Party Upheaval

Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and what does her upset victory tell us about the shape of the two party-system in America today?

As described in Politico,

“A former organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and pushing the Medicare-for-all bill championed by Sanders.”

It would be stunning enough if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had defeated a Democratic incumbent in any race in America today. Her double-digit victory is as earth-shattering as party leader Rep. Joe Crowley’s loss:

“Crowley became the highest-profile Democrat to lose a primary this year and the highest-ranking House member to lose an intraparty fight since Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost in 2014.”

How did this happen? In Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s words, it was rebellion against party: 

“We meet a machine with a movement, and that is what we have done today,” Ocasio-Cortez told NY1 before the race was called. “I think what we’ve seen is that working class Americans want a clear champion and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.”

Her victory connects to a trend in both parties: unrest.

Republican leaders have taken note of a similar volatility fomenting in their own party. As former House Speaker John Boehner describes it, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party,” Boehner offered up when asked about the current GOP. “The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Are the two parties as we know them disintegrating?

At the very least, we are finally seeing the consequences of voter dissatisfaction with the two-party system. 43 percent of Americans now consider themselves independents. In fact, independents have outnumbered Republicans and Democrats for nearly 10 years.

Distrust in the electoral process stirred even before the results of 2016 general election. According to polls cast in October of that year:

Fewer than half (43%) of the public say they have a great deal of confidence that their vote will be counted accurately.

In that same poll, 61 percent of respondents described themselves as growing dissatisfied with the two party system.

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The dissatisfaction is not surprising: Candidates for president increasingly leave out the majority of states in terms of visits, advertising, and policy promises on the campaign trail, instead honing their attention on the battlegrounds that become clear even before the general election has begun.

Is the backlash toward incumbents in the two parties today a sign that Americans are ready for a Third Party?

Since Ross Perot’s surprising 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992, third party candidates have met great resistance in viable runs for President, in no small part because the leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties make the rules and benefit from a duopoly on attention in campaigns.  

A National Popular Vote change would give candidates who run as independents the ability to compete fairly with Democratic and Republican nominees. 

In a popular vote system, Democratic and Republican candidates might also find that third party challenges are not a zero sum game. America lags behind other countries in voter participation. If Independents can bring more voters to the polls, everyone might benefit from great faith in our elections and public debates that offer policies closer to the political center.

James K. Glassman