“MY PARTY is in an absolute shambles,” said Arnold from Wisconsin. “They used to represent my beliefs, but they are in disarray and crying out for new leadership.”
He’s a Republican. But if he were a Democrat, he might well be saying the same thing about the Democrats in Washington. I’ve finally found an issue everyone agrees on.
In my most recent survey of 400 voters from all ends of the political spectrum, 98 percent agreed that their party is a mess. Voters from both parties use adjectives like “disorganized,” “splintered,” “weak,” and “stumbling.” They insist that their parties are letting them down, driven by money and power and extreme voices rather than moral clarity and conviction. Republican voters see a party that has been bought by big business, the NRA, and pharmaceutical companies, whereas Democrats see their party as trying to stand for everything, willing to spend on everything, and also funded by the very wealthy. And then we wonder why voter turnout is so low.
Start with the Republicans. At a time when the party has a majority in the Senate and the House and a leader in the Oval Office, Republican voters are shocked at the lack of much legislative progress in 2017.
Charlene, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said her vote for Trump was taking a position against the Clintons and for change in the Washington power structure. “Drain the Swamp” was more compelling to her than “Make America Great Again,” but she now feels that the swamp is getting deeper, due to what she calls the mess within her party. “The Republicans have been corrupted by power-hungry right-wing conservatives, greed, and special interests, and no one knows how to stand up to Trump,” she wrote to me. “Where is my party? Where is the party of economic vitality, personal responsibility, and efficient government?”
Enthusiastic Trump supporters are just as unhappy, but for different reasons. “If the Republican Party would support our president, we would be so much better off,” said Susan from Ohio. “Instead, they are doing everything they can to get in his way — and we have no breakthroughs in health care or tax reform or infrastructure because our representatives in Congress never did any planning.”
This sounds like an opportunity for Democrats, but their voters are just as disappointed. The strategy of “resistance” may have helped turnout in the recent Virginia elections, but most Democrats are crying for a halt to the infighting and a new vision for the future. Whereas the party’s most passionate voices are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, well over half of the Democratic voters I speak with are interested in less partisanship and much more centrist policies. “When I think of the Democratic party,” said David from Minnesota, “it’s like I am watching a divided, confused team playing defense. Perhaps that is needed when Congress and the executive branch are controlled by Republicans, but there is little about that party that makes me want to join it.” Added Sheryl from South Carolina, “I feel like the Democrats are still reeling from last year, and have turned into fearmongers badly in need of refocusing.”
While the parties are fighting over increasingly extreme positions — and getting so little done — more than two-thirds of voters on either side are begging for moderates to right their respective ships. Some Democrats say they would vote for John McCain over Bernie Sanders. Some Republicans say they would vote for Joe Biden over a candidate supported by Steve Bannon.
It’s a tug-of-war, and no matter who pulls hardest, everybody ends up in the mud. This is no way to govern, and it’s the reason that voters are so upset.
In a world where technology threatens jobs, North Korea threatens war, and melting ice caps threaten coastlines, the tug-of-war has lost its appeal. Americans are begging their respective parties to wake up: to work together to solve problems, to stop the partisanship and bickering, to talk, instead of tweeting, and to stop rigidly supporting positions with no willingness to compromise.
Although nearly half of my group of voters have considered registering as Independents, most have ultimately rejected that action because it doesn’t solve the core problem, as expressed by Ernie of Indiana, that “at least until now, being moderate is too much about compromise and not enough about innovation.”
If the left wants “free health care for all” and the right wants “free health care for none,” the compromise, “subsidized health care for many,” is not captivating. If the left wants all clean technology and the right wants more coal, it’s not as compelling to get a little of each.
This is a time when a majority of voters are willing to move toward the center in order to make progress. Without the intellectual leadership and political will required to reinvent the center, however, all we can do is watch the shambles on both sides, shrug, and resign ourselves to uninspired voters failing to turn out at the polls.
Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 400 voters across the political spectrum weekly since last December. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.