January 15, 2024 - 10:00am

Amid the muck created by America’s two inadequate presidential frontrunners, green shoots are rising. They may not grow to maturity this year, but the basis for the emergence of better political choices already exists and is showing surprising life. 

The majority of voters, particularly independents, do not want a Biden-Trump rematch. That’s no surprise, since three-quarters of the population think that Joe Biden is too old, with the vast majority considering him not mentally up to the job. For his part, Donald Trump has consistently failed to gain approval from more than 42% of the electorate. Astonishingly, the most favoured of all the candidates is neither one of these two, but instead independent candidate Robert Kennedy.

This all reflects a deep political despair. Nearly two-thirds of Americans dislike the political status quo, and barely 4% think the system is working well, a Pew survey found, while 75% feel that national leadership has declined in recent years, according to Rasmussen polling from last month. Crucially, independents still form the largest voting bloc in the US, with 43% of adults identifying as such.

But the growing disenchantment could also become a source of hope for a new breed of leaders. In the Republican Party — despite her frankly disingenuous comments about the Civil War — Nikki Haley has emerged as a viable alternative to Trump. Among Democrats, we see the rise to prominence of independent-minded liberals like Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, the onetime progressive heartthrob who works closely on issues with conservatives such as Sen. J.D. Vance.

Like a majority of Americans, Fetterman aggressively supports Israel and wants to staunch the open border. Unsurprisingly, he is denounced by the progressive press for breaking the party line. Similar treatment was accorded to Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent. The people are willing, unlike Biden and the party establishment, to take on the lunatic Left fringe that now infects the Democratic Party on anything from Israel-Palestine to the impact of the porous border.

Going beyond the horse race analyses, we see old alliances shattered and future prospects far more unpredictable. Working-class voters, once the prime constituency of the Democratic Party, have been shifting decisively toward Republicans. Minorities, who make up over 40% of the nation’s working class and will constitute the majority by 2032, are now jumping ship in considerable numbers. 

The big issue, as usual, is the economy, which only 20% of voters rate as “excellent” or “good”, versus 49% who call it “poor”, according to a New York Times/Siena poll. Americans remain overwhelmingly pessimistic about the country’s future. That is likely why Kennedy’s odd mélange of environmentalism and populism (with an occasionally conspiratorial tinge), have made him the favourite of voters under 35.  This likely doesn’t reflect a revival of the old Kennedy worship, as the young barely know who his father and uncle were. 

Many of these younger voters eschew both parties. Only 33% of baby boomers consider themselves independent, compared to more than half of millennials and Gen Z, according to RealClearPolitics. This opens the door to Kennedy, but also to more conventional independent politicians not tied to the hive mind of the Trumpian Right or progressive Left. 

Worried party functionaries are working overtime to keep any third party, including the centrist No Labels group, off the ballot. Dritan Nesho, a No Labels pollster, says battleground state polling found that between 60% and 70% of voters in swing states are open to considering a moderate, independent presidential ticket if the main-party choice is between Biden and Trump. In one recent poll, almost two in five Americans said they would consider voting for a third-party candidate; if this holds, it would be a larger share than either member of the current deadly duo. 

These trends will not please the establishments of the Left and Right, but the defeat of the fraying status quo would be America’s salvation. Kennedy may not be the answer to our prayers, but embracing his rise is more plausible than genuflecting to the existing political elites.  

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)