There hasn’t been a true independent elected to our state Legislature in more than a hundred years. One has a chance this year — just as a poll emerges that voter interest in something other than the red team or blue hits a record high.
Red team, or blue? In our tribal politics, that can seem like the only question.
So when your answer is “neither,” well it can make you seem like a unicorn — a fantastical being that can’t possibly exist.
“When I’m going door to door, a lot of people will say: ‘C’mon, what are you really?’ ” says Ann Diamond, a doctor in Okanogan County who is trying to become the first independent in more than a hundred years to win a seat in the state Legislature.
“They’ll sometimes ask: ‘Ok, then, which way to do you lean?’ The tribes are so dominant in our politics that everything is oriented around them.”
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The idea of a third party, or at least candidates that exist outside the organizing control of the Republicans and Democrats, really is a unicorn in politics. It’s a perennial wellspring of fascination, but never quite seems to materialize — not for the past 160 years, anyway.
But this past week, researchers released a new national study of voter attitudes that showed that interest in some sort of “third option” is at historic highs.
“A record-high 68 percent of Americans say the two parties are not doing an adequate job, and they would like to see a third party,” reports the Voter Study Group, a team of conservative-to-liberal public-opinion experts that first formed in 2016 to study the electorate.
That figure of 68 percent thirsting for something different is seven points higher than national polls have detected at any time in the past 25 years.
“What we’re trying to do would have no chance at any other moment in modern political history,” says Chris Vance, the former Republican state chairman who quit his party in disgust because of Trump. He’s now spearheading Washington Independents, a PAC that supports independent candidates (it spent $48,000 on radio ads and mailers for Diamond’s primary campaign).
“The Republicans have moved to this insane, populist, white culture agenda,” he said. “The Democrats are moving toward Western European-style socialism. So they’ve left a biiiig opening between them — the biggest in our lifetimes.”
But the Voter Study Group, which interviewed 6,000 voters, concludes it’s not that simple. Yes, you may say you’re sick of the two parties. But when it comes time to vote, your hatred of that other party overrides your ennui with your own party, compelling you back into your tribe.
“Few partisans seem likely to abandon their own parties for a third party, assuming they calculate that doing so would mean a victory for the other major party,” the study concluded.
The study also found that third parties have so much trouble forming because nobody can agree what they should stand for. About 20 percent want one to the left of the current Democrats (the Bernie Sanders party, I suppose). About 20 percent want one to the right of the current Trump GOP (I don’t even know what that would be — the Nazi party?). A slightly larger group says it wants something in the middle.
“It would take at least five parties to capture the ideological aspirations of Americans,” the study concludes. And so it never happens.
For her part, Diamond, is trying to navigate all of this by being a party of just one. Though she’s ideologically closer to the Democrats than her Republican opponent (orchardist Keith Goehner, who finished first in the primary), she has pledged if elected not to caucus with either party. To try to remain truly independent.
“I have heard ‘oh, you won’t be part of any tribe, so you’ll be irrelevant,’ ” Diamond told me. “But that’s the point, isn’t it — that the parties have gotten too tribal? So I don’t know how we change that without trying a new approach. Somebody’s got to be the first.”
I don’t know if this is the year when something different breaks through — as the study points out, it never quite is.
But we probably also can’t go on forever with a two-party system where the majority of Americans despise them both. Once reality gets bad enough, who knows, maybe even unicorns can come true.