The Next Big Thing

by Dennis Sanders on November 29, 2011

A few years ago, I somehow stumbled into an argument.  A man who identified as an independent was arguing with me about the Bush Administration and about his not liking then presidential candidate John McCain.  I kept telling him McCain wasn’t Bush and that a McCain presidency was not going to be Bush, part 3.  He kept on talking about everything that had gone wrong over the years; the Iraq War, torture and a whole mess of other issues.

After a while, I started to realize this guy wasn’t an independent by any stretch of the imagination.  I finally told him that if he was upset at the Republicans and didn’t want to vote for them, that there is candidate and party that he can vote for.

I guess I wasn’t interested in playing this game with the gentleman.  For better or for worse, he had chosen who he was going to vote for and I wasn’t willing to play the charade.

Every so often, there is a some writer talking about the growing number of political independents, or folks that decline to state a party.  Some of these writers conclude this is a big movement that could change everything in the coming years here in America. It was the next big thing.

But the thing is, as many times as I’ve heard how independents are ready to break out and become a major force in some way, nothing ever really happens.  There’s no major candidate or third party or anything that seems to make independents a major force in politics. Last summer Alan Abramowitz wrote that maybe independents may just not really be independents:

There they go again. The presidential campaign season is barely under way but already pundits and pollsters are making misleading claims about independent voters and the role they play in presidential elections. Here are some of the things you’ve probably read or heard in recent weeks:

  • Independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate.
  • Independent voters are up for grabs in 2012.
  • Whichever party wins a majority of the independent vote will almost certainly win the presidency.

These beliefs about the crucial role of independent voters in presidential elections have become the conventional wisdom among the Washington commentariat, reinforced by groups like “No Labels” and “Third Way” that try to promote centrist solutions to the nation’s problems. Recently, the Pew Research Center provided additional support for this theory with a report claiming that independents constitute a rapidly growing and diverse group of voters who swing dramatically back and forth from election to election.

It sounds convincing, but when it comes to media commentary about independent voters, you shouldn’t believe everything you read or hear.

It’s true that independents are a diverse group. But that’s mostly because the large majority of independents are independents in name only. Research by political scientists on the American electorate has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are “closet partisans” who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate.

Now, there have been articles knocking the independent voter, as long as there have been articles about the rise of independents.  But I think that Abramowitz’s take is more in line with what I’ve been seeing over the years; that people who claim they are political independents are really closet partisans.

If there really was this third force out there it would at some point coalesce into a real political movement with real positions on issues that would probably differ from the two major parties.  The movement then would become a third party or be co-opted by the other two parties.  But no such movement has ever taken shape.  I know there are structural issues that might keep third parties from rising, but even in states that have allowed third parties to take shape the third force is hardly a factor.

What I’ve noticed over time is that most of the people who claim to be independent choose one of the two major parties at some point.  They may never say it out loud, but in their words and speech it’s pretty clear which party they like or dislike more.

Solomon Kleinsmith recently commented that it might be best for David Frum to give up on changing the GOP and become and independent.  It won’t surprise me if Frum ends up leaving GOP, but if he declares himself an independent, I would bet that what would remain unspoken would be that he had chosen the other side, the Democrats and not some kind of third way.  He may never say that out loud, but it will be present in his speech.

As the song goes, we all have to serve somebody.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

DonC November 30, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I very much do consider myself a centrist, leaning a little left on some issues and right on some other. I clearly am not a closet partisan! Yet I often vote for a member of a major party. Sometimes it is because there isn’t a good candidate in the center. But more often I see a nut on one extreme whom I clearly do not wish to get into office, and vote for the other extreme.

When centrist candidates regularly attain a ‘critical mass’ in their support, centrist voters will follow. It will truly give us something to vote for … not just vote against.

At this point at least, money flows to the extremes. And as anyone can tell you who has worked in a campaign, money is even more important than most people even imagine.

What will it take to change the equation ….?

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ged November 30, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Independent != Undecided

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Gabs December 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm

“If there really was this third force out there it would at some point coalesce into a real political movement with real positions on issues that would probably differ from the two major parties. ”

Why? Those independents who are not closet members of one of the two major parties are united only by the fact that they aren’t closet members of one of the two major parties. Their reasons for that vary. You can hardly form a group with positions on issues if the only common ground is rejection of the two major parties.

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Don Kirk November 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm

The Big Tent Revue is certainly correct that self-identified ‘independents’ frequently vote for a partisan party, but this fact does not negate their independence for the simple fact that they only reluctantly vote for an ideological candidate while holding their noses. Often, the “closet partisan” is actually voting their ideological ‘lean,’ not their partisan loyalty. Also, some unknown percentage of non-voters are ‘independents,’ fed up with the structured choice of the duopoly. The “closet partisan” exists, but it is a mistake to think they are therefore not ‘independent.’

Yet the 40-year national trend is clear. The number of American voters who do NOT want to be identified as either Democrat or Republican is growing and is now the largest political group in the country. By far, this large plurality of independents is not solely moderates; large numbers of ideological extremists are also ‘independent.’

There are two basic problems at work. First, organizing moderate independents is like herding cats. Who has ever had any success in organizing the bourgeoisie? No one. So, the ‘big tent’ concept of the duopoly works to the advantage of two ideological extremes and to the disadvantage of the moderate middle, because the bourgeoisie, by its nature, is forever minimally ideological, if not blandly non-ideological.

Second, the duopoly sixty years ago changed the structure of American politics in order to reward ideological purity and thus reduce bipartisanship. As any pragmatist will observe, the unintended consequences of this ‘reform’ divides the formerly dominant values of the bourgeoisie into two tents, thus elevating partisan extremism and diminishing bipartisan moderation. As the moderate middle is increasingly marginalized by its bifurcation into two tents committed to their extremes, the ‘independents’ grow. By 2020, the ‘independents’ will cross over from the present large plurality to become the majority of the American electorate.

Either the bifurcated American middle coalesces in its own self-interest to demand the restoration of bipartisanship as the higher civic virtue, or they will, as the bourgeoisie of unherdable cats has always done, stand idly by, stupified, as one or the other extreme tears the democratic republic apart.

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