Leadership Asheville Forum at its monthly critical issues luncheon set out to examine the future of our two party political system.

Western Carolina University political science and public affairs professor Dr. Chris Cooper and Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle were the guest speakers.

Although our political system has two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, unaffiliated voters make up a significantly large and growing block of voters. Boyle said he is registered as unaffiliated partly because he works as an unbiased reporter in the news industry, and partly because he favors candidates on all sides, especially in the primaries. 

Boyle surveyed some numbers in Buncombe County and found just under 76,000 registered Democrats, and 46,331 registered Republicans, 65 Green Party members, eight Constitution Party members, and 1,454 Libertarians. In Buncombe County there are just over 74,000 unaffiliated voters. He found a similar ratio among registered voters throughout the state, so moving forward we compare Democrats, Republicans, and the unaffiliated voters.  

Boyle said he thinks that people are just disgusted with both parties, and social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are largely to blame. He took a casual poll of audience members having a Facebook account.

“How many of you have left Facebook at some point? I can imagine why, because it just gets so ugly and nasty, and that’s part of the reason we’re so divided.” 

In the days before the Internet, Boyle recalled there might be someone on a soapbox complaining about President Regan, “but there wasn’t someone in your personal feed everyday calling you an idiot. People will say the meanest stuff, and you can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere.” 

Boyle identified what he calls the echo chamber effect.

“Whichever way you lean, left or right, how many of you have good friends with polar opposite views? Look at all those hands go up! Have you gotten into raging, screaming arguments with your good friends and stopped communicating with them? What I’ve learned is that it’s not worth losing relationships. When we disagree as a country we think we’re unique, but this goes back to our founding fathers in the 1700s that set up a government that would encourage bickering. When you look at stuff making it into the newspapers that Thomas Jefferson’s opponents were whispering about him, it was every bit as ugly as what’s going on now,” he said. 

Boyle has observed that people tend to judge their opposing party by its extremes. Those on the far right might associate Democrats with the Antifa movement, a left wing militant group that stages protests engaging in property damage, physical violence, and harassment against those whom they identify as fascist, racist, homophobic, misogynist, or being on the far-right.

“By the same token people on the left post the worst examples from the right, and that’s all you see in your social media feed.” 

Boyle said some of his best friends are very conservative people.

“I’m probably a little more to the left, but we go to lunch, we talk, and grab beers together. They’re good productive members of society, and I know they raise good children. John McCain was right on the money, and one thing that really irritates me is that politicians are only free to say what they really believe when they’re either dying or leaving office. John McCain said, ‘We’ve got way more in common with one another than we do that separates us, but we just need to get to that notion of civility.’ That’s what I hope we can talk about here,” Boyle said.  

Cooper said as a political scientist he thinks congress is as polarized as it has been since at least the Civil War.

“The degree of polarization in which the two parties are moved to extremes is the worst in living memory, and arguably the worst in American history. You might like to think that state legislatures are immune to this kind of thing. They’re not, because state legislatures are polarizing very, very quickly.”

Nebraska apparently tried to eliminate polarization by excluding the identification of party affiliation for candidates. Cooper said it didn’t work. Aside from social media preferences, a person’s party affiliation can be linked to what kind of music they prefer, their reading habits, or even what kind of car they drive. Tribalism is real, he said.

“If you’re in Asheville and you drive a Subaru you’re probably a Democrat.” 

Cooper said that in the 1940s not all Democrats were liberal, and not all Republicans were necessarily conservative.

“There were major party officials from both parties that actually said we need to be more polarized. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1944 that we need two real parties, one liberal and the other conservative. The American Political Science Association came together at conferences and determined that the American people need to know whom they are voting for, not by team, but by policy or ideology. ‘We need the liberals to become Democrats, and conservatives to become Republicans.’ We created this beast, and thought it was a good idea.” Cooper said.

From 1974 to 1990 there was a three percentage point rise in unaffiliated voters in North Carolina. From 1990 to 2018 there was a 25 point increase.

“If the current trend continues there will be more unaffiliated voters than in either party,” Cooper said. “No county in the entire state had less than an eight percentage point increase.”

Who are these people?

“They tend to be younger, and less likely to be from North Carolina. So the idea is people move to the state, and when they register for the first time and are not wild about either party. They realize we have this primary system that says if they’re Democrats they have to vote in the Democratic primary, and if they’re Republicans they have to vote in the Republican primary. But if they’re unaffiliated they can vote in either primary,” Cooper said.

Cooper concluded his remarks with a popular quote from a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson Paris in March of 1789,

“If I cannot go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

Cooper said Jefferson’s preamble to the quote in the letter provides added context.

“I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”

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