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Many Democrats and Republicans dislike their own parties — and are flocking to Trump and Sanders

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Wisconsin Ahead Of State's Primary Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Pete Calautti has written what you might call the alt-rightist's case for Donald Trump. It's an explanation of why Calautti, a PhD student in cinema studies who typically considers voting "an inherently violent and immoral act," is nevertheless going to pull the lever for the billionaire in November. Calautti obviously isn't your median voter, or even your median Republican, but his argument speaks to something that I've come to see as a powerful force behind Trump's rise: the power of negative partisans.

Here's a puzzle, the answer to which helps explain Trump: How does American politics have both more independents than ever and fewer swing voters than ever? Aren't independents swing voters?

No, it turns out they're not. As political scientist Corwin Smidt has found, swing voting has plummeted in recent decades, and for good reason. The parties are more polarized today than ever before. In the 1950s, there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans; neither party had a clear position on abortion, or taxes, or even civil rights. You could be a Southern Democrat voting for a candidate who loved segregation and hated government health care or a Northern Republican voting for a candidate who hated segregation and supported Medicare.

A choice, not an echo

But now the choice between the parties is starker than ever before. Here's an amazing fact: Low-information voters today understand the issue differences between the two parties as well as high-information voters did in the 1960s.

polarization, political information, charts, ek, Corwin Smidt/Polarization and the Decline of the American Floating Voter

The reason is simple: The issue differences between the two parties are much larger and clearer than they were in the 1960s. So even though voters like their own parties less — a trend you can see in the declining poll numbers for both parties and the rising percentage of Americans who call themselves independents — they have become more loyal voters for those parties, because they have come to fear the other party that much more.

"Polarization has not strengthened their sense of partisan loyalty," writes Smidt in a sentence that changed the way I see politics, "but the clarity of polarization has effectively allowed independents and the politically inattentive to act as loyal partisans."

Which brings me back to Calautti.

Donald Trump: great if you hate Democrats, great if you hate Republicans

In his piece, Calautti lists some points of agreement with Trump: He's with him on immigration, and on outsourcing, and on political style. But that's not the core of Trump's appeal.

"The larger answer to the question of why I'm voting for Trump, one that has nothing to do with policy at all, is that of Trump as a weapon," writes Calautti. "I am more motivated to vote for him as punishment against the GOP establishment than anything else."

This statement makes sense in Smidt's framework. Calautti is on the right. He has no love for the Democratic Party. But he also hates the Republican Party. The problem with most right-leaning candidates is that they only let him express one of those sentiments. Trump lets him express both. He's the perfect candidate for an age in which many of the Republican Party's most loyal voters dislike the Republican Party even as they fear the Democratic Party.

In this telling, Trump's past and possible future disloyalty to the Republican Party becomes a badge of honor — it's proof positive that, like many of his voters, his relationship with the GOP is purely of convenience.

But Republicans aren't the only ones who routinely vote for a party they don't really like.

Bernie Sanders and Democratic disappointment

Bernie Sanders is, in many ways, a traditional liberal Democrat; his issue positions and voting record during both his House and Senate careers look like those of most liberal Democrats. But Sanders has never identified with the Democratic Party. He runs as an independent and calls himself a democratic socialist.

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Milwaukee Before State Primary Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

"Are the Democrats 10 times, 100 times, better on all of the issues than the Republicans? They surely are," Sanders told me. But, he continued, "if you walked out of here or walked down the street or went a few miles away from here and you stopped somebody on the street and you said, 'Do you think that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class?' People would look at you and say, 'What are you talking about?'"

Sanders, too, is an excellent candidate for an age in which many left-leaning voters loathe Republicans but are disappointed by the Democratic Party. Many Washington Democrats have been appalled that a guy who's never even called himself a Democrat could get so far in a Democratic primary, but that's part of Sanders's appeal. Like many of his voters, he sees the Republican Party as a threat, but he sees the Democratic Party as a failure. Sanders thinks the Democratic Party is meant to be the party of the working class but has instead become a party captured by the donor class, and he's not alone in that.

We used to think of political primaries as partisan affairs — contests that rewarded the most loyal party foot soldiers. But this is the era of negative partisans: consistent voters who show up at the polls not because they like their representatives but because they hate the other party. And that creates an opportunity for new kinds of candidates — candidates who can appeal not just to partisans' fear of the other party but to their disappointment in their own party.

How much do conservatives hate Trump?