Should the ‘politically homeless’ pick up a hammer?

People who say their lifelong parties are too woke or too Trumpy are having a political identity crisis

Americans without a clear political home used to call themselves independent. Today, many identify themselves with a term suggestive of despair: politically homeless.

It’s a term that could be used to describe people like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, except that Romney and Cheney do belong to a political party, albeit one often contemptuous of their actions and beliefs.

The truly politically homeless are more like Boyd Chappell, a hospital executive in Midland, Michigan, who grew up like a real-life version of Alex P. Keaton, the conservative teen played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”

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“I considered myself a die-hard Republican even when I was in high school. Ronald Reagan was one of my political idols,” Chappell said.

But 20 years later, Chappell says he now occupies a “political wilderness” and his political home is now Twitter, where his misery finds company.

Boyd Chappell, a hospital executive, is pictured at his family’s home in Midland, Michigan, on Friday May 21, 2021. Chappell was a longtime Republican who now considers himself politically homeless. | Rod Sanford for The Deseret News

Similarly, the Rev. Chris Hutchinson, a Presbyterian pastor in Virginia, has considered himself a Republican for most of his life. Now, he says, “I’m definitely not a Republican anymore. … I will probably never vote Republican again.”

The lament of people without a party is not new. Conservative hero Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat and famously complained that the party had left him. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an independent who identifies as a democratic socialist, although he ran for president as a Democrat.

But an increasing number of people are frustrated enough with both parties to walk away, despite a lifetime affiliation, putting the country in a “unique moment,” said political scientist Lee Drutman, author of the 2020 book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.”

Drutman and some other political analysts say it’s time to rebuild the system, and the politically homeless should pick up a hammer. But there’s another option on the table, too: Not investing so much of our identity in politics. Both have historical precedence.

‘I don’t line up’

Last year marked the first time that there were more people registered as independents in the U.S. than Republicans or Democrats, the Washington Post reported. The true number of “politically homeless” may be greater than reported, however, since 19 states don’t require people to choose an affiliation when they register to vote.

That’s the case for Hutchinson, pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian in Blacksburg, Virginia, who didn’t have to change his registration a few years ago when he realized he no longer identified with the party he’d been aligned with for most of his adult life. Virginia doesn’t require registration by party, so there was nothing to change on paper. It was Hutchinson who changed.

A former Boy Scout who served as an usher at Reagan’s first presidential inauguration, Hutchinson, 54, is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and grew up in a house that was all about “God and country and America.” While he still holds to those values, he became increasingly concerned about what he saw as a disturbing change of tone in the GOP, and made the decision to to wean himself off talk radio about 15 years ago.

“I realized that the tone was not who I, as a person, wanted to be, issues aside. In my opinion, the tone took over the Republican party and trumped the issues, no pun intended,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t line up all the way with the conservative ticket. I’m definitely pro-life on abortion, but I’m also pro-gun control and pro-immigration.” Hutchinson said he stopped saying he was a Republican in 2015.

Aaron Schafer, author of the 2020 book “The Politically Homeless Christian,” said that for many people, abortion is an issue that keeps them tied to a party even when they are at odds with many other parts of its platform. That’s one reason he argues in his book that being politically homeless isn’t a bad thing. Extreme partisanship leads to dismissal of a candidate’s character, and also acceptance of policies that may not align with the voter’s value, said Schafer, a father of four who is a sales manager for a Michigan publishing company.

“We pick a party, then we allow that party to tell us what to believe about every issue. I think that’s dangerous,” he said. “We need to stop identifying with political parties to the point where that is part of our core identity.”

America seems to be already doing that. The most recent data from Gallup shows that 35% of Americans identify as independent, 29% as Republican and 33% as Democrat. The number of independents reached a highpoint in January, at 50%.

But Pew Research Center has found that even independents have strong leanings toward political parties and in 2019, only 7% of Americans said they don’t have a partisan leaning. According to Pew’s research, people who identify as independent are more likely to have negative views of political candidates and parties, so the growth in independents does not necessarily make for a happy electorate.

An ‘ignored marketplace’

Katherine Gehl identifies as politically homeless, and she is among those who have picked up a hammer in hopes of building something new. But unlike Evan McMullin, the conservative political strategist who ran for president as an independent in 2016 and is now steering unhappy Republicans toward a new party, Gehl believes the solution to political homelessness is redesigning American elections.

Party primaries and plurality voting have created a system in which both sides have incentives to gravitate toward extremes and people who work for consensus lose elections, said Gehl, founder and chairman of The Institute for Political Innovation and a former food company CEO. As such, “Who wins never seems to change anything. When someone wins, they turn the car 180 degrees, and we just careen back and forth, which is no way to run a country,” Gehl said. 

In 2020, despite record turnout, more than 80% of U.S. House races were decided in primaries in which only about 10% of Americans voted, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Unite America. Citing these numbers, Gehl said America needs to change elections so that general elections, not primaries, wield power.

She advocates for a system called “final five voting” — in which candidates of all political ideologies run in the same open primary and the top five finishers are on the ballot in the general election. In the general, voters would rank their choices, creating an “instant runoff.” Such a system would transform the incentives in politics, making elections work for the public, not for the politicians, Gehl says.

“If people were familiar with the term, my guess is that most of the country would identify as politically homeless. We talk all the time about Republicans and Democrats, but more people are not (Republicans and Democrats) than are,” Gehl said.

She believes the rise of the politically homeless is the result of two factors: the loss of the country’s economic “tailwinds,” which has resulted in income inequality (“It’s easier to govern in a rising tide than less calm water”), and the exploitation of the system by players in “the political industrial complex.” 

“Both sides have gotten better at figuring out the best way to win, which, given these rules, does not equal the best way to govern.”

Schafer, the author of “The Politically Homeless Christian,” also advocates for change, saying that America needs campaign finance reform and ranked-choice voting.

But a third party isn’t a viable solutions for the politically homeless, which Gehl calls “an ignored marketplace right now,” and McMullin’s 2016 run shows why, she said. 

“Vote splitting means any third party or independent who tries to get traction can’t, because they’re considered a spoiler,” she said. “The market wants a third party, but the incentives of the system means it’s impossible to have.”

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‘Team optimism’

Drutman, a senior fellow at New America who is part of the podcast “Politics in Question,” said the percentage of Americans who want to see a viable third party has been rising in the past two decades and has gone as high as 67%. Before the 1980s, the parties were not as ideological but more like clubs or teams that allowed a wider range of views.

Today, they are so rigid that many people need reassurance that it’s OK to step outside the party. President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made national headlines in April when he told church members, “There are many political issues, and no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences.”

He encouraged them to make choices based on their individual research into candidates and issues. “This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election,” Oaks said at the church’s annual general conference. “Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve.”

Drutman notes nothing prohibits the U.S. from changing its election system, both at the state and national level.

“People are genuinely frustrated with the way our two-party system operates, and there’s nothing that says we have to have just two parties. It’s nowhere in the Constitution; it’s just an accident of us having a particular system of elections which is increasingly rare among advanced democracies.

“Most advanced democracies use some form of proportional representation, with multimember districts. And what that means practically is you can have more parties if you don’t have single-member districts and single-winner elections. You can win without being 51% in a given district. And that fundamentally changes the logic of how parties compete,” said Drutman, noting that a bill that would do this has previously been introduced in the House, the Fair Representation Act.

Previous periods of unhappiness with America’s political process have led to positive change, as well as disaster.

“From a broad historical vantage point, we’ve had these moments in which there’s been deep dissatisfaction with the party system and with politics in general. Those moments have typically led to major reform, as in the progressive era and the civil rights era,” he said.

“If you want to be pessimistic, you can also see a lot of similarities between this era and the 1850s. I vote for team optimism here. Team pessimism doesn’t seem quite as appealing.”

A new political home

Chappell, the Michigan hospital executive, said that he still considers himself fairly conservative and was involved in GOP politics when he lived in Utah.

“But neither of the political parties represent me at this point,” and he said that’s true for many of his suburban neighbors, who, like the country overall, are inching to the left, if not galloping there.

“I have teenage kids; they are certainly more liberal than I am, and I think that is going to be the trend over the next 20 to 30 years.” To find like-minded people, Chappell goes to social media.

“Twitter has become an addiction. That’s where I feel some sort of political home, commiserating with other people on Twitter,” he said.

Boyd Chappell, a hospital executive, is pictured at his family’s home in Midland, Michigan, with Jack, one of the family’s dogs, on Friday May 21, 2021. Chappell was a longtime Republican who now considers himself politically homeless. | Rod Sanford for The Deseret News

In Virginia, Hutchinson has dealt with his loss of political identity by retreating from politics. As a pastor, he doesn’t feel comfortable working for change since he believes his focus should be on preaching the gospel. If more Democrats were abortion opponents, he might look harder at that party, but the party’s increasingly progressive stance on abortion makes that untenable, he said.

But for all of the hardships of being politically homeless, Hutchinson said it could be worse: He could be a conservative politician ostracized by his party.

“I do support the handful of principled Republicans that voted to impeach and convict,” he said. “I know there’s a handful that are hanging on, but it’s obvious they’ve been run out of power. I don’t envy them.

“It’s easy for me to be in small town in Virginia and say I’m politically homeless. They’re the ones in the middle of it. I do respect them.”

Correction: An earlier version reported that a recent Gallup survey of American voters found 42% identified as independent, 30% as Republican and 27% as Democrat. That data was taken in January 2020. The most recent Gallup survey found 35% identifying as independent, 29% as Republican and 33% as Democrat.