Republicans and Democrats. Liberals and Conservatives. Fox News and CNN.

We’re constantly reminded that we live in a divided nation with two political parties waging an uncivil war. Meanwhile, millions of Americans go to the polls driven more by fear of the other side getting power than by inspiration from the candidate who got their vote.

But what if we are even more divided than we think? What if instead of two parties, there are really five?

That’s the argument derived from a series of surveys done by Echelon Insights, a Washington, D.C., data analysis firm founded in 2014.

Rather than looking at candidates and parties, the pollsters asked voters a series of questions on economic and cultural issues. They found that people break down into five groups that form the coalitions we see as the Democratic and Republican parties.

Looking at the divide this way explains a lot about what holds the major parties together, and what tensions threaten to tear them apart. It also explains why so many people feel unhappy with their choices on Election Day.

According to Echelon, a five-party lineup might look like this: Nationalist, with 24 percent of the electorate; Conservative, 19 percent; “Acela,” 10 percent; Labor, 26 percent, and Green with 9 percent, with the rest not fitting any category.

The Nationalist Party is the Trump wing of the Republican Party, characterized by opposition to illegal immigration, political correctness and unfair trade deals.

The Conservative Party sounds like the Reagan-era Republicans’ three-legged stool – supporting a strong military, free markets and Christian-influenced views on social issues like abortion and LGBT rights.

The Acela Party is named for the express train that runs between Boston and Washington. Its members are liberal on social issues, conservative on economic ones and favor international engagement. It’s a small but influential part of the Democratic coalition because it’s where the party’s biggest donors come from.

The Labor Party is the party of Joe Biden, and its members say they want government action on health care, support for the middle-class, stronger unions and think the rich should pay more to support programs that help the less well off.

The Green Party in this analysis is not limited to the actual parties like the Green Independent Party in Maine. Echelon used the name to describe the party of radical restructuring – like a New Deal-style jobs program to fight climate change, ending systemic racism and breaking up big corporations to support social and economic justice.

The first two groups make up the Republican coalition, the last three the Democratic one. That might sound like an advantage for the Democrats, but it makes its coalition much more complicated. Acela Democrats could support the right kind of Republican, while Green Democrats could splinter to a third party or not vote at all if they don’t believe their issues are being taken seriously.

One way to look at the 2020 presidential election is as a contest between the Nationalist and Labor parties. They were the two biggest groups inside their coalitions, but neither was strong enough to win on its own.

The Republican coalition of Nationalists and Conservatives picked up seats in the House and ended up with an evenly divided Senate, but lost the presidency. Joe Biden was able to keep his three parties together, winning the votes of people with as little in common as billionaire Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This five-party concept works in Maine politics, too.

The Acela might not come this far north, but if you talked to the people in the Greater Portland suburbs who voted to elect Biden and re-elect Susan Collins last year, they would probably fit the bill.

Looking ahead to next year’s election, former Gov. Paul LePage appears to have both ends of the Nationalist/Conservative coalition nailed down, but Gov. Janet Mills might face a loss of enthusiasm from the Green wing of her party after vetoing some of their priorities.

The Echelon surveys confirm what analysts of voter data have seen for decades: Most Americans are not strongly ideological, but those who are divide roughly evenly between strong liberals and strong conservatives, who shape the party agenda.  Most of rest of the people are somewhere in the middle, but vote with the same major party most of the time, even if they have misgivings. There are few true independents.

It seems strange that a country as big and complicated as this one would divide into just two political parties. But maybe it seems strange because it’s not true.

We might have been a multi-party country all along.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.