“In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, said recently. She’s right.
Ocasio-Cortez and her preferred presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are self-described democratic socialists. In every other political system, they would belong to a far left party such as Germany’s Die Linke or France’s Socialist Party. And yet Sanders, Congress’s longest serving self-described independent, is now in the top-tier, and arguably even the frontrunner among candidates to become the Democratic nominee for president.
Likewise, Michael Bloomberg is also no Democrat. Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City twice as a Republican and once as an independent. While socially progressive, his time in government was marked by fiscally responsible, pro-business policies. His moderate record seems well outside the mainstream of today’s Democratic Party.
So why isn’t Sanders, who remains technically an independent, or Bloomberg, a former Republican, running as either an independent or a member of a third party? Why do they both feel the need to compete for the helm of and pledge fealty to a political party whose platform seems inconsistent with their policies?
The answer is that our electoral system, although designed by patriots with a healthy skepticism of political parties, has been reconfigured to make it impossible to challenge from outside the partisan duopoly. Sanders and Bloomberg both know this, which is why they have eschewed an independent run in the mold of a Ross Perot or Teddy Roosevelt in favor of the Democratic Party nomination process.
They’re not wrong. I should know. I tried.
In 2018, I ran for the U.S. Senate, raised more than $1.8 million and polled as high as 18 percent. But I confronted barriers every step of the way. Preventing new competition, I learned, is one area where our two major parties work well together. It starts with restricting ballot access and debate exposure. For congressional races, gerrymandered districts, closed primaries and warped campaign finance laws have been honed by party bosses to protect incumbent lawmakers preferred by their base.
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For presidential races, it’s even worse.
Simply being listed on the ballot is tough and expensive. In 2016, when Evan McMullin ran as an independent and received 22 percent of the vote in Utah, he was able to gain ballot access in only 10 other states. Each state has different requirements, and some have made it nearly impossible outside the two major parties.
Party insiders also make it excruciatingly difficult to be included in debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a duopoly controlled by the two parties, has set the polling threshold for the general election debates at 15 percent. Perot was the last third-party candidate to qualify for a general election debate. That was in 1992.
The truth is that in 2020 the only path to victory is through the two major parties, which means that our options are determined by the minority of loyal partisans and activists who show up to vote in the primary elections.
The result is widespread apathy, even disgust, for two bad options, options which in recent years have been opposed by a majority of Americans. In 2016, candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had the worst favorability ratings of any Democratic or Republican nominee in modern times.
With a political system that both parties continually tweak each election cycle to present voters with polarizing candidates, 2020 might end up even surpassing unfavorability records.
This sad state of affairs isn’t entirely hopeless. We need a set of reforms, passed on a bipartisan basis, that changes the political incentives for candidates. Among them are nonpartisan redistricting, easier ballot access, open primaries, frequent and accessible debates, financial transparency in campaigns with spending limits, term limits, and ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to express preferences among multiple candidates.
Convinced that titans of industry had bought off both parties, Americans were similarly disenchanted with their national politics at the dawn of the 20th century. A groundswell of organic, bottom-up reforms swept the nation. The Progressive Era brought us women’s suffrage, the direct election of senators, many anti-corruption laws, and viable national independent candidacies with Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt.
If Americans truly want a third option in politics (or even if they just want more moderate Democrats and Republicans), then they will pressure lawmakers to pass these reforms. I am tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils.
Neal Simon, a Maryland business executive and 2018 independent candidate for U.S. Senate, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Contract to Unite America” (RealClear Publishing).