The greatest trend in American politics does not involve the demographic differences that separate voters by ethnicity and age, although these are considerable, but that an increasing plurality of our citizens strongly dislikes both political parties as well as their entrenched leaders.
Equal-opportunity disgust is at play here, a phenomenon much different from, say, the dramatic tilt in 1974 toward the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal or the surprising emergence of the Republican majority in the 1994 elections. Far more Americans consider themselves to be political independents than Democrats or Republicans. Seasoned political commentators tend to dismiss this trend, since many independents say they “lean” toward one party or the other. But our pundits are misreading the reality of the numbers just as badly as they have misinterpreted so many other aspects of this year’s unusual presidential election cycle.
The scramble for the Republican nomination is all over the board. The Republican base is searching for a candidate who might have a vision for domestic and foreign policy and the ability to lead the world’s most complicated bureaucracy, but who above all symbolizes their disdain for the present leadership. The end result could hand the reins of power to one of a host of candidates who have either no experience in Washington or thin leadership résumés and will not be capable of governing. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., notwithstanding, the Democratic Party has coalesced around a member of a powerful, moneyed dynasty whom at this point most Americans do not trust and half do not like. If successful, she would guarantee further gridlock; if unsuccessful, she could lead the Democratic Party to the same dismal results it experienced in the elections in 2010 and 2014.
Tectonic shifts occur slowly, but eventually they produce earthquakes. It is becoming ever clearer that we are on the cusp of a new era in U.S. politics, driven by the reality that a large percentage of Americans really do dislike both political parties and their leaders. They want and deserve something different, and nowhere is that reality more clearly seen than in the presidential race, in which the extremes that have taken over the nominating process have become glaringly obvious.
There can be no better answer to these developments than electing as president a tested, common-sense independent who can bring to Washington a bipartisan administration to break the gridlock paralyzing our political debates and restore the faith of our people in their leaders.
I am in the process of deciding whether to mount such a campaign. Clearly, the need for another option grows stronger and more apparent by the day.
Americans want leaders who will put country ahead of party and who will work together to solve the immense challenges that face us. I proudly served in the Reagan administration, and I proudly served as a Democrat in the Congress. I know what an enemy is, from hard experience in combat. The other party is not the enemy; it is the opposition. In our democracy, we are lucky to have an opposition. It’s creative. It’s healthy. There is no opposition party in China, because there are no elections in China, as is the case in numerous other nondemocratic, authoritarian societies.
I have many friends in both parties, and there are many others whom I respect, but it is no wonder that the average American has become disillusioned with incumbents and career politicians. With the unparalleled flood of shadow money from super PACs and supposedly nonpartisan nonprofit organizations, the most serious issues facing the country have been supplanted by euphemistic slogans designed to keep the money coming and to pacify the base. Affiliation by default is not support; it is a form of resignation, the only other alternative being not to vote at all. Indeed, in recent years many Americans have opted out of voting, not because they are disinterested but because they do not believe either party represents the interests they hold dear.
Democrats talk about raising the minimum wage, but few want to answer questions regarding the reality that our financial sector impacts their positions just as surely as it does those of Republicans. The two sides argue about the student loan crisis, but neither really ventures into the question of how college tuition skyrocketed in the first place. Nor do we hear discussions about the reality that for years a quarter of our young people have not finished high school on time with a regular diploma and have been written off as expendable by our political and economic elites.
Republicans try to outdo one another over who would be the quickest to use military force in an era that increasingly resembles the Cold War in our need for both strength and strategic patience. Our almost-certain Democratic nominee has failed every major foreign policy test of the past 13 years. She voted in favor of the Iraq war, one of the greatest strategic blunders in our history. She has touted her role as a principal architect of the predictably disastrous intervention in Libya. She supports the nuclear agreement with Iran, which has further destabilized the balance of power among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel and encouraged Russia’s greater role in the region.
The miscalculations of the Arab Spring unleashed regional chaos and created power vacuums soon filled by the likes of the Islamic State. Combined with the Iraq invasion, these have taken the United States’ focus away from other strategic priorities and caused our leaders to ignore serious obligations here at home. Since 2001, we have spent $109 billion on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan alone, as our country has slid downward in addressing the needs of everyday citizens for high-quality public education; a modernized infrastructure of roads, bridges, airports and water systems; and forward-looking energy policies.
There is work to be done. An independent president who can bring a broad spectrum of talent into a completely new administration would be best equipped to face the hard choices and to put our government back on track again.
Jim Webb, a U.S. senator from Virginia from 2007 to 2013, ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president on Oct. 20. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.