Both parties need to shape up or make way for Americans’ independent streak

We served our state as representatives in the Colorado legislature; one as a Democrat and the other as a Republican. We did our best to represent, not just the parties that nominated us, but our districts as a whole. Now, as moderates, we likely wouldn’t pass the partisan litmus tests necessary to win a nomination for statewide office in our respective parties.

Colorado has a long history of moderate and pragmatic political leadership. Consider such names as John Love, Bill Owens, Roy Romer, and Bill Ritter — leaders who were effective because they found ways to work across the aisle to get things done. Now, with parties pushing for more extreme agendas, the center-right and center-left coalition is at risk. If our system is to meet the voters where they are, a serious course correction is needed.

Independent voters decide elections in Colorado, and they are increasingly disenfranchised from both political parties and the viselike grip they have on our political system.

Of the 3,291,548 Coloradans who voted in the 2020 general election, 39% were unaffiliated. That was the highest number of voters of any group. And that number continues to grow with every election. Colorado’s independent vote is consistent with national trends, as evidenced in a recent Gallup poll, 41% of Americans consider themselves to be independents.

In Colorado, and across the nation, voters broke heavily for Joe Biden in 2020. Respectfully to Biden, a significant portion of these voters voted in protest of Donald Trump’s presidency. Consider the down-ballot success of Republicans in congressional races. This was hardly the blue wave that had been widely predicted. These voters are independent. They are ticket splitters.

Many have opined about why voters are leaving political parties. True, Colorado has made it easier for unaffiliated voters to participate in the nominating process of the political parties. This was the right thing to do, and voter participation is the best evidence that this is working.

But, the core problem is that our duopoly party is broken. Political parties are dominated by their most extreme elements, making it harder and harder for mainstream candidates to secure their respective nominations. Instead of embracing the voters in the middle, Democratic and Republican party leaders seem to move further to the fringe. They allow the extreme voices to dictate party platforms. And, the political litmus test remains supreme in each party’s nominating contests.

And, after too often nominating the most extreme candidates, the parties and their leadership demand allegiance above the best interests of constituents. Should the elected officials veer off that path, the threat of a primary challenge is real.

Democrats and Republicans do see the world with different lenses, as they should. However, the hardcore partisans tend to promote their party first at the expense of collaborative and thoughtful leadership. Today, political statesmanship and bipartisanship are seen as weaknesses rather than strengths. These leadership qualities are punished rather than encouraged.

Yes, Joe Biden, a moderate, will be inaugurated as our nation’s 46th president on January 20, 2021. But, that will not stop the friction between the Bernie Sanders socialist wing of the party and the moderates, headed by the president-elect. Democrats must come to terms with the fact that defunding the police and socialist themes led to losses in the House of Representatives, and the likely failure to gain the Senate majority. And, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, must lean to the left to avoid his own primary nightmare from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY. Here in Colorado, the hard-left activists aggressively targeted Senator-elect John Hickenlooper’s conciliatory positions on responsible energy development in Colorado while serving as Colorado’s chief executive in his primary.

Similarly, there is no shortage of infighting in the Republican Party. President Donald Trump’s departure will lay bare the deep divisions in the Grand Old Party that have been simmering over the last four years. Will Trump loyalists split off and form their own nationalist party? Or will Trump’s influence over the party continue, forcing more traditional Republicans to fall in line for fear of facing their own primary nightmare scenarios? Or will they become independent?

The voters are weary. They are tired of the partisanship and the games being played by our elected leaders. Young voters are particularly unimpressed.

Large numbers of voters in their teens and twenties are choosing to remain unaffiliated, but not because they are politically agnostic.  According to a study recently published by Tufts University, 55% of eligible voters, ages 18-29, cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, up from 44% from the 2016 election. This demographic was key to Joe Biden’s success, especially in Colorado, where 64% of Biden’s voters likely stemmed from this population.

Will young voters remain politically active and engaged? Count on it. And the two major political parties should note that all signs point to younger voters demanding higher standards and better conduct from our leaders.

The electorate of the future will be majority unaffiliated. These voters are not loyal to a party platform or ideology. Instead, they expect solutions from the left and right sides of the political spectrum. They demand that leaders engage in productive, respectful, and collaborative discourse. And, these voters will punish elected officials who behave poorly in the public square.

Is a viable third party in our future? If the parties don’t shape up, it’s more likely than ever.

As Voltaire said, “One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion.”

Doug Friednash is a Denver native, a partner with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck and the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper. Cole Wist is an attorney and former Republican state representative from Arapahoe County.

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