On the Independence of Independents

What does it mean to be an independent in the context of the reigning two-party state? Who are political independents? Are they people who describe themselves as independent? Or people who vote for independents? Or people who are registered as independents? Are they a-political or anti-political non-voters, disengaged from the political process? Or are they swing voters, whose voting habits cannot be predicted, that is, who may vote Republican one election and Democratic the next? Or are they split-ticket voters? Are they non-partisan or anti-partisan, and concentrate on a given candidate's character and stance on issues without consideration of party affiliation? Or are they hyper-partisans, fed up with both major parties and the political charades characteristic of the duopoly system?

Independents span the political spectrum. They can be found among conservatives, moderates and progressives. What they all share in common, however, is an unwillingness to identify themselves with either of the major parties, and, indeed, with any political party whatsoever. This fact, of itself, reveals a number of paradoxes inherent in the duopoly system of political representation. The conservative independent might argue that the major parties offer a choice between a liberal party and a not-as-liberal party; the independent progressive may very well assert that the major parties represent a choice between a conservative and a not-as-conservative party; and the moderate independent might decry ideological extremism on both sides of the duopoly divide.

The Hankster links to a reminder that "most 'independent' voters aren't," from Mark Millan at the LA Times Top of the Ticket blog, whose post was occasioned by a piece at Miller-McCune aimed at debunking media myths surrounding the independent voter on the basis of a recent study by John Petrocik in the journal Electoral Studies entitled: "Measuring Party Support: Leaners are not Independents."

'Leaners' are, of course, people who describe themselves as independents to pollsters, but when asked whether they lean toward either of the duopoly parties over the other, they choose one over the other. (I have discussed the phenomenon of leaners before, see Independent Independents and the Duopoly Prod.) Needless to say, when respondents to polls state that they affiliate with either of the duopoly parties, they are not then asked whether they lean independent or toward a third party. In his article, Petrocik argues that leaners:
are virtually identical to those who are classified as “weak” partisans (who are almost universally viewed as party identifiers) across a wide variety of perceptions, preferences, and behaviors.
Such findings justify the inclusion of independent leaners in measurements of support for the major parties. As the Miller-McClune article puts it:
In the public imagination, independents are a relatively stable demographic made up of engaged but unaffiliated people who can be persuaded one way or another. They are thought of, essentially, as swing voters. No doubt much of the fascination with how independents are thinking is based on that premise. Which, it turns out, is false.
Gallup undoubtedly agrees with this line of reasoning. In their State of the States report on political party affiliation, the polling organization notes:
Because the proportion of independents in each state varies considerably (from a low of 25% in Pennsylvania to a high of 50% in Rhode Island and New Hampshire), it is easiest to compare relative party strength using "leaned" party identification. Thus, the Democratic total represents the percentage of state residents who identify as Democratic, or who identify as independent but when asked a follow-up question say they lean to the Democratic Party. Likewise, the Republican total is the percentage of Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning independents in a state.
However, while Petrocik argues that the number of independents appears inflated because "of the inclination of Americans to prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and inclined to judge candidates on their individual merit," the identification of leaners as weak partisans equally inflates the level of support for the duopoly parties. Petrocik's own data show that overall:
Only 38% express a preference for continuing the current Democratic and Republican party domination; almost as many (34%) prefer to see new parties challenge the Democrats and Republicans.
It is indeed highly unlikely that very many independently minded voters conform to the mass media's preconceived notions of the independent voter as swing voter. But does this mean that they are not 'really' independent? If an independently-minded voter is confronted with a choice between a Republican and a Democrat, and they consistently vote for one side over the other, this does not imply that they are not independent, but it would seem to imply that they lean conservative or liberal, and points toward the pernicious prevalence of lesser-evilism. They could be voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or against the greater of two evils, and they may well do so against their inclination or their better judgment, simply because they would rather vote Republican or Democrat than not vote.


Nancy Hanks said...

Poli-Tea is on point once again! Thanks for this incite -- the Miller-McCune article highlights that it's a real fight to break out of two-party thinking. I predict that they and other MSM (or wannabe MSM) will come screaming and kicking to the independent movement, or lose relevance altogether.

Keep up the good fight, P-T!

d.eris said...

Thanks Nancy.

Anonymous said...

i think you are missing the point.

the argument that political scientists are trying to make about "true" independents is that they have little capacity to swing elections one way or another. it is not a myth that "true" independents constitute an extremely small percentage of the voting population.

your point that a third of independents would prefer a third party is interesting, but it doesn't speak to the narrow argument that politicians don't have to appeal to "independents" in order to win elections. suggesting that some independents (34%?) would vote differently if there were more parties is entirely theoretical and has no relationship to how they actually vote -- i.e. in a highly partisan manner. in our two-party system, the fact remains that the "true" independent is quite rare, largely unimportant, and basically powerless.

d.eris said...

Anonymous, proving the falsehood of popular assertions forwarded by professional political commentators in regard to independents actually tells us very little about political independents.

You write: "in our two-party system, the fact remains that the "true" independent is quite rare, largely unimportant, and basically powerless."

Exactly. I would argue that independents will remain powerless as long as they continue to vote Democrat or Republican.

My point is that insofar as independents vote Republican or Democrat they are not independent. (See, for instance, this other post on the independence of independents.) Rather they might be more appropriately termed co-dependent.