Political Independents and the Cycle of Partisanship

By Max Ewing

We need political diversity. Opposing ideas are the lifeblood of democracy. Without them, democracy isn’t democracy. With that being said, in recent years it has felt like the gap between the two parties in the United States has been growing wider and wider. The riots at the Capitol this January were a prime example of this. The easiest and most obvious groups to look at through the lens of political polarization are Democrats and Republicans. There is a third group that is not only larger than both of these parties, but is also greatly affected by polarization: independents.

The natural line of thinking when it comes to independents and polarization is that the number of independents would decrease as polarization increases. People drift further to the right or the left of the political spectrum leaving fewer people in the middle, right? Wrong! According to Pew Research Center, as of 2014, the percent of Americans that identify as independent was at 39% (which was an all time high). In 2018, that number was still at a solid 38%.

The number of independents in the US is greater than the number of Democrats and Republicans.

An important trend to note is that (as of 2014) the further an individual was to the left or the right, the more likely they were to do any of the following: vote, donate money to a political campaign, contact an elected official, work or volunteer for a campaign, and attend a campaign event. This means that independents’ influence on the government is waning.

Another Pew Research Center study evaluated what it means to be truly independent. To be truly independent, an individual has to show no preference to either party. The term truly independent is necessary because most people who self-identify as independent don’t actually vote in an independent manner. While most independents are slightly less loyal to their preferred party when compared to someone who identifies as Democrat or Republican, the large majority of them still favor one party over the other. In 2018, 7% of all Americans were considered to be truly independent by Pew Research Center. This means that less than 19% of people who call themselves independent are correctly identifying themselves.

So if most independents aren’t really independent, why do they claim to be? Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov go into depth about this in “Independent Politics: how American disdain for parties leads to political inaction.” They list the following as the most common reasons why people choose to call themselves independent: they are either “not very interested in politics,” “not comfortable with either party,” claim to “vote for candidates, not parties,” or they “don’t like putting a label on [their] views.” There is a common theme here that these individuals aren’t happy with the current party system for whatever reason and it could be argued that most of these answers are conveying this idea but in different ways. Partisanship has driven a large percentage of the nation to refuse to officially identify with a party even though they do so in practice. 

So why does it matter if someone is misidentifying themselves as independent? In truth, the actual act of misidentifying yourself doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that independents are less likely to participate in government. So, a growing number of people who self-identify as independent actually means that there are more and more people who are less likely to participate in our democracy. And I think we can all agree that this is a problem. This means that independents are in fact having an impact on what happens in the US, but this impact is due to their inaction instead of their action! 

“Political scientists have known for nearly half a century that… the vast majority of independents have most likely chosen a candidate long before Election Day.”

As you could probably guess, independents are more likely than party members to “have an unfavorable opinion of both parties,” as 28% of them felt this way. True independents are even more likely to feel this way. Unfortunately, this anti-party sentiment is most likely connected to the pattern that was noted earlier: independents are less likely to vote than party members. (And true independents are even less likely to vote than them!)  In addition, “political scientists have known for nearly half a century that… the vast majority of independents have most likely already chosen a candidate long before Election Day.” 

This information on the voting tendencies of independents directly contradicts perhaps the most common idea about independents. If you’ve ever watched coverage of an election, you’ve probably heard someone claim that the election would “be decided by independents.” While independents are an important political force, their power doesn’t lie in swinging or dominating elections since they vote less than party members and are still pretty faithful to a party. Even presidential candidates, such as Mitt Romney, have emphasized the importance of independent voters. In 2012 Romney said that “Whoever wins independent voters in Ohio, wins Ohio.” In “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,” the author claims that independent voters “decide elections,” tend to “swing” their political views “back and forth,” and “are seeking change.” Even some politicians and so-called experts are confused about independents! Being such a large part of the electorate, independent voters still hold great power (if they choose to use it), but that power isn’t as swingy as many have been led to believe.

Consider this series of events that, in my mind, is a bit oversimplified but logical: 

1. Polarization causes more and more people to become disillusioned with party politics. 

2. This causes more people to become independents, who are less likely to vote than party members.

3. Each party gains strength when compared to the overall electorate, since the group of people that don’t identify with a party don’t vote as much.

4. Polarization increases as a result.

5. Start again from step 1. 

This cycle is an extremely dangerous one to be caught in. The solution is, of course, easier said than done: get more independents to vote!

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