I was hunting a unicorn when I should have been herding reindeer.
While a viable third party is as elusive as a horned horse, there exists a rare-but-real creature in American politics that can systematically dismantle the status quo: the independent. Untethered to the two major parties, growing in sums and significance, independent candidates and officeholders are the reindeer of American politics.
If these creatures can be corralled into controlling coalitions in legislatures across the country, including the U.S. Senate, they could find a powerful leverage point to break the partisan fever.
Their time has come. Nov. 6 could be independents’ day.
More than 40 percent of voters self-identify as independent, according to Gallup. In more than half the states that register and report voters by party, independent voters outnumber one or both of the two major parties.
Voter frustration is mounting under President Trump, the second-straight anti-establishment candidate whose presidency failed to deliver positive and durable change. Yet the political duopoly continues to dominate Congress and state legislatures. Only two of the 535 members of Congress, and 27 of the 7,317 state legislators are independent.
Why are there so few independents elected when there are so many independent voters? The single greatest barrier to change is the question of viability. People don’t want to waste their vote. With an angry electorate and more-competitive independent candidates, that may soon change.
“The question of whether independent candidates can win elections will inevitably turn to whether independent leaders can make a difference once in office,” reads a new report by the Unite America Institute, which is affiliated with the Unite America movement that aims to level the playing field for independent candidates. I am a spokesman for the group.
Having left Washington for my hometown of Detroit two years ago, I have been drawn back into politics by the pragmatic elegance of Unite America’s mission. Rather than attempt to start a third party from scratch, the group is targeting states where a small number of elected independents can create disproportionately influential governing coalitions in narrowly divided legislatures.
In the U.S. Senate and 31 state legislative bodies, just five or fewer independents could be the fulcrum upon which the balance of power rests. The strategy can work. Consider:
In Alaska two years ago, Republican Jason Grenn changed his political affiliation to independent and defeated the GOP incumbent by 186 votes. He then helped flip the state House from more than 20 years of GOP control to a new, bipartisan coalition with three moderate Republicans, one other independent and House Democrats. The Alaska Majority Coalition worked with Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, to address the state’s budget crisis with a legislative package that included making $85 million in budget cuts, ending cash subsidies to the oil industry, restructuring the Alaska Permanent Fund and passing the first-ever broad-based progressive income tax.
In Colorado, state Sen. Cheri Jahn left the Democratic Party in 2017 to serve as the chamber’s first independent. She encouraged and facilitated conversations between two key lawmakers from opposite parties, which led to a breakthrough on transportation funding.
In Maine, when Democrats and Republicans attempted to sabotage the state’s new ranked-choice voting system (a voter-initiated effort to increase electoral choice and competition), six independents banded together to defend it. Voters reaffirmed the voting process in June.
These are small steps. There is no quick or sure way to ease the duopoly’s grip on power.
For this year’s elections, Unite America has endorsed two dozen independent candidates and is helping them compete against Democrats and Republicans by providing financial resources, a grass-roots community and campaign tools such as voter data. To build momentum for November, more than 200 independent elected officials, candidates, strategists and other key leaders gathered in Denver this weekend for the first-ever Unite Summit.
It will take small herds of reindeer in every state to change political behavior — to make conversation and comity the norm; to make and protect election reforms; to end the parties’ zero-sum games; and to force the parties to slay sacred cows and tackle intractable issues.
But, eventually and incrementally, this may be the path to radically re-center American politics.