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Independent Voters Are Not a Myth

Updated on October 26, 2020

Introduction

Google the term independent voter or registered independents or some variation thereof and you will find plenty of articles talking about the “myth” of the independent voter and how most independents are really secret partisans or “lean” toward one of the two major parties. The implication seems to be that almost everyone is either a Democrat or Republican whether they want to admit it or not, and how labeling yourself independent is essentially a scam or a charade. I want to push back against such perceptions and will argue against such sweeping claims in this article, because I feel such an argument, while perhaps being partially accurate, misses the mark in a lot of ways. Self-identified Independents now make up 45% of voters, according to Gallup (link), compared to 27% Republicans and 27% Democrats (as of January 2020). It is a pretty bold assertion to claim that all those voters are really partisans or fakers.

My point in this article is not that there are no independent voters who are really Democrats or Republicans who are labeling themselves erroneously and aren’t that independent. I’m sure there are plenty of independent voters who really are mostly Republicans or Democrats who have very few, if any, differences with the party they vote for, and label themselves independent to enhance their self-image or to appear reasonable or above-the-fray. However, my main point is that, while some, perhaps even most, independent voters are probably not that independent, this doesn’t apply to all of them, and it shouldn’t be assumed that that’s the case, much less that there’s “no such thing” as an independent voter.

The Problem

How many times have you heard, when talking heads are discussing an increase in independent voters on some political chat show, some Political Science professor or pollster says some variation of, ’Well, actually what we find is that most independent voters lean toward one party or the other and primarily vote for one party over the other, and if you examine the views of such voters, they’re pretty similar to the party they vote for.’ Such a statement may be true to some degree, but there are a few problems with it.

First off, it implies that if someone leans toward a party, then that means they don’t have some important disagreements with the party they vote for, which is not necessarily true. Second off, the U.S. is one of the few democracies in the world that doesn’t have viable third parties that are competitive with the two major parties (link). For example, Canada and Great Britain, although having two ‘major’ parties, also have competitive third parties whose members actually sometimes (gasp!) win seats in their government bodies, as opposed to the U.S., where even the most popular third party, the Libertarian Party, has never had a member elected to congress, or elected as governor of a state. This lack of competitive third parties is partly because of strict ballot access laws, and also the fact that third party candidates are almost never allowed in Presidential debates, or even in many gubernatorial or Congressional debates.

Sure, a large number of these third parties in Europe and Canada are just variations or spin-offs of the two major parties that are trying to be more authentic and “pure” (an example of that in the U.S. would be the Green Party (link), who don’t think the Democratic Party is left-wing enough). But some of them are parties which have legitimate disagreements with both of the two major parties in their respective countries, such as those with more ‘centrist’ views.

Here in the United States, the Libertarian Party is neither left nor right, and has significant disagreements with both sides (link). For another example, the Reform Party used to be a thing in the United States after Ross Perot ran for president as an independent in the 90’s, got into the debates and received up to 19% of the vote (link). The Reform Party stood for a balanced budget, was against free trade, for campaign finance reform, and more restrictions on immigration, views which don’t necessarily fit into one party (link). In fact, Donald Trump at one point tried to run under the Reform Party banner (link) until he took over the Republican Party primaries in 2016 and won the presidency. Trump certainly has an eclectic set of views that were often skeptical of Republican orthodoxy, and his views were quite compatible with the Reform Party. All of this is probably why Trump did better in open primary states where Democrats and Independents could vote for him in addition to Republicans, as opposed to closed primary states, where only Republicans could choose their nominee and where he did less well (Link)

In any case, my point is that the reason independents tend to vote for one party over the other is because we have only two major parties. If we had more viable third parties, like most other Democratic nations, I guarantee you that most independents would be voting primarily for another party or registering with one of those other parties. The large number of registered independents in this country is a reflection of our lack of more than two parties. As such, can you really say independents aren’t a real thing if they would be members of a completely different party in a multi-party system?

The real political spectrum

Another point I want to emphasize is that limiting the political spectrum to Liberal, Conservative and “confused”, or even Liberal to Conservative to Moderate, shows a limited imagination and is simply inaccurate. The fact is that there are additional ideological categories people can fall under besides those two or three labels. The Nolan Chart, I feel, is a good way of describing the political spectrum (link). Aside from liberal and conservative, there’s three other major ideological categories people can fall under.

The first is libertarian, which is sometimes described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But a more accurate descriptor is that libertarians support both broad personal liberty and broad economic liberty, rather than liberals and conservatives, which favor one but oppose the other. And even though libertarians have much common ground with liberals on social issues, there are some disagreements on issues like guns, smoking bans, and free speech. That’s because libertarians support all personal liberties, making the ‘socially liberal’ description for libertarians not quite as accurate as it could be (link).

Then there are populists, sometimes pejoratively called ‘authoritarians’ or ‘statists,’ who are the polar opposite of libertarians; in other words, they oppose both personal liberty and economic liberty. I am not using the term ‘populist’ in the Donald Trump sense, but more so its own ideological perspective or leaning that feels government should be involved in issues of economics as well as social issues. In other words, it could be defined as ‘fiscally liberal and socially conservative (link).’ I’m sure there are quite a few of these kinds of voters among the general populace; in fact, I suspect there are more of these than libertarians.

Then, there are Centrists, who I guess are sort of a combination of everything else. Centrism is often viewed as a “middle of the road” philosophy, sometimes viewed as taking the position in the middle of the standard liberal or conservative position on an issue. For example, a centrist might believe that we should have a government safety net, but also think that work requirements for able-bodied people on those programs are reasonable. They also might be generally pro-choice on abortion, but think it should be banned after viability, or after the first trimester. In reality, though, a centrist doesn’t need to be in the middle on every issue. They can take more purely liberal or purely conservative positions on some issues, as long as it doesn’t fit into the other categories I mentioned. Think Jon Huntsman (link), Charlie Baker (current governor of Massachusetts; link) and Larry Hogan (governor of my home state of Maryland; link) as examples of politicians who tend to be centrist. They are often pro-choice on abortion and support gay rights but tend to be ‘tough on crime’ and support gun restrictions and campaign finance reform. Michael Bloomberg is often described as a centrist as well, and here’s a link to an interesting article from The Week about Bloomberg and centrism in general.

My main point here is that none of these three categories I’ve discussed fit neatly into the two-party system, and a person with such beliefs will have legitimate disagreements with both sides, not just that they’re not liberal or conservative enough. In a multi-party system, a person with such beliefs may be represented by candidates for office, but not in the two-party system we have. Thus, can you really say that independents with such views are “just” liberals or conservatives?

Now, granted, it’s certainly possible that most independents in this country may be far closer to liberals and conservatives than I’m thinking, but all I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption. I’ve read about a recent study that suggests that America is growing more partisan, and that very few people have a mix of liberal and conservative views (link). That’s certainly possible, but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption that there is “no such thing” as an independent voter or that all of them are “secret partisans.”

Conclusion

I’m sure there are plenty of registered independents who vote primarily for one party and have very few, if any, disagreements with the party they vote for, like many political scientists say. But I have no reason to presume that there also aren’t quite a few independents who may be libertarian, centrist, or populist, which leaves them with plenty of disagreements with both sides, even if they do have a major party preference. Just because you may ‘lean’ toward a party doesn’t mean you don’t have some important disagreements with that party. Furthermore, you may even be a combination of all these labels I’ve previously discussed. For example, I view myself as a social libertarian and an economic centrist, and there’s no party for that. Some political tests call me a ‘liberal-leaning libertarian’ but I believe in too much government intervention in the economy to really think the label libertarian qualifies, unless we change the current way that libertarians are defined. People are complex, and even many registered Republicans and Democrats most likely have disagreements with their party as well, particularly Republicans. After all, how could Donald Trump, being a former Democrat, supporting things like trade protectionism, taking Social Security reform off the table, being somewhat skeptical of foreign interventions and even formerly supporting abortion rights and single-payer health care (link), ever be elected president or win the presidential nomination if Republican voters all were doctrinaire followers of their party’s dogma?

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