I recently had an e-mail exchange with a reader who was sharply critical of a mainstream presidential candidate. I asked her about her political affiliation. "I consider myself an independent, though I lean left," wrote Kari Copland, 69, an artist who lives in Montana. I expected an endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders, but Copland surprised me. "I might vote for Donald Trump if he makes the cut," and if Republicans continue "to attempt to force their choice on the electorate."
Leaning left but willing to vote for Trump? As it turns out, such people aren't so rare. In New Hampshire, the Sanders and Trump campaigns even came up with talking points to sway them. That illustrates a trend I've observed as an outsider to American politics: In this election, the US political taxonomy is a mess, and the parties no longer easily fit any recognisable international political paradigm.
As I traveled to the early nomination states, I was reminded of the final days of the Soviet Union and the dawn of Russian independence, when the economically and socially liberal reformers called themselves "the left," putting hard-line Communists on the right flank of the political spectrum. I remember that foreign journalists struggled with these concepts: Aren't Communists supposed to be the far left? Eventually, the right and left flanks of the Russian body politic aligned with the accepted compass points.
A similar kind of redefinition seems to be taking place in US politics. It's pretty clear that the Republicans want to be defined as conservatives. But they can't agree on what that means. Thus, John Kasich and Jeb Bush are compassionate conservatives, and Trump calls himself a "common-sense conservative." In a radio ad endorsing Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Trey Gowdy said, "The South Carolina congressional delegation is very conservative, but Marco Rubio is more conservative than us." There were too many iterations of the word "conservative" in the 30-second radio spot to count.
In most European countries, the principal centre-left rival to the mainstream conservative party defines itself as socialist or social-democratic, but in the US these labels are anathema. Sanders is frequently referred to as "a self-described democratic socialist" as if this were an admission of guilt. And the Democratic Party doesn't want to be called socialist, despite its emphasis on social programmes and income redistribution. It defines itself as progressive.
This American exceptionalism is confusing, but it isn't simply a matter of labels. Some conservative politicians in the UK and Canada hold the same views, but this not an official party position.
In general, many US conservatives espouse a mixture of nativism, strong support for the military along with Christian fundamentalism. Foreign conservative parties wouldn't recognise themselves in those positions, which are closer to those held by the populist far right -- groups that emphasise nationality (The Finns, the U.K. Independence Party) or nationalism (the National Front in France). In Europe, it's also common for such parties to exploit the "Freedom" label (that's the case in Austria, the Netherlands and a number of other countries).
And the US progressives' proposals for tougher financial sector regulation, higher taxes on the rich and limited free higher education (even Sanders only promises it at state universities) are tame by the standards of European parties of the left, such as France's ruling Socialists or the Social Democrats in Germany's governing coalition. In most other countries, Hillary Clinton and even Sanders would be hard to classify: They are regarded as centre-left, but in most of Scandinavia or in France, their positions would place them to the right of the political center.
If this election has taught me one thing, it is that the narrow definition of US politics no longer encompasses the variety of views of voters. An increasing number of Americans are demanding to be represented outside the traditional band of the two parties and are claiming the anarchic space where they may be as likely to back Sanders as Trump. These people are on the "left" in the same sense that the late-Soviet reformers were "left": They are in favour of dismantling the system.
I told Copland that I didn't understand how she could be left-leaning and back Trump. "He is a breath of fresh air in a field of stinkweed," she wrote back. "He says terrible things. Surprisingly, I (along with most Americans) don't even care. This has been the most fun we have ever had in this country, I think."
The US needs a political spectrum more aligned with Americans' views. There are too many people who no loner identify with the main parties and their tortured searches for a new identity. That explains, at least in part, why the polls were off before the Iowa caucuses and why there are so many undecided voters -- more than 40 per cent -- in South Carolina before the primary on Saturday. These people are not really "left," they are left out.