Political parties are like family.
Americans might hate political parties some or most of the time, but they still tend to stand by one -- even when they think it is making bad choices.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 77 percent of Americans consider themselves Republican or Democrat -- or at least reliably lean toward either party. Even without leaning, about six in 10 Americans side with either party.
But despite the fact that most Americans align themselves with a party, a majority of them also have negative feelings about the major parties. Fifty-one percent of Americans have unfavorable opinions of the Democratic Party, while 62 percent of the public has unfavorable opinions of the Republican Party.
It's no surprise that Democrats aren't fans of the GOP and vice versa — a number of respondents on both sides even said that their party affiliation was dictated by their distaste for the opposition — but even party members feel squeamish about their ideological home sometimes. About one-quarter of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats say they don't like their own party.
The poll also shows only about four in 10 from either party say they strongly agree that the phrase "I generally like the policies of" my party applies to them. Similarly, a quarter of Democrats and about one-third of Republicans say they don't agree with their party's platform completely. Only 30 percent of Democrats say that their political identity is shaped by their affinity for the people running on the party ticket; the same is true for 23 percent of Republicans.
So why do voters stick with political parties even when they aggravate them? The same reason we stick with our families -- because it's not like there's a real alternative.
In the 113th Congress, there are two independents. Both of them caucus with Democrats -- the congressional equivalent of leaning toward a party. We've never had an independent president. In the 2012 presidential election, Americans Elect spent around $35 million trying to elect an independent candidate. It failed -- badly. Chances are you've never heard of the Pirate Party or the Modern Whig Party or the Guns and Dope Party because none of them have succeeded in challenging the United States' two-party system. If voters and candidates want to be heard, the best option remains choosing one of the major parties.
There's also often a disconnect between what voters think of the living, breathing politicians they support and the institutions and parties that house them. If you ask a person to rate his or her senator or representative, chances are they'll give them a thumbs up. Ask a voter about their opinions of government or Congress at large, and things usually take a turn for the worse. Gallup respondents have listed dissatisfaction with government as one of the biggest problems facing the nation for quite awhile, but they have no plan to vote out most incumbents.
Voters don't see a contradiction in hating a political party and belonging to one any more than they see a problem in hating an institution even when they like their member of it. It's just the cost of doing business.
The national parties have also drifted apart ideologically over the past few decades. Where voters once might have been content to stake out a spot in the middle, it is increasingly likely that one party will appeal to a voter more than the other on a regular basis. The distance between the two parties is irksome for voters, but they don't have a choice but to support one or the other. In other words, the very thing that causes voters to have unfavorable opinions of the parties -- their inability to agree or compromise on anything -- is also the thing that has left nearly every voter leaning toward one or the other.
So basically: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.