“The Republican Party is kind of like California,” says Nicholas Sarwark, Chairman of the Libertarian Party (LP) of the United States.
“It sits on a faultline that’s always been there, but when an earthquake comes along you start to see the cracks open up. I believe Donald Trump was that earthquake. This faultline has existed in the Republican Party for decades,” Nicholas adds. “But when you have a polarising figure like Trump, who does not subscribe to any traditional Republican principles, it exposes the faults and starts to shake things loose.”
Nicholas should know. In 2016, Donald Trump shook lose 3.28% of the popular vote which was gratefully swept up by the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. This translates to 4,042,291 votes, a record-breaking result for the party, which saw its 2012 vote share triple, allowing Johnson take home more of the popular vote than any third-party candidate since Ross Perot.
And if conventional wisdom is to be believed, the run-off came mainly from the Republican Party – in particular, from conservative moderates, disenchanted by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, who turned to a party whose very name is synonymous with the personal and religious liberties that Trump seems to so virulently oppose. According to a 2016 CNN exit poll, only 41% of “moderate” voters cast their ballots for Trump during the 2016 election, compared to 81% of voters who identified as “conservatives”.
However, Nicholas Sarwark has a different view, attributing most of the increased support to a youth vote galvanised by the party’s socially liberal but economically conservative message. “When you speak truth to young people who are used to being lied to and manipulated by old party politicians, you see a lot of energy,” Nicholas says. “We saw that in our polling for Gary Johnson in 2016. The number of people who supported Johnson starts to double and triple as you get younger and younger.”
In fact, a 2017 Cato Institute research poll found that only 51% of millennial conservatives, and 20% of millennial libertarians, backed Trump during the election.
Sarah Brady Wagner, 25, a professional nanny from Lillington, North Carolina, is one such millennial convert – though disappointingly for Nicholas, it was Donald Trump’s rhetoric, not that of the Libertarian Party, which motivated Sarah to vote for Johnson. “The Republican Party’s protection of Trump during the campaign was enough to motivate me to get me involved with the Libertarian Party,” says Sarah, “but I can almost guarantee that I will vote for the Republicans again in future.
“I believe in considering each candidate individually, but I don’t have a lot of faith in the Republicans having a sudden change of heart and running a more favourable candidate. They will almost certainly run Trump for re-election in 2020, so as far as I can tell I’ll be working with the Libertarian Party for the foreseeable future.”
Sarah, who is also currently the Libertarian Party chair for Harnett County, North Carolina, says she would have considered voting for Bernie Sanders had he secured the Democratic nomination: “One thing I really appreciated about Bernie was that he expressed real policy ideas and not just vague rhetoric.”
Angela Roberts, 36, a former Republican voter from Phoenix, Arizona, echoed Sarah’s sentiments. “If Bernie had gotten the Democratic nod I could have seen myself voting for him,” Angela says. “He was reasonable, and knowing how our political system operates I don’t think his most radical ideas would have gone anywhere.”
Angela, who served in Iraq and now works as a contractor for the Department of Defense, says that Trump’s divisive rhetoric led her to abandon the Republican Party after he secured the Republican nomination. “I could no longer support a party that didn’t embody what makes America great,” Angela explains. “I’ve been to parts of the world where free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to be you – whether you’re gay, transgender, pro-life or pro-choice – were severely limited. It seems to me that the Republican Party under Trump no longer values these things.”
Gordon Kumpuris, 54, a product manager from Little Rock, Arkansas, was a long-time Republican voter who describes himself as a white, Christian, middle-aged man – in many respects the typical Trump supporter. Gordon says that although Trump did not turn him away from the Republican party, he solidified the feeling that he could never go back.
[pullquote]”When you have a polarising figure like Trump, who does not subscribe to any traditional Republican principles, it exposes the faults and starts to shake things loose.” – Nicholas Sarwark[/pullquote]
“I used to be convinced that the GOP was the more pragmatic and responsible of the two parties, and that the Democratic Party was more prone to short-term, feel-good solutions that won votes at the expense of sound policy.
“But I think that America is very much defined by our willingness to come together with other cultures to create a uniquely American society. Trump’s view of immigration seems diametrically opposed to that philosophy. I felt Bernie was too left of mainstream American opinion to effectively govern,” Gordon continued, “but I respect him and feel we need leaders like him to balance equally passionate voices from the other side.”
The idea that long-time Republican voters like Sarah, Angela and Gordon all considered Bernie Sanders a viable, sensible candidate runs contrary to idea that America is becoming more and more ideologically entrenched. Indeed, the most recent Gallup poll on the subject showed that 42% of Americans now identify as independents, with only 29% identifying as Democrats and 26% as Republicans.
— Centrist Project (@CentProj) July 20, 2017
It is this statistic that is being championed by Charles Wheelan, an American economist and the founder of the Centrist Project, which aims to unite disaffected independents weary of political gridlock under a banner of pragmatism and bipartisanship.
“The old parties don’t actually represent American public opinion,” Charles says. “If you drill down on attitudes about abortion, for example, very few people are as anti-abortion as the Republican platform would suggest. On the Democratic side, very few people are as dogmatically pro-choice as you would have to be to win a Democratic primary.”
[pullquote]“People who vote in political primaries do not look like America; in fact, people who vote in the Republican primaries don’t even look like Republicans.” – Charles Wheelan[/pullquote]
When asked why this moderation is not reflected by the country’s choice of President, Charles points to the skewed picture painted by the Presidential primaries. “There is clearly a surge in populism, and at present Trump has absorbed that, but I don’t think it maps as neatly onto the political terrain as we think,” Charles explains.
“Also, there is a huge systemic bias towards the extreme in the form of the political primaries. People who vote in political primaries do not look like America; in fact, people who vote in the Republican primaries don’t even look like Republicans.The people who vote in primaries are the base, which is comprised of the most extreme voters from both parties.
“If you were to draw the system up from scratch, you would see how insane it is that the most radical Republicans and the most left-leaning Democrats get to pick a candidate. What we want to do is tap into the inner pragmatic core of the country.”
Nicholas Sarwark disagrees: “I do not think there’s any appetite for a non-principled centrism in the United States. The centre cannot hold in a party that does not know what it stands for.”
Indeed, we may continue to see US public opinion drift further and further towards the fringes in upcoming elections. But if Nicholas is right, and the centre cannot hold, where does that leave the centrists?