A few years back, I used to fly between Boston and Dublin, Ireland for work, and became intimately acquainted with Aer Lingus’ transatlantic in-flight service. They served a meal on the flight, which was either beef stroganoff or chicken curry.

While I’m sure there were people on the plane who were hardcore chicken or beef people, the majority of us ate because it was a free meal and it was better than being hungry, with some people declining in favor of whatever food they’d brought on the plane with them or just not eating at all.

After this week’s episode of You Don’t Have to Yell, I can say with some degree of certainty that this matches the enthusiasm the American electorate has of both major parties - the key difference being if 51% of the plane chooses a meal, EVERYBODY has to eat it.

Airplane Food

What’s the breakdown, dawg?

The idealistic view of the American electoral system is that each American, after a careful and thoughtful weighing of the platforms and qualifications of the candidates, chooses the candidate that best matches their views. 

The more cynical view is that the American electorate has broken into electoral camps - two partisan camps that will vote for their party regardless of the candidate, and an independent voting blog equal in size to both parties that, after a careful and thoughtful weighing of the platforms and qualifications of the candidates, chooses the one that best matches their views.

The polling data reflects an EVEN MORE cynical reality, where two partisan camps vote for their party regardless of the candidate, a segment of registered independents who habitually vote for the same party regardless of the candidate but don’t like said party enough to register under their moniker, and a small, small, teensy-tiny group of true political independents who, after a careful and thoughtful weighing of the platforms and qualifications of the candidates, decide not to vote.

Or, to tie it back to the airplane analogy, you’ve got people who really like chicken or beef, people who’s desire not to go hungry is greater than or equal to their preference for chicken and beef, and a small group of people who don’t like either enough to eat at all.

The Numbers

As mentioned above, the number of people in America registered as Independents is roughly equal in size to those registered either Republican or Democrat - each about a third of the voting population, give or take a percent or two. Among independents, there are those who lean either Democrat or Republican - meaning they vote like Republicans and Democrats - and a smaller group of no-lean independents with no partisan preference whatsover.

While Democratic an Republican leaners are functionally partisan, in the sense they elect Democrats or Republicans as their partisan peers do, there’s a few notable differences about the independent voting bloc that shine a light on the nature of our system


  • The lower your partisan lean, the less likely you are to vote - In the 2018 midterms, 54% of Republican leaners voted, as opposed to 62% of registered Republicans. The gap was a little wider with Democrats, with 48% of leaners voting as opposed to 59% of those registered under the party. No lean independents fared the worst, with 33% of them voting. (source: Pew Research Center, Political Independents: Who They Are and What They Think)
  • They tend to have a more negative view of the candidates - A survey by the Pew Research Center showed Republican and Democratic independents are over 10% less likely to say the quality of candidates in the last several elections has been good. (source: Pew Research Center, 6 Facts About U.S. Political Independents)
  • They tend to vote against the opposition party, as opposed to for theirs - Leaners tend to be motivated more by antipathy to the opposing party, as opposed to a genuine affinity with the parties they vote with.
  • (source: Pew Research Center, Political Independents: Who They Are and What They Think)

What does this tell us, and what happened to all the talk about airplane food?

To take us back on our imaginary flight, if you have an affinity for chicken and know you’re going to be forced into eating beef if you don’t do something, you can bet your ass you’re going to vote with the chicken people. It’d also be a lot easier for the hardcore chicken people to rile you up by talking about all the ways the beef people want to impose their food preferences on you.

If the beef people decide to pack their flight with other beef people to put their thumb on the scales, you might just opt not to vote at all.

The analogy above, while slightly delicious, is also taking place in pretty much every state and district in the country. The goal of the major parties, in many cases, is to discourage independents who don't really feel represented by either party from voting through negative campaigning.

Gerrymandered districts create an environment where the primary is a substitute for the general election, making it meaningless for members of the opposition party to vote. This, in turn, encourages candidates to play to the partisan base, creating greater polarization and leaving out those in the middle.

In effect, we have a system built to cater to the most extreme factions of our two parties and suppress portions of the electorate that might vote against them.

I think I want to get off this plane…

The good news here is that alternatives exist. Countries such as Germany, Norway, and Ireland have a proportional system of representation - where the number of seats a party has in government is directly related to the proportion of the vote they receive. This gives every voter a voice, allows more extreme elements in the political spectrum to go off and form their own kooky parties, and creates more room for moderate voters in the process.

Best of all, there’s nothing prohibiting this from taking place in the United States. The Constitution leaves congressional apportionment up to the states, meaning states can determine exactly how they elect candidates to office. While change is hard at the federal level, it’s much, much easier for regular people to get changes like this implemented at the state level.

Organizations such as fairvote.org are looking to get changes like these made across the country and, at a time when partisan gridlock is keeping government from performing their most basic functions, changes like this are long overdue.

It’s either this, or chicken or beef.

(You can listen to the latest episode below, or on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you decide to get your podcasts. It's a free country.)