On the Myth of the 'Myth of the Independent Voter'

At An Ordinary Person, Liberal Arts Dude takes issue with a post at The Monkey Cage on the "myth of the independent voter." LAD writes:
The Monkey Cage, a blog authored by professors of political science in major universities such as Georgetown University, New York University, George Washington University and Columbia University, recently had an interesting post called, “Three Myths About Political Independents.” It is supplemented by another article called “The Active Fantasy Lives of Libertarians.”

Together, both articles make the point of dispelling “myths” about independents:
1) Independents are the largest partisan group.
2) Independents are actually independent.
3) Change in the opinions of independents is always consequential.

To prove their point, the authors of the blog dig up survey data that reveal the majority of independents lean towards either of the major political parties and that the number of non-partisan, “pure” independents is actually quite small. Hence, the majority of independents, therefore, aren’t really independent . . . .

I have never seen so much data gathered and brain power used to make the point that independents do not matter. The professors who write the Monkey Cage blog are professional political scientists and I have a lot of respect for them as such. But this is a case where I think they completely miss the mark on the phenomenon of why so many people are declaring themselves political independents. All because they focus solely on voting behavior on presidential elections as their sole measure of political behavior that matters . . . They are missing a much larger and more important society-wide dynamic—many people are finding the two-party model of American democracy to be ineffective in representing their interests and are making a deliberate, political act of rejecting them within the structural and narrow constraints of the political system. Those who are not doing that are dropping out of participation in the system altogether. [Emphasis added.]
The "myth of the independent voter" is a myth of American political scientism, which states that because self-described independents "lean" toward the positions of the Democrats or Republicans they are not independent but rather weak partisans of the duopoly parties. However, the fact that independents take sides when given a choice between Republicans and Democrats does not imply that they are not independent, but rather that they are not ideologically neutral. As LAD puts it:
Most independents declare independence because of distrust and/or disgust with both major political parties . . . My voting behavior leans Democratic because the American system of politics is so lopsidedly dominated by the two major parties that I really have no choice—especially in presidential elections. As a Progressive, there is absolutely no way you can convince me to vote Republican. Which leaves me to either vote Democratic or third party. I have voted third party before and will do so again.
If anything, the "myth" that research into the behavior of independents dispels is that which paints them as a monolith of non-partisan centrists, a presumption which is all too common among duopolist pollsters and mainstream media commentators. However, when it is argued that the number of independents is inflated because independent "leaners" are in fact "weak partisans" of the Democratic and Republican Parties, what results is an artificial inflation of support for the Democratic and Republican Parties. It is not surprising that this outcome is forwarded by American political scientists. The American Political Science Association has been among the most vocal supporters of the Democratic-Republican duopoly system of government, beginning in 1950 with the organization's development of the so-called "responsible party" model of duopolist political practice. To paraphrase Mark Voss-Hubbard's critique of the duopolist bias evident among American political historians: a research agenda that promises to organize the analysis of political practice around long-range systemic patterns that define a regime is bound to deflect attention away from practices that demonstrate popular antipathy toward that regime. For previous posts on this topic, see: On the Independence of Independents and Dispel the Myth of the 'Myth of the Independent Voter'.


Liberal Arts Dude said...

Many thanks for featuring my post! I think as the independent and third-party movement grows, political discourse of political outsiders who take issue with two-party dominance need a new way of messaging and communicating their perspective. Especially now that there seems to be a growing public interest in independent politics that professional political scientists are finally paying attention (albeit to try and refute the importance of independents).

I think outsider politics, in order to communicate its aims better to a politics-weary and skeptical public -- to win them over to our side -- has to explicitly use words such as "democracy" or "participatory democracy" or "democracy movement." We need to cast ourselves as going beyond ideological identifications and that we have aims based on a long tradition of participatory democracy -- and we're the good guys in this fight.

Stressing political independence from partisanship I think can only go so far in communicating effectively with the public and gaining credibility with them. But stressing that what we as a disparate group of people whose views encompass a wide span of views and ideologies have in common is we are advocates of a more citizen-centered, participatory, transparent and open democracy in America can go a long way in communicating our perspective and point of view to a wider audience.

We are already being painted as irrelevant, fringe and extremists. We are not. We are at the very essence of things advocates for greater democracy and democratic participation for average citizens and a more open, receptive government to such activities.

d.eris said...

That's a good point LAD. Though, imo, the language of independence is very powerful, invested with historical significance etc. In addition to "democracy" the words "republican" and "republicanism" also need to be re-framed, and taken back from the establishmentarian forces aligned against real people-centered politics: a true democratic-republican could never vote Democrat or Republican.