Divided Government and Independent Strategy

In a recent comment, MW from We Stand Divided relays a link to a post there on The Centrist Granfalloon, which takes a discussion at Rise of the Center and Poli-Tea as the jumping off point to consider a number of issues relating to independent and third party political strategy.  Regular readers might recall that We Stand Divided was featured in an "On the Radar" post from last September, where it was noted that the site is devoted to the proposition that "divided government is better government." And Kurt Vonnegut readers will surely recall that a 'granfalloon' is defined in Cat's Cradle as "a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless."  MW writes:
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!


Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

I'm sure you can guess my response to this.

If you want independents--or moderates or centrist or whatever you want to call them--elected, then consensus-seeking election methods are absolutely necessary. Either single-winner elections with approval or range voting, or a method of proportional representation. Anything else favors voices toward the extremes. Even if 80%* of voters think the choice on the left is too-far-left, and 80% of voters think the voice on the right is too-far-right, then it's impossible for any solitary 3rd-party choice to win.

Trying to control government by dividing it is like driving a car with overly-sensitive steering: Turn left! Too far, turn right! Too far, turn left! Eventually, you'll go spinning out of control.

Consensus-seeking elections would keep us on the correct course, without constantly over-correcting.

(*83.33%, but who's counting?)

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Yeah, I ignored the part of his post where he vomited that garbage about independents can't vote for one of the two major parties.

Sometimes there are actually good candidates who are moderate to vote for. Should I do so, that doesn't make me less of an independent, it just means I'm voting for the best candidate I see.

And you're right about the huge swath of people that just don't vote, because they don't see any options they like. If there was an organized, big tent centrist, candidate in every district, I guarontee you that would go up. It works like a classic bell curve. The farther you get away from a candidate ideologically, the less likely the people at that point will vote for you. Eventually you get to the chasm between the parties where very few people are willing to vote for who they might see as a lesser evil, if they see one at all (happens to me all the time, but I do vote for Ds and Rs sometimes)

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

d.eris said...

Dale, indeed. You convinced me on that point some time ago. I even made a plea for people to inform themselves about approval voting during the open forum session at the CUIP/Indy voting conference in NYC a few weeks back.

d.eris said...

Sol, I like the WSD blog, and think he's started up a good discussion. imo, though, low-voter turnout has reached a point of crisis, which is one of the reasons I support open primaries. In closed primary states with low voter turnout, it is possible or even normal that the major party candidates are chosen by 5-7% of registered voters.

As a reformed non-voter, I've never been a member of one of the major parties and no longer vote for Republicans or Democrats, never really did. I wouldn't rule it out absolutely, but my thinking at this point is that if there is a reasonable alternative on the ballot, support the alternative. Since I live in NY, there are almost always more options, and on the rare occasions that I have cast a vote for a major party candidate, I've done so on a third party or independent ballot line. FUSION!

DLW said...

Most electoral alternatives to the exclusive use of FPTP help improve on our current situation.

IRV works okay, unless there are three or more viable candidates and that is less likely in our current system.

But with our current system, if we got lots of local groups of folks to commit to vote quasi-strategically together on behalf of moderate common-sense goals then it would make the system work a fair deal better and it might be easier to push for some electoral reforms.


mw said...

On a lighter note, I see that you refer to my blog as We Stand Divided or WSD. That is a new acronym for me. I understand where you get it, as the url for my blog is westanddivided.blogspot.com. That is an artifact of the fact that dividedwestand.blogspot was already taken. Interestingly (to me) others have interpreted my blogspot id as West And Divided since I am located on the West Coast. In point of fact, the derivation of the blogspot name is neither. It is actually from "Westa Ndive Did!" which is an English transliteration of a colloquial Klingon expression. There is no exact English translation of this expression, but it loosely can be understood as "Your blood will taste sweeter after I split you in two."

As this blog name requires a fairly esoteric understanding of the nuances of the Klingon language, I generally refer my blog by its common name "Divided We Stand United We Fall" or DWSUWF.

mw said...

Hmmm. I wrote a long response which I don't see here. I hope it is in your moderation/spam folder.

mw said...

Ok - it happened again. My reply was here and then disappeared. I assume it is in your spam folder. Not sure what is going on, but in any case, I give up.

I have a copy of it this time and instead I'll update the post on my blog with my reply.

d.eris said...

sorry about the lost messages. Blogger has eaten a handful of my comments over the years as well, which can be very annoying if you put a bunch of time and thought into the comment.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

"Sol, I like the WSD blog, and think he's started up a good discussion. imo, though, low-voter turnout has reached a point of crisis, which is one of the reasons I support open primaries. In closed primary states with low voter turnout, it is possible or even normal that the major party candidates are chosen by 5-7% of registered voters."

What do you mean by 'though'? I didnt say anything to imply I'm against open primaries.

I love a good Kingon reference, MW! haha

Does blogger not give you the ability to add a box you can click to subscribe to comments on a post?

d.eris said...

SK, the "though" was meant as a transition from the first comment regarding the DWS blog, on which I slightly disagreed with you, to the part on low voter turnout, which I just wanted to re-emphasize.

re: subscribing to comments, at the bottom of the post page, below the "post comment," "home" and "older post" links there is a "subscribe to post comments link."