Few varieties of baloney find a more eager market among the nation's press corps than the fantasy of a nonpartisan takeover of our government. Wouldn't it be great if we could get past all this bickering between the parties and focus on Real Common Sense Solutions? Wouldn't it be amazing if some straight-talking problem solvers could shove aside those nefarious partisans and Get Something Done for the American People?
So it is that the moment anyone begins contemplating the next presidential campaign — and nine months since the end of the last one is about long enough to wait — we inevitably hear a proposal for an independent candidacy that will transcend partisanship. This time around, Mike Allen of Axios reports, it's an alliance between Ohio Gov. John Kasich (a Republican) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (a Democrat). The two have been making joint appearances and "their duet is part of an alliance that's gaining momentum toward a possible joint independent bid for president in 2020, likely with Kasich at the top of the ticket."
On Sunday, Kasich flat-out denied the rumors during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "The answer is no, okay?" he said. But even if it were a possibility, could it actually work? As The Week's Scott Lemieux points out, whenever these kinds of tickets are proposed, it always seems to be the Republican who's on top and would thus be the one with the power if they were to ever succeed, which isn't surprising given that insofar as they can settle on an agenda it usually centers on entitlement cuts. But most of the time, these exercises in nonpartisan fantasy role-playing are comically vague about what they actually want to do, beyond things like "solve problems."
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
That's why they feed into a common misconception, one that is constantly nurtured by media insiders who ought to know better: that the reason the parties don't come together has nothing to do with substance, but is instead a matter of folks on one team not wanting to consort with folks on the other team.
Now here's the truth: Democrats and Republicans can't come together to solve problems because they fundamentally disagree about what the solutions ought to be. Republicans think the rich should pay less in taxes; Democrats think they should pay more. Republicans think government should provide less help for people in getting health insurance; Democrats think it should provide more help. Republicans think unions should be destroyed; Democrats think they should be strengthened. Republicans think environmental protections should be weaker; Democrats think they should be stronger. Republicans think women shouldn't be allowed to get abortions; Democrats think they should. These differences are real and meaningful.
Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all came into the White House promising to get past the partisan bickering and bring the parties together. They all failed. Donald Trump said that he'd solve problems because he's a businessman and didn't care at all about ideology; we see how that's working out.
That isn't to say that partisan polarization doesn't have some bad effects, but at this point it's a reality that we can't just wish away. It has multiple causes, but the most important one is that the parties have become much more ideologically coherent today than they were, say, 50 years ago. Back then the Democratic Party in particular was an uneasy coalition of northern liberals and southern conservatives, whose bond to the party was forged in the Civil War. But once Democrats embraced the cause of civil rights in the 1960s and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, that bond was severed. It took a few decades to shake out completely, but eventually all the southern conservatives (including segregationists and racists in the mold of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms) left the Ds for the Rs.
As they did, liberal Republicans increasingly felt alienated from their party, and so many of them crossed over to the Democrats. Fast forward to today, and you have virtually no more liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats, especially among officeholders who have to win primary campaigns in order to represent their parties. Even if there are times when they agree on a particular issue (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse), on the the whole you have two parties that are completely distinct.
There's one very important thing this ideological coherence does: It lets you know what you're voting for. As a group, Americans are shockingly ignorant about the details of public policy, and that's made worse by the fact that we have to vote for so many offices and initiatives. Ideologically coherent parties provide a critical shortcut to knowledge; you might not know anything about the candidates for state representative or city council, but if you know their party you'll be able to predict with a high degree of accuracy where they'll come down on any issue. If you were confronted with a candidate for some downballot office who said he was from the Independent Nonpartisan Party, you'd have no idea what he stood for, and you probably wouldn't vote for him.
Nevertheless, the fantasy of the nonpartisan president is fed by the fact that so many people tell pollsters they consider themselves neither Democrats nor Republicans but independents, over 40 percent of us in some polls. The thing is: They're lying. Political scientists will tell you that the vast majority of them actually favor one party or the other, but they just like the idea of considering themselves "independent." The number of true independents is around 10 percent, and those are the people too uninformed to figure out whether they'd prefer Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (and a lot of them don't vote anyway).
So here's my prediction: Even if Kasich and Hickenlooper kept up their little project and turned it into a presidential campaign, it would garner huge amounts of rapturous media coverage about how it presents a solution Americans have been crying out for in these troubled times — but then it would turn out that Americans are not, in fact, crying out for it. Not at all.
Yes, there are times when partisanship in Washington slows things down and makes some things that ought to be simple more complicated. But in the end, we don't want a program that transcends the parties. We want our party to win.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.