Minority parties

By Will Hurd

By focusing on the most extreme primary voters, the Republicans and the Democrats have lost touch with the majority of Americans. To fix themselves, and the country, both parties must broaden their appeal. 

Will Hurd speaks in Washington D.C. on November 20, 2019. (Photo by Samuel Corum - Pool/Getty Images)

According to a recent poll, more than 70% of Americans say they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. The reason? Both Republican and Democratic elected officials are only talking to a small fraction of the country’s eligible voters. 

To understand why, consider that during the 2020 presidential election, about 155 million people, or 67% of those eligible, voted. During that same cycle, however, only 56 million Americans, or a mere 24% of those eligible, voted in the primaries. This means that 43% of the electorate – more than 140 million Americans – voted in the general but not the primary.  

If most or all of those voters also participated in the primaries, the United States would have better options in its general elections. Most primary campaigns focus only on turning out the base – the 24% of eligible Americans who consistently participate. Politicians therefore focus all their efforts, both in and out of office, on catering to that small segment of the population. Unfortunately for the country, a significant chunk of those voters tend to be the most extreme members of both parties. Yet that is who today’s elected officials reflect.  

To thrive, the United States needs strong political parties, offering a true competition of viable ideas.

This phenomenon – speaking to a narrow subsection of voters – is the reason why the Republican Party no longer looks like America. The rhetoric used by many elected Republicans turns off three of the largest-growing voting blocs: suburban women with college degrees, people of color, and young adults under the age of 30. The GOP’s inability to attract these voters explains why it can’t consistently win national elections.  

A parallel myopathy also explains why the Democrats failed to expand their majority in the House in 2020, despite the fact that their nominee won the presidency, and it explains why they lost control of the House in 2022. Ideas like defunding the police and focusing on identity politics show that Democrats have lost touch with the majority of the country.  

To be strong, political parties need broad appeal. And to thrive, the United States needs strong political parties, offering a true competition of viable ideas – the secret to America’s success as a country thus far.  

A protest in New York City on June 29, 2018. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Safe seats and bomb throwers

Let’s review how elections currently work for the House of Representatives, where I served for six years. In 2022, only 27 House seats were split districts – that is, districts where the candidate who won the congressional election represented a different party than that district’s choice for president. That’s about 6% of the House’s 435 seats. 

Two years earlier, in 2020, that number was 34. But in 2000, it was 86, and 20 years before that, it was 143 seats, or 33%. To win a competitive seat, politicians must be common-sense problem solvers – which is why, back in 1980, many of the country’s problems were solved through bipartisan cooperation. Noncompetitive seats, by contrast – which force politicians to cater to their party’s most extreme voters – create bomb-throwers. That’s one big reason why bipartisanship has virtually disappeared from U.S. politics today. 

Evidence of the mounting extremism is easy to find. Take the current debate over immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. We all know what needs to be done to alleviate the crisis; indeed, behind closed doors, most Republicans and Democrats agree that we need to stop letting people abuse asylum laws, dismantle the infrastructure used by human smugglers, increase the use of technology to secure the border, streamline legal immigration, and address the root causes of illegal immigration from Central America. 

Yet you’ll never hear any of this in today’s public discourse. The far left calls for “open borders” or to “defund ICE” (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency). The far right says “no immigration,” “build a wall,” or “invade Mexico.” And politicians fear alienating their bases by doing anything other than amplifying their voices while denouncing radicals on the other side. Meanwhile all nuance and thoughtfulness is driven out of the conversation. 

The extremism can also be found in foreign policy. Former President Donald Trump’s approach to Ukraine – an approach that supposedly puts America first – merely repackages Kremlin talking points. President Trump has also expressed admiration for the brutal authoritarianism of Chinese President Xi Jinping while criticizing U.S. allies in Europe and Israel. 

In their hearts, most Republican officials believe that the U.S.-built international order still has enormous benefits for the United States and that it deserves defending. They think Russian President Vladimir Putin is a thug and that by fighting the Russian military, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is weakening Moscow – without the United States having to send its sons and daughters into war. They believe that President Xi and the Chinese government are trying to replace the United States as the sole global superpower and should be thwarted. 

Most Republican officials, in other words, abhor dictators and the idea of pandering to them the way President Trump does. Yet they would rather turn a blind eye to his behavior than explain to voters why he is wrong.  

Republican elected officials should remember their principles. They should also recall that, had President Trump performed on par with the Republicans who ran for the House in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan in 2020, he would have won. President Trump lost that election not because it was stolen but because he underperformed other Republicans up and down the ballot in key swing states.  

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis participate in a Republican primary debate in California on September 27, 2023. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A modern Republican

As members of both parties continue to pander to the extremes, the big problems that preoccupy most Americans – problems such as illegal immigration, the economy, and the disruptions being caused by artificial intelligence – continue to grow. Americans are worried about the quality of our schools and our social safety net. They are worried about crime and law enforcement. They worry about Russia and the new cold war with China, one that could end up with Mandarin and the yuan dominating global culture and the global economy.  

The failure of our political establishment to address these anxieties helps explain why an organization such as No Labels – which is committed to running a third-party candidate in 2024 if President Trump once more becomes the Republican candidate – seems increasingly viable. No Labels’ polling suggests that 59% of the likely 2024 electorate want something other than a 2020 rematch.  

That doesn’t mean they necessarily want a new party, however; what it suggests is that a large portion of the electorate wants a new kind of leadership, one that diverges from traditional partisan politics.  

That preference presents an opportunity for someone who can best be described as a modern Republican.  

That means someone who believes in a United States where the American Dream is within reach for all, not just a select few. It means someone who believes in an America that could usher in a period of unprecedented peace through the strength of the country’s armed forces and alliances. It means someone who wants to supercharge our society by harnessing new technologies like artificial intelligence to embrace a new economy that tackles major issues like climate change. A modern Republican would not ban books but would ensure that the United States produces the smartest kids in the world by providing every American child with access to a safe, world-class education, regardless of age, race, or wealth. A modern Republican would make U.S. cities the envy of the world by fighting against gun violence, crime, drug problems, homelessness, and income inequality. And, if elected in the Republican primary, a modern Republican would win big in November 2024. 

Democracy is fragile; it always has been and always will be. Keeping the American experiment running for another 250 years, however, will not require the kind of sacrifice that so many millions have made in places like Lexington, Gettysburg, Normandy, Birmingham, or Afghanistan. It just requires the 43% of us who don’t vote in primaries to start doing so, and to elect people who will start solving problems – and not just pander to the extremes.  

The Catalyst believes that ideas matter. We aim to stimulate debate on the most important issues of the day, featuring a range of arguments that are constructive, high-minded, and share our core values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion. To that end, we seek out ideas that may challenge us, and the authors’ views presented here are their own; The Catalyst does not endorse any particular policy, politician, or party.

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