S. TURNER
Registered Republicans and Democrats combined make up a minority (40%) of the U.S. voting age population. Of the remaining 60% about 30% identify as independents, and about 30% don’t bother registering at all. Most Americans opt out of the two-party system. We are led by a minority of voters—a small minority, in fact.
Just before Election Day, The Washington Post wrote that after this ‘ugly contest’ between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, ‘voter frustrations underscore a stark reality confronting the winner: much of the country will have very low expectations for what the next president might accomplish.’
The fact that registered Republicans and Democrats combined represent a minority of the country’s electorate may help explain the contentiousness of the election, voters’ unhappiness, and their low expectations for the next president. Most Americans feel their voice goes unheard by politicians of both parties.
Four years ago, before the 2012 election, Linda Killian, of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, wrote: ‘Washington and the nation at large may seem polarized, but a majority of voters . . . don’t fit into either political party or neatly in the center.’ Our 2008 book Voice of the People cited Brookings and Hoover Institution data showing little polarization among voters but intense partisan hostility among professional Dems and Reps.
Besides the widespread public alienation, whoever wins will face multiple challenges in the government: historically low social trust, paralysis on policy reforms, and huge conflict on foreign and security policy, with abandonment of purely partisan policy essential for restored global confidence in American leadership.
The forces pushing conflict will remain strong at the center, especially from media that live off promoting and then deploring conflict. Bringing the transpartisans (those who don’t identify as either Reps or Dems) from the margins to the core is a task that could contribute to better, less contentious outcomes.
Leaders who want to succeed might look for ways to decentralize policy implementation to local levels, where personal engagement, trust, low conflict, flexible party expression, and media indifference are combining on a multiplicity of issues to bring people together and allow leaders to start solving problems.