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.
They assert that independents as a group are not as consequential in American politics as many pundits argue in the media.
If there is a 15% drop in Obama approval among the entire mass of apparent “independents,” this could mean that there is a drop among independents who lean Republican, independents who lean Democratic, and/or pure independents. Why does this matter? Because the political consequences are different. If Obama loses 15 points among independents who lean Republican, he is losing voters who are unlikely to vote for him in 2012 anyway. But if he loses 15 points among independents who lean Democratic, then he has more serious problems.
They also add that these people are less likely than partisans to vote in elections. Combined with the information that there are so few “pure” independents, the political opinions of these folks are dismissed by the Monkey Cage blog as inconsequential.
The entire thrust of their argument is that
(a) The beliefs and opinions of political minorities are inconsequential and therefore, do not deserve to be listened to as much as the beliefs and opinions of partisans
(b) The number of “pure” independents are actually quite small—so small that they and their political opinions can be safely ignored and/or dismissed
The points they are making are insulting and condescending. 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. In doing so they are missing the forest for the trees. Let me explain.
When I say the authors of the Monkey Cage are missing the forest for the trees, I mean that they are focusing solely on partisan, presidential elections with two major party candidates as the only political event 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.
Around fifty percent of the electorate do not vote in presidential elections in the U.S. Even less in Congressional and local elections. Of those who do vote, the majority are reject labeling themselves along the lines of the two major parties.
Isn’t that an indicator of something serious? Doesn’t that tell you something about the state of American democracy, democratic participation and how terrible a job both major parties are doing in their monopoly of political power? Rather than dismissing the rise of independents as inconsequential, perhaps we should see it as a symptom of something serious that should be addressed.
I’d like the political scientists of the Monkey Cage to tackle these types of questions and issues instead of glibly and condescendingly asserting that independents do not matter.