The Independent Voter: A Profile and a Purpose
Now, having (Michener-like) plowed through a couple hundred-plus years of history, a short course on ideology, i.e., conservatives vs. liberals and some comparisons between the Republican and Democratic Parties as well as some talking points on the crowd we refer to as political Independents, let’s zoom in on the nub of this.
As the basis, the principal constituent or ingredient, for a political revolution can (and should) we make something more out of Independents and their significance at the ballot box than the generalizations and speculations we have put together so far? Or, on the contrary, has our discussion here pretty much confirmed widely accepted wisdom that Independents (1) aren’t; that they really are (for some reason) simply reluctant Republicans and Democrats; (2) Independents are of such a demographic hodge-podge that there is simply no way to make them anything but what they are, a politically disparate crowd. Or, (3) that the presence of Independence has little or no impact or significance for the two major parties in our political system.
My money says that the political gentry will opt for all three points and suggest we just close the file on them at this point. Certainly understandable: they would prefer as little light shine in on this closet of voters as possible. From their perspective, it’s best if both they themselves and the rest of America know as little about them and what they, as a movement, may well signify as possible. Can’t blame them.
On the other hand, my inclination, from all the research I’ve accumulated, is to focus on that “for some reason” issue in point (1) above. Why?
As we’ve seen, Independents represent a statistical category, based upon a self-declaration of party preference, or in this case, non-party preference. But that description doesn’t tell us very much; doesn’t answer the question for what reason, or reasons (why). All it says is that the person prefers not to be (openly) associated with a particular political party. In itself, it says nothing about their particular political ideology, i.e., conservative or liberal. So is that all we really know about these people? Well, no, we know a bit more. We know, as already mentioned, a lot of these Independents express a sympathy or inclination for one or the other of the two parties. That gives us some indication of ideological tendency. But what we don’t know is just why these Independents have chosen this route. We don’t know, or don’t think we know, a lot about them in that regard.
Nonetheless, there seems to be no end to people talking about Independents and/or organizations pushing for Independent political actions, coalitions, or such that might favor “independent politics”—whatever that means to them—as we saw in Chapter XI. However, in spite of all this, there seems to be a pretty complete void concerning agreement on just what constitutes an Independent; or more correctly, why someone is an Independent, or concerning agreement on an Independent philosophy, if there really is one. With these questions in mind, recall how we described an Independent in Chapter II:
- Independents are evidence of dissatisfaction with the results of ideological government.
- Independents are evidence of an inadequate political marketplace.
- Independents are a proxy for the moderate middle-majority of voters.
- Independents represent agents for political change.
- Independents themselves are a probable cause of extreme partisanship.
For a start, how does one define an Independent (aside from how they register to vote)? You might ask, what is it that is defined by what it is not, but once defined, would cease to be? Answer: An Independent voter, by current standards (Yeah, I agree: that’s not all that informative or helpful). Can we be a bit more specific? Yes, possibly, if we look closely at what we know about them and, perhaps, what we don’t know about them. What is evident is somewhat hazy at best, aside from the fact that he/she declares not to support Democratic, Republican, or any other third-party platforms or ideologies—even if they do vote Democrat or Republican much of the time.
What are their demographics? Do they “fit” a specific demographic? Studies indicate many tend to be younger voters, mostly males. Do they remain Independents as they mature? Some indications are that they might, but we’re not sure yet. Are they clustered in any particular sections of the country? Maybe just bit more than usual in the West and Southwest, according to some, and in New England. Education? Conflicting analysis in this area, but all education levels appear to be represented. Economic status? Again, inconclusive, but some data to indicate they tend toward the middle and lower rungs of the income ladder. Not a high comfort level concerning the demographics at this point. But we seem to be improving in this area.
Many assume that because of Independents’ rejection of, or at best a weak attachment to, either persuasion that they must represent “the middle” of American political preference. This appears to be a very common assumption. But upon reflection, that’s not necessarily a given: a middle of what? What (or where) is “a middle”? Is it moderate conservatism, or moderate liberalism? Is it apathy or simple ignorance and laziness about who stands for what? Are they simply “swing voters,” political lemmings sometimes running in one direction, sometimes in the other? Where does political preference stop being conservative and become liberal? Are those the only choices, conservative or liberal? Is it issue-specific, or ideologically general? Is there a “no-man’s land” between ideologies where Independents see themselves? If so, what do they see, insofar as political preference or ideology? Or do they see any? What are they looking for? If they have a preference for something other than what we label conservative or liberal, in the broadest sense, what is it?
If that zone on the political spectrum that Independents are presumed to populate is not what the middle is assumed to represent, is it some form of centrism? But again, centrism of what? Is it some combination of the two ideologies, say being conservative on fiscal and economic matters but more liberal on social issues? That’s not an uncommon assumption. Well, if so, maybe we should call these voters “Republicrats,” not Independents. That may adequately define some of them. Nonetheless, that label really doesn’t satisfactorily define or further our understanding as to just why an Independent is an Independent.
The proliferation of Independent voters doesn’t seem to have moved the general voting population’s political ideology profile significantly over the past thirty-five to forty years as their numbers have increased. Periodic polls show that the percentage of respondents who list their ideology as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal has hardly moved:
[table caption=”Periodic polls show that the percentage of respondents who list their ideology as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal has hardly moved:”]
Source: Harris Poll (January–December 2004) Table 4, “Decade Means of Political Philosophy.” 2008 numbers from June 2009 Gallup Poll report. According to Gallup, “very few define themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum. Just 9% call themselves ‘very conservative’ and 5% ‘very liberal.’ The vast majority . . . identify with the unmodified form of their chosen label.“ 2010 figures from Third Way website “What it takes to Win”, 8/2011
Independents are in here with everyone else. The logical conclusion one draws from these figures is that Independents’ increasing declaration of independence doesn’t seem to be primarily ideologically motivated. Overall, we voters are not becoming significantly more conservative, moderate or liberal in our political leanings, according to our own declarations. We need to look further at just why Independents might be Independents.