Anyone purporting to identify a meaningful Independent coalition must be able to answer four questions with crystal clarity about their potential base. Who are they? What are their numbers? How are they organized? What are they voting for?MW argues, on the basis of a CATO analysis, that Independents are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and that they constitute approximately 14% of the electorate. He also suggests that, as a voting bloc, they might coalesce around specific personalities (ex. "Perot, Nader, Anderson, Wallace, Roosevelt"), or in support of a discrete set of issues, but that, in practice, they tend to vote for Democrats and Republicans, effectively revealing themselves to be weak partisans rather than strong Independents. He concludes with a call for divided government:
Divided government not only helps keep both major parties honest, it is an easily understood and easily communicated tactical organizing principle for herding those 14% truly Independent cats.Let's consider each point one by one. First, it should be noted that the CATO analysis referenced by MW does not purport to gauge the strength and outlook of Independents as such, but rather the "libertarian vote in the age of Obama." It explicitly argues that socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters "seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters." In other words, the 14% of the electorate identified by the CATO analysis constitutes only a subset of those Americans who identify as Independents.
Ideologically speaking, Independents tend to mirror the breakdown of the electorate as a whole. There are progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative and libertarian independents. The fact that Americans across the ideological spectrum increasingly identify themselves as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans indicates the growing discontent with the two-party state and duopoly system of government as such. Nationally, around 50% of Americans say that they are open to a third party or Independent alternative to Republicans and Democrats, and an outright majority of Independents say so. Recent polling indicates roughly 19-20% support in the general electorate for a third party or Independent alternative that is more conservative than the Democratic party and more liberal than the Republican party. A potential national base of at least 15-20% support for such an alternative is not insignificant, especially given that the approval rating of the Democratic and Republican parties themselves can often be found hovering at this range or slightly above it.
In his analysis, MW argues that voting blocs tend to coalesce around specific personalities or discrete sets of issues, as is widely understood. But by viewing the Independent bloc through the prism of national presidential politics (i.e. the reference to "Perot, Nader, Anderson, Wallace, Roosevelt"), he arguably falls prey to the fractal fallacy beloved by Democratic and Republican party strategists. Nationally, Independents may constitute a third of the electorate, but one can find Independent majorities at the state and local level across the country. There are more than ten states in which Independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined, and there are a couple more in which they outnumber one or the other. The majority of registered voters in Rhode Island, for instance, are Independents. Last year they elected their first Independent governor. Independent strategy should be considered from the ground up rather than from the top down.
Finally, the fact that so many Independents tend to vote for Republicans or Democrats rather than Independent and third party candidates is arguably less indicative of the fact that Independents are not "independent" but rather that, in the context of the two-party state and duopoly system of government, Independents often have little choice but to vote for major party candidates. MW cites a report from Miller-Mccune arguing that "most Independents aren't," which I responded to in some detail in the summer of 2009:
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.On the other hand, it may well be the case that many Independents chose not to vote rather than vote for a Republican or a Democrat. In the vast majority of elections, the wide majority of Americans opt not to vote rather than vote for a representative of the ruling parties. And who can blame them? If an Independent or third party candidate in any race at any level of government could manage to mobilize even a fraction of traditional non-voters – whatever that magical strategy might entail – they would dominate Republicans and Democrats who thrive on low voter turnout.
On the third hand, one might also simply accept the argument that "most Independents aren't Independent" if they vote for Democrats and Republicans. But it should be noted that the same basic argument can be made for almost anyone who votes for Republicans and Democrats. For example: most progressives aren't "progressive" if they vote for Democrats, and most conservatives aren't "conservative" if they vote for Republicans, and so on. What are they then? If you support the Republican or Democratic party, chances are you are a reactionary. Many voters even admit this. A large proportion of Democratic voters do not vote for Democrats, they vote against Republicans. Similarly, a large portion of Republican voters do not vote for Republicans, they vote against Democrats. (See this post for an extended argument on this point.)
In other words, the Democratic and Republican parties are the dominant granfalloons in the United States. Indeed, the alleged opposition between the Democratic and Republican parties is as meaningless as the party labels themselves. They are united, for instance, in their unflinching support for the endless expansion of the global warfare and corporate welfare state. As I've argued before, so-called "divided government" has become the norm over the last sixty years precisely because the Democratic and Republican parties have so thoroughly undermined the separation of powers. But under the conditions of the reigning two-party state and duopoly system of government, divided government is not enough to "keep them honest," as MW puts it.
The reason for this is well known: they work in concert, in the interests of further consolidating and centralizing power in the hands of the ruling parties and political class. Needless to say, those interests are often diametrically opposed to the interests of the people of the United States, and the means by which those interests are pursued are equally often at odds with the principle of Constitutional government. But we need not throw up our hands, because we can just roll up our sleeves: independent strategy can only work from the bottom up because Democrats and Republicans control virtually all levers of power from the top down. Yet this may not be as difficult as it might seem. At the federal level, and in numerous states and locales, the election of just a handful of Independent or third party candidates would be enough to ensure that NO PARTY has a governing monopoly. Now that's divided government!