The Myth of the Independent

June 4, 2015


Words by Nick Smith

When I first became of age to vote, I did so immediately. I registered Republican. I come from a long line of Republican loyalists, thus it was relatively imperative that I registered as such myself. Then, being the politically-minded individual that I am, I began to challenge the platform of the Republican Party. I was recruited then to the Libertarian Party. Oh, then there was this one time that within a matter of four months I changed my party affiliation three times to prove loyalty to a senate candidate just for a political job. And during each of these transitions, I identified as an independent. (Sheesh, talk about an identity crisis.) However, after discovering the myth of the independent, I’m staying true blue.

Party identification is, nonetheless, a lengthy topic entire courses are built around. There are party shifts, regional shifts and ideological shifts within parties, among many other types. With these shifts, the parties adjust their platform accordingly. For context, the Republican Party was originally the abolitionist party—the Party of Lincoln. While the Democratic Party was the party of “state’s rights,” or the right to own another human being for “economic purposes.” Oh, how things have changed. Party affiliation alone, though, cannot necessitate one’s political ideology. Within each political party, there are variances ranging from liberal, to moderate, to conservative. Yes, Democrats can be conservative, and Republicans can be liberal though they are within the minority of their own party.

Increasingly over the past 25 years, party identification is at an all-time low. According to polling done in 2013 by Gallup, 42 percent of individuals identified as unaffiliated voters, often referred to as independents, while 31 percent and 25 percent identified as Democrat or Republican, respectively.

When asked if he was shocked by the increase in voters who identify as independent, Jason Pigg, the director of the School of History and Social Sciences and associate professor of political science, responded, “No, because the number of those who identify as independent has gone up for the last 30 years or so, and that’s a big number. It’s the biggest it’s been in, maybe, forever.”

As to why this is, Pigg replied, “If you ask the 42 percent if they lean closer to one party or another, then the vast majority of them will say yes, that they lean toward the Democrats or the Republicans and those people act like Democrats or Republicans.”

He further explained they vote that way because they have the same morals and views as those parties, thus when you exclude those and, “get down to those who are really independent—those who do not lean one way or another—it’s usually much, much less.” This is because those who identify as independent, but vote with a particular party feel alienated from the political system as a whole, he explained, which is due in part to political dysfunction and terrible approval ratings of the parties.

Amanda Sanford, assistant professor of political science, said she did not find the number shocking, “What would be shocking would be if that were true.” She explained the basis behind independent identification, saying, “One of the key values that we’re taught in early civics education is how individualistic American society is and how that is one of the fundamental values that America was founded on, and that it’s a point of pride in American political culture to be individualistic.”

Identifying as an independent conveys a sense of intellect and being informed by making rational decisions based on your own life experience.

“If you always vote Democrat or Republican, it can give the impression that you don’t think about the issues, you simply go with your party label and that makes you less informed because you’re not doing any actual investigation,” Sanford said. “So, to call yourself an independent gives yourself that individualistic spirit. But that’s what it means on paper.”

Although an individual who identifies as an independent may only vote with a particular party, identifying as an independent contributes to the idea of a rogue individual who stands up to the political establishment by thinking for themselves.

Gallup released the results from a 2014 poll done in Georgia, and similar results have been replicated nationwide. The results were as follows: 28 percent identified as Democrat and 27 percent identified as Republican. How many identified as an independent? 40 percent. However, this survey heeded the response of Pigg by asking the leaning follow-up question. When you get down to who’s really an independent, it’s 13 percent.

Considering the results from these polls, it seems as though all of our elections are decided entirely by independents, and even the political campaigns play up this notion. Recalling past experiences with a senate campaign, a question was once floated: How do we capture the independents?

These polls, though, show us something particularly interesting about voters. In the political climate, we tend to associate the independent label with being moderate. However, this is not supported when the voters are actually examined. Particularly those who have felt alienated from the political establishment identify with the independent label. Most recently, this alienation has been seen within the Republican Party with the emergence of the Tea Party. Further, those who identify with third parties are by default of the survey questions lumped into the independent category. Independents, as a whole, are actually partisan and driven by ideology with this understanding.

But that’s not what a real independent is. A real independent is not an idealist in disguise, but neither is an independent a Wild West cowboy roughing it in the desert. A real independent is one who is not politically aligned with either major party purely based on not being able to accept their platforms fully, which implies that an independent is an ideologue and individualist. Further, a true independent examines each election’s candidates to make a decision, and makes their selection based on political leanings and the candidate’s platform instead of party affiliation, which likely changes every now and again.

More correctly, an independent is a contradiction. While an independent isn’t fully an ideologue because being such requires consistent civic engagement, an independent does possess a particular set of political beliefs that are relative to themselves.

Now, a distinction is necessary. There are two types of independents: the true and real independent and the passive independent. The passive independent, while asserting themselves as critical thinkers, are allowing others to do the thinking for them within the political process. The real independent isn’t much better. The real independent has a robust, critically understood set of political beliefs. However, neither of these groups actually vote.

According to another Gallup poll that examined the political identification and leanings of voters from 1994 to 2014, voters who are passively independent and have leanings toward a particular party have lower voting turnout. In 2014, those who leaned Republican were only 50 percent likely to vote while those who identified as Republican were 68 percent likely to vote. On the other hand, those who leaned Democrat were only 39 percent likely to vote compared to the 66 percent that identified as Democrat. Then there’s the real independents. They were only 31 percent likely to vote.

By not participating in the political process, regardless of your identification, association or leanings, you are part of the problem. By opting out of your duty as an American citizen, you are passively approving of the very dysfunction you claim to despise. For every single leader you dislike and for every piece of legislation that harms you, your friends, or your family, by not participating, you are passively, even actively, the victim of your own faults. When you participate, your voice counts, and you become part of the conversation. Without participating, you do not have a seat at the table; you don’t have a voice.

In all actuality, you are not the independent you wish you were. You are not really one at all because independents as we think of them do not exist. Sure, there are some real independents, but they are very few. Labeling yourself as such does not constitute reality. As a voter, you likely tend to vote consistently with one party or another regardless of whether or not you want to associate yourself with the party, but that does not mean you are a real independent. After all, would you even want to be an independent and not have your voice count?

Granted, if independents actually participated, the political system as a whole would benefit substantially. Whenever more people personally invest in the elections that affect them, politics becomes less of a polarizing show and more of a solutions-oriented approach to the problems facing our states and country. Politics and government can become better. What it takes is an engaged citizenry.

A danger is introduced to our democratic society when voters are passively labeling themselves as independents or automatically accepting the party label of their families. This is because voters are becoming more and more uninformed about political parties’ platforms and individual candidates, which means that people who do not know what they are talking about are making decisions about the very people who are running our country—and that is frightening.

But that can change. As voters, it is our responsibility to be informed and to make reasoned decisions. The only way to do that is to research political parties and candidates, align ourselves with the best options available, and admitting independents are practically just a myth.


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