Independent Autonomy: Breaking the Cycle of Electoral Codependency

Can we speak of an independent movement in the United States? Public opinion consistently indicates historic levels of discontent with the Democratic and Republican Parties. More Americans identify themselves as independents than with either of the duopoly parties, and by significant margins. Last month I noted in a post on the new independent majority:
A new ABC News-Washington Post poll finds independent affiliation at an all time high. 43% of respondents identified themselves as independents, as opposed to 32% who called themselves Democrats, and the 21% who said they are Republicans. Taken together Republicans and Democrats barely constitute an absolute majority. These are the "dead-enders" of the duopoly parties.
Indeed, majorities of Americans across the ideological spectrum recognize the two-party system's inability to represent the interests of the people of the United States and desire more adequate representation in government. John Zogby recently emphasized that there is majority support for third party alternatives to the Democratic-Republican Party:
even slight majorities of both Democrats and Republicans want another party. Not surprisingly, 73% of Independents agree . . . Fifty-eight percent of both liberals and conservatives want a third party . . . Then there are the 61% of moderates who apparently believe that neither party is moderate enough.
This raises a number of questions. If a majority of the population is dissatisfied with the Democratic-Republican duopoly system of government why do majorities continue to vote for and otherwise support Democrats and Republicans? What does it mean to be an independent in such a scenario? Who are independents anyway? This is a question I've touched on before:
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?
Such uncertainties make it difficult to formulate any conclusive judgment as to whether or not we may speak of an independent movement in the United States. In the comments to my post on the promulgation of independence, Nancy Hanks of The Hankster responded with a number of good points and difficult questions. Among others: how can we account for the spike in independent affiliation following the elections of 2008? If the independent vote can swing an election one way or another, do they not effectively constitute a "third force" in US politics?

I do not think we can make sense of the spike in independent identification without taking into consideration the drop in Republican affiliation and the rise of anti-establishment conservative activism, ex. the tea party movement. These are all likely facets of the same phenomenon. It will be interesting to see whether tea party activists will be able to maintain their independence from the Republican Party or whether they will be defeated and folded back into the duopolist order, as happened with the anti-war movement.

Despite the common "wisdom" purveyed by the mainstream political press, independents are not a centrist monolith. There are conservative, liberal, libertarian, progressive and moderate independents. However, though they span the ideological and political spectrum they are united in their rejection of Democratic-Republican Party politics. This purely negative unity must figure in any consideration of the practical ideological paradox alluded to above, namely, why self-described independents continue to support Democratic and Republican candidates for office over superior independent alternatives. So long as independents are able only to play the "mommy party" off the "daddy party" and vice versa, they will not constitute an autonomous force in US politics, but will rather reproduce their dependency on the two-party status quo. Yet, might one not turn this conclusion right around? If neither Democrats nor Republicans can win elections without the support of independents, aren't the duopoly parties dependent on them? Indeed, in many cases they are. But co-dependency is not autonomy either.

Unquestionably, independent activists have made great strides in recent decades organizing those who find no shelter in big tent circus politics. Arguably, however, this is still prelude and preface. As a number of this season's elections have demonstrated, third party and independent candidates are capable of mounting "surprisingly strong" campaigns, as they say in the duopolized press. In 2010, no doubt, we will still have the element of surprise, and this is potentially a great strategic advantage, given the relatively high number of promising third party and independent campaigns that are taking shape across the country.


Ross said...

If you've read the book "Third Parties in America," the central thesis of that book is that third parties go through cycles in America of strong support then very weak support, although the two party system remains intact. I think that will be true as long as we have plurality voting and the electoral college, but that only means that we won't have three major parties. It doesn't mean that there can't be a successful minor party.

I mean, look at the Populist or People's Party. That was arguably the most successful third party in history (the only other contender would be the Republican Party, although that's a very unique situation). The Populists of the late 1800s were not a personality cult, nor were they a major party. But they did elect many members of Congress and even Senators, they got a decent amount of electoral votes, and they elected thousands of local officials. They, whether directly or indirectly (and many times the Progressives, who were not tied to any party, continued their efforts) gave us things like the direct election of US Senators, the income tax, and many workers' rights. I would say that this is a highly successful third party.

Anyway, my point is that we could be moving into a period of high third party activity. Some people might get a bit hopeless since it's only temporary, but I think it's a reason to be happy. It means that, at least for now, we'll have a bunch of new ideas in politics and people who aren't party of the two party duopoly will be elected into office.

I mean, that's not a definite, and I might just be getting excited, but look at the evidence - many more independents than ever before, Chris Daggett is running strong, there are a bunch of strong independents running for governorships in 2010 (Lincoln Chafee, a few guys in Nevada, Lynne Williams, Rich Whitney, etc.), there are calls from both the left and right for a new party, a new progressive party is forming nationally, and there's a bit of an election reform movement, meaning that if we do get a time of high third party activity, we might get some permanent democratic reforms, which would be great.

Wow, that went on for too long...

d.eris said...

I'm not familiar with the book. Sounds like an interesting read. The influence of third parties throughout US history is definitely undervalued or simply misunderstood today. Have you read or are you familiar with a lot of books on third party history and strategy? If so, would you be interested in doing a guest post offering an overview of the literature at some point?

With respect to your latter point, I am in definite agreement that there is strong evidence that we are entered a period of renewed third party and independent activity. But it's not going to happen all by itself, obviously. There is reason to be excited and this should be an impetus to renewed effort across the third party spectrum.

d.eris said...

Oh yeah, I also wanted to mention that Politics in the Zeros has had a number of good posts on the Populist Party and the Progressives over the last few weeks. Definitely worth checking out.

Ross said...

Thanks. I'm in the middle of a long book list with some third party literature on it. I've read Third Parties in America, No Debate by George Farah, Citizen Power by Mike Gravel (and all of his other books written recently), Fixing Elections by Steven Hill, Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone, I'm reading Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us by Ralph Nader.

I was thinking of doing a series of posts on Daily Kos and other liberal websites about third parties throughout American history, although I have so much homework right now that it would probably have to be written over the next six months or so.

d.eris said...

Well, keep it in mind. Anyone else out there have some good book reviews or literature overviews they'd like to share? Send me an email.