An Ordinary Person

The Monkey Cage Rattles | December 19, 2009

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.

Why Their Posts Pissed Me Off

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.

  • Most independents declare independence because of distrust and/or disgust with both major political parties. This is why I am an independent although my voting behavior leans Democratic. I am a Progressive liberal who has lost faith in the ability of Democrats—save for a few individual Senators or House Representative members—to truly represent my interests. My declaration of independence, therefore, is a conscious and deliberate political act as much as my voting pattern. So is my blogging. And the political organizations I choose to affiliate with. And my behavior as a consumer of political blogs, magazines, and publications. Taken together, these things reflect my belief that the major political parties have failed me. And the fact that more and more people are declaring independence and displaying this political preference in rejection of the two-party label should send the message to both parties that they shouldn’t rest too easy on their laurels.
  • My voting behavior leans Democratic because the American system of politics is so lopsidedly dominated by the two major parties that I really have no choice—especially in presidential elections. As a Progressive, there is absolutely no way you can convince me to vote Republican. Which leaves me to either vote Democratic or third party. I have voted third party before and will do so again. However, I do recognize the structural imbalances that make most third party candidacies long shots. So I tend to use the third party vote as a form of symbolic protest which I use with perfect awareness that most likely the candidate has no chance of winning.
  • Despite my voting behavior, however, I am a supporter of third parties and electoral reform efforts such as expanding ballot access and exploring alternative voting methods as represented by organizations such as FairVote and Free and Equal Elections. I recognize the structural and legal hurdles third party and independent candidates face in the political arena and I fully support the activism of these organizations to level the political playing field. These reform efforts exist and are growing incrementally in momentum. The more independents learn about these efforts the more opportunity for these efforts to gain mass support. To discount independents is to discount the issues these reform efforts are designed to tackle and the very noble and idealistic work of these activists in the service of American democracy.

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.

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  1. “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.”

    I think you’re right on target LAD. The duopolist mentality is as entrenched in academia as it is in the media and the political class. The “myth of the independent voter” meme is not uncommon, it was making the rounds over the summer to. At the time I argued that independents need to dispel the myth of the myth of the independent voter. I’m looking forward to revisiting the issue.

    Comment by d.eris — December 19, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  2. You are correct. Independents hear “if you vote third party you are throwing away your vote” so we grudgingly vote one of the two parties. (I vote the pig at the trough out)

    As a newly awakened voter my investigations have shown me both the republican and democratic parties are bought and paid for by the bankers and multinational corporations.

    Festering Fraud behind Food Safety Reform

    Is an excellent example of what I mean. There have been not one but two Congressional investigations into the new improved food safety system called HACCP. However even the food safety inspectors are complaining about how the new regs tie their hands and the large corporations game the system with the USDA management”s eager assistance. HACCP was a politically-based policy masquerading as a science-based measure. Its real achievements were to drive small processors out of business, increase market consolidation, and privatize the inspection process for large transnational corporations allowing faster production lines and the poisoning of Americans.

    The democrats no longer represent the best interests of Americans. When Pres. Clinton ratified WTO, he had the CEO of Monsanto as his Chief Foreign Policy Advisor, the Sec of Ag another Monsanto puppet, and the VP of Cargill as a trade rep to the GAtt talks where he wrote the Agreement on Agriculture. Not to mention Monsanto’s Mike Taylor revamping the FDA to allow GMO’s into the food chain without testing. Now the “food Safety bills” will do to farmers what was done to small processors. Drive them out of business. WTO and food safety regs have driven 60% of Portugal’s farmers off their land and 75% in Mexico for example.

    The Federal Reserve Act and its hundred of modifications has given bankers complete control of our money and ruined our economy. Now we have a “health Care bill” that will do the same for the pharma and insurance corporations. The EPA is gamed just like the USDA and FDA. A friend’s brother working for the EPA has received specific instructions to go after the small businesses and leave Exxon et al alone!

    Voters are just idiots watching a scripted dog and pony show, thats why many do not bother to vote.

    Comment by Corrinne Novak — December 22, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  3. [...] He argues that none of these claims accurately depict political independents in the election game and that independents are neither very independent thinking nor very consequential as a group. This view runs counter to popular media accounts of the importance of independent voters in many political elections. Opposing views to Sides’s arguments can be found here and here. [...]

    Pingback by Do political independents matter in elections? « Voir Dire — December 22, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

  4. Right on brother. The tectonic power of the internet and wirelessly ubiquitous data to disintermediate middle men of every kind is the single most powerful fact of life in the 21st century. The Monkey Cage guys cite a 1992 book, “The Myth of the Independent Voter,” to help prove their thesis. 1992? Really? Hmm…as I recall, in 1992, there were lots and lots of storefront travel agents. Not so much now. The two political parties are middlemen. Independent voters aren’t joiners, and as a largely tech-enabled crowd, don’t need an ossified organization to tell them what candidates are available and what process ought to be used to select them. Independent voters are rising in numbers, visibility, and influence precisely because the internet has set them free.

    Comment by Dave Maney — January 25, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  5. I feel that you have completely misinterpreted the point of Sides piece. To me, it is not that independents don’t matter or should be ignored, but that, as usual, the MSM, in their desire to follow the race instead of the issues, make small numerical differences into large social/political ones.

    In the last 4 prez elections, I voted for 3rd party candidates 3 times. So, recently, I am an independent and I didn’t take this article as you did.

    Comment by Bill Michtom — January 26, 2010 @ 4:36 am

  6. You kind of proved their point.

    They are talking about the myth that there are a ton of people who sit on the fence and don’t really have an ideology that sides with one party or the other.

    I sometimes call myself an independent but I never have and never will vote for Republicans. You sound like the same kind of person. So when the media includes us as independents because we say we are in a poll, and then assumes we are fence sitters in the election, they’re wrong!

    Comment by Steve — January 26, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  7. What a bizarre response. The point is that in terms of what matters in electoral politics, independents don’t especially matter. This is about partisan control of elected positions. In turn that translates into what actually happens in the US congress, because that’s how it’s set up.

    If you don’t like how the US is governed, don’t complain about some academic bloggers.

    Comment by Marcin — January 27, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  8. I’m glad that you are in the 10% of truly independent political voters. There’s an old adage about statistics: most people don’t understand a statistical average isn’t invalidated by exceptions, that exceptions fall elsewhere in the range but the average is the average. I think you speak for the 10%, and most independents are closet partisans who reliably vote for one party or the other despite how the identify themselves.

    Comment by Elke — January 27, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

  9. What a surprise to actually find readers and comments on my blog for this article and over 190 views on it the past week alone! I’ve been hibernating on the blogging front for a couple of weeks now and just approved a bunch of comments. I am pleasantly surprised!

    I get it that the point of the Monkey Cage blog is to describe the behavior of people who call themselves “independent” and that they are academic bloggers (and not activists). Therefore, their job is to describe what they think is going on with a subset of the voting population without making any implications or advocating for a certain point of view other than what their findings say.

    What I am working out in blogging about them is what are the implications of their conclusions in my world and what they mean to people like me who self-identify as “independent.” And yes, I am coming from an explicitly non-academic, activist point of view. I am primarily interested in the question of how do you harness the growing numbers of independents – those discontented with two-party politics — so they can become a political force.

    If you’ve read other articles I’ve written in this blog you will see that I am a critic of the two-party system and a supporter of political reform because I see the two-party system and hence, American democracy, as being broken and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary people. The Monkey Cage’s conclusions say to people like me give it up, it’s hopeless, just continue playing the political two-party game. Independents don’t matter only partisans do.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — January 27, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  10. ‘The Monkey Cage’s conclusions say to people like me give it up, it’s hopeless, just continue playing the political two-party game. Independents don’t matter only partisans do.’

    No, they really don’t. The Monkey Cage, like good academics, are describing the world as it is, as opposed to how you would like it to be. As it is presidential elections in the US are essentially two horse races, and they are debunking the myth that there is a big ‘undecided’ block in the middle that could swing either way. That’s useful. It tells us stuff.

    I don’t know whether or not ‘they are focusing solely on partisan, presidential elections with two major party candidates as the only political event that matters’, which would be kind of stupid, but partisan presidential elections are one event that matters quite a lot.

    But of course, you’re quite right – there are motivations and debates out there that are very very important, where the difference between party tribalists of either stripe and ‘independents’ is vitally important. Just not to the issue the monkey cage was addressing with that particular post.

    I’m an independent. I can recognise that I exist in a system where quite often it’s the lesser of two evils and that I also do lean in one direction. By recognising that reality I’m much more likely to change it.

    Comment by Whittso — May 17, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

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    A regular guy living in irregular times



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