Before I was old enough to vote, I worked as a volunteer for George McGovern’s presidential primary campaign, then voted for him in the November election, then for Carter (twice), then Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton (twice), Gore, and Kerry. I’m nine for nine; I’ve never voted for a Republican for president, like most people I know—and, I expect, like most New Yorkers.
However, except for McGovern (I was 18; the Vietnam War was on; his opponent was Richard Nixon), I cast none of those votes very enthusiastically. In the last four mayoral elections, I’ve voted for the Republican three times—Giuliani in 1993 and 1997, and Bloomberg last fall. Each of those Republican votes felt a little less transgressive and weird.
I don’t consider myself a true Democrat. Yet my mayoral votes notwithstanding, I am not now nor have I ever been a Republican, and could never be unless the Lincoln Chafee–Olympia Snowe–John McCain wing of the party were to take decisive control, or hell freezes over. For me, what has happened politically in New York City stays in New York City.
But the thing is, in my political ambivalence I’m not such a freak these days. Fully a third of New Yorkers who voted in the last two elections behaved as I did, voting for Kerry and Bloomberg. Nationally, more and more Americans are clearly disaffected with both big parties. In 2005, for the first time since 1997, the percentages of people telling pollsters they feel generically “very positive” toward the Democrats or Republicans fell to single digits. And antipathy is running at historical highs as well—40 percent negatives for both parties, give or take a few points—which suggests that a huge number of nominal Democrats are voting more against the Bushes and Cheneys (and Santorums and Brownbacks) than they are for the Kerrys and Gores.
Less than a third of the electorate are happy to call themselves Republicans, and only a bit more say they’re Democrats—but between 33 and 39 percent now consider themselves neither Democrat nor Republican. In other words, there are more of us than there are of either of them.
What’s changed hardly at all over the past 30 years, however, is people’s sense of where, in rough terms, they stand ideologically. Almost half of Americans consistently call themselves moderates.
We are people without a party. We open-minded, openhearted moderates are alienated from the two big parties because backward-looking ideologues and p.c. hypocrites are effectively in charge of both. Both are under the sway of old-school clods who consistently default to government intrusion where it doesn’t belong—who want to demonize video-game makers and criminalize abortion and hate speech and flag-burning, who are committed to maintaining the status quos of the public schools and health-care system, and who decline to make the hard choices necessary (such as enacting a high gasoline tax or encouraging nuclear energy) to move the country onto a sustainable energy track. Both line up to reject sensible, carefully negotiated international treaties when there’s too much sacrifice involved and their special-interest sugar daddies object—the Kyoto Protocol for the Republicans, the Central American Free Trade Agreement for the Democrats.
Some lifelong Republicans (such as my mother) abandoned ship in the nineties when the Evangelicals and right-to-lifers finally loomed too large in her party and Gingrich and company tried to defund public broadcasting and the national cultural endowments. As for us lifelong non-Republicans, we don’t want taxes to be any higher than necessary, but the tax-cutting monomania of the GOP these days is grotesque selfishness masquerading as principle—and truly irresponsible, given the free-spending, deficit-ballooning policies it’s also pursuing. We are appalled by the half-cynical, half-medieval mistrust and denial of science—the crippling of stem-cell research, the refusal to believe in man-made climate change. And Republicans’ ongoing willingness to go racist for political purposes (as Bush’s supporters did during the 2000 primaries) is disgusting. Demagoguery is endemic to both parties, but when it comes to exploiting fundamentally irrelevant issues (such as the medical condition of Terri Schiavo), the GOP takes the cake.
Republicans used to brag that theirs was the party of fresh thinking, but who’s brain-dead now? All the big new ideas they have trotted out lately—privatizing Social Security, occupying a big country with only 160,000 troops, Middle Eastern democracy as a force-fed contagion—have given a bad name to new paradigms.
As for the Democrats, the Republicans still have a point: Where are the brave, fresh, clear approaches passionately and convincingly laid out? When it comes to reforming entitlements, the Democrats have absolutely refused to step up. Because the teachers unions and their 4 million members are the most important organized faction of its political base, the party is wired to oppose any meaningful experimentation with charter schools or other new modes. Similarly, after beginning to embrace the inevitability of economic globalization in the nineties, and devising ways to minimize our local American pain, the Democrats’ scaredy-cat protectionist instincts seem to be returning with a vengeance. On so many issues, the ostensibly “progressive” party’s habits of mind seem anything but.