Switching party alignment has become a centerpiece of today’s public discourse. The state of Arizona is a perfect example with a recent surge of independent voters eclipsing those registered with either major party. This shift in the political landscape has prompted an important discussion about the politics of party switching and what it means for our democracy.
The influx of Arizona’s independent voters has been largely attributed to their dissatisfaction with the two-party system and unkept promises from both sides. Some who switched their affiliation say neither Democrats nor Republicans are adequately taking into account their beliefs and values. As such, many Arizonans are opting to no longer be tied down to one side or another, instead choosing to remain unaffiliated.
Yet, voters are often perplexed by politicians who switch sides and wonder about their motivation. While there is no single answer to this question, there are several factors that play into why a politician might decide to switch parties. I’ve been thinking about this because of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s switch and wanted to take a deeper dive.
Some Context of Party Switching
Switching parties is controversial and divisive though it has been a part of American politics since the earliest days of our nation's history, as legislators have occasionally chosen to change their affiliation in order to better reflect their evolving views and values. Understanding the motivations and implications of party-switching at any level is an important aspect of how our political system works.
Party switching has happened since before the birth of our nation. Colonial legislatures mandated that members had to swear an oath of allegiance to their local government and its leader before taking office. This meant that elected officials often changed their allegiances depending on who was in power at any given time. The first person to switch political parties was Martin Van Buren. He switched from the Anti-Masonic Party to the Democratic Party in 1828 and went on to become the eighth President of the United States.
Recent examples of Party Switchers
Former Ohio governor John Kasich left his long-time GOP affiliation in 2019 to become an Independent. He has since been a vocal critic of Republicans and Trump’s policies, particularly over immigration reform, healthcare access, and climate change initiatives.
Kasich has found success as an Independent while maintaining his political influence in his former party.
In contrast, Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii who announced this year that she had switched her party affiliation from Democrat to independent, has been shunned by Democrats for actively helping MAGA Republicans. Whether Sinema will go that far, is yet to be seen.
Party switching at the state and local level
Proponents of party switching argue that in an ever-evolving political landscape, individuals have the right to express their beliefs by changing parties when necessary. They view party switching as a way for people to make sure their views are accurately represented by those who hold elected office. Additionally, supporters believe that allowing politicians to switch parties can help promote bipartisanship and lead to more productive conversations across party lines.
On the other hand, opponents say politicians should stay loyal once they have declared allegiance to a certain party.
Do politics evolve so much that you have to leave the party?
Good question. For some, these changes represent progress, while for others it can be difficult to identify with the new direction of their party. Whether or not one should stay with a party regardless of its changing views is an often debated topic among those within the political arena.
The choice of staying or leaving a political party because of changing ideologies can depend on how personally invested someone is in that particular group. Some may find it easy to leave and join another party if they don't agree with certain aspects, while others may stay out of loyalty to the platform they originally joined when they first started out. Those that stay, often try to reform the system from within.
Many call Sinema's move pure selfish motivation, and it likely is, especially since she has made no identifiable effort to change the party she has been elected to represent from within. So, did she leave the party because she got elected as part of a "movement" of change, or is her abandonment due to party ideologies that moved away from her and her inability to adjust or change from within?
What's the difference between a political party and a movement?
The distinction between a political party and a movement is often blurred. A political party is wider in scope than a movement; its purpose is to win votes, obtain power and implement policies in government. A movement, on the other hand, can be more focused and targeted toward achieving specific goals.
Political parties are often associated with long-term objectives such as creating lasting change through legislation or policy reform. Movements may have shorter-term objectives such as protesting against current affairs or raising awareness of certain issues. In some cases, movements have been known to create pressure that influences political parties to act on their demands.
As I can remember, 2018 wasn't marked by a "movement", per se, and thus the work of change is long-term and ongoing. To me, this suggests that Sinema's actions are for a selfish political calculation.
Where to next?
Many of us are disappointed and angry about Sinema’s party abandonment but we must reflect and understand that the practice isn’t new. In fact, it has been an accepted practice for centuries. Party switching is a common occurrence in today’s American politics and has been used by many politicians throughout history to further their own political ambitions and agendas. It is a way for them to gain more support and increase their chances of winning elections. This doesn’t mean that it should be seen as acceptable or encouraged; however, understanding why it happens can help us better understand our current political landscape and how politicians use party switching to gain an advantage over their opponents.
For many, the idea of a politician switching parties can be confusing and even discouraging. We may struggle to understand their motives, or why they would abandon a party in which they had been elected to serve. However, for me, it reinforces my strong belief that as citizen voters, we have a clear challenge to nurture and support better candidates.
We need to recognize who is truly committed to representing their constituents’ best interests rather than just following party lines. This means that we must become more educated on our candidates’ platforms—their values and goals—and not simply focus on the letter next to their name on the ballot. After all, if our candidates are flipping back and forth between parties based on what's politically expedient at the moment for them, then where does that leave us?
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. Please share.