Can America's politics be unbundled from America's political parties?
Everywhere you look, the world is being unbundled.
Instead of subscribing to bloated cable television packages, we can now choose individual channels, specific shows, or even individual episodes. Most of us no longer buy music albums because we can pick and choose the songs we like best. Baseball fans can subscribe to streaming packages to their favorite team's games without even having a television.
But unbundling goes beyond the entertainment world. Instead of paying for years of inflated college tuition, many individual courses are now available to anyone online for much less. Even our health insurance can now be decoupled from our jobs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
This unbundling trend gives consumers more choices at lower cost. And it raises an intriguing question: What if our politics could also be unbundled?
After all, most Americans don't want the complete package of candidates and public policies offered by the two major political parties. They might like to pick and choose — a more liberal position on gay marriage, a more libertarian stance on drones, a rather conservative take on taxes, and so on.
We've already seen clear proof of this trend: The number of voters who describe themselves as “independent” has grown for more than two decades. Last year's Pew Research surveys found that 39 percent of voters now identify as independents — more than the 32 percent who are Democrats and 23 percent who are Republicans. This is the highest recorded percentage of independents in more than 75 years. An increasingly large plurality of Americans no longer wants to be bundled into the monolithic candidates and policies of one of two parties. American politics is practically begging to be unbundled.
But each November, voters get a binary choice at the polls. It's almost always one Democratic and one Republican. That's it.
And, at least at the national level, whichever candidate wins will vote largely with his or her party. In the last Congress, House Republicans voted with their party 92 percent of the time and Senate Democrats voted with their party 94 percent of the time.
If a voter agrees with Democrats on social issues but with Republicans on tax and budgetary issues, it's unlikely there will be a good choice on Election Day. The two major political parties are putting forth precious few candidates who fit that profile.
So how could we unbundle American politics? Interestingly, it's super PACs — those secretive, big-money groups widely accused of ruining our politics — that could help with the Great Unbundling.
We're already seeing super PACs beginning to erode the power of the political parties. Some super PACs are taking over major functions of campaigns. And it may soon be possible that a super PAC could run the entire campaign with the candidate not needing a party at all. It's not outlandish to imagine a super PAC whose interests aligned with a millennial-friendly, libertarian-lite candidate who was liberal on social issues, dovish on foreign policy, and conservative on economics. Such a super PAC could put real dollars behind a candidate who would never be nominated by a major party. In a world where there were 10 such super PACs backing 10 such ideologically diverse candidates of various persuasions, suddenly our politics are unbundled and American voters have real choices.
Our nation's founders never envisioned the emergence of political parties in the first place. And with the Supreme Court backing our current campaign finance system, it's not the craziest thing to imagine super PACs soon playing a bigger role than the political parties.
Of course, it might not be the best thing either. The influx of massive amounts of often-secretive money into our political system could lead to more corruption and even more gridlock. It could make our elected officials even less accountable to the voters.
We might need to change some of the laws governing super PACs, such as transparency and their ability to work more directly with candidates. And the political parties would fight every effort that might further weaken them.
But the idea that our politics could be unbundled from our political parties is an appealing idea — one that could lead to more and better choices for voters. It could even increase the participation of citizens in our democracy.
It's certainly worth exploring.