Wednesday, August 22, 2012


There was an story on NPR this morning, that posed the question of just how independent are ostensibly "independent" voters. How many of them are "secretly" partisan. What I was hoping for was an examination of the politics and social currency of political independence. The correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed a college student, who, like many independent voters, bemoaned the knee-jerk partisanship of the public at large, and held himself out as a free thinker in this regard, with a little help from his Baha'i faith, which explicitly forbids involvement in partisan politics.

From there, however, the piece became simply the latest in a number of stories about how many people who consider themselves independent actually appear to have strong partisan identities. But to do so, it seemed to conflate liberal with Democrat, conservative with Republican and moderate with independent. Thus, to the degree that the parties have staked out large (and mostly mutually exclusive) ideological territories, it seems that anyone who has any sort of ideological leaning one way or the other is going to appear partisan. You would expect the views of an Objectivist, for example, to line up with Republicans. That doesn't mean this person is deluding themselves when they say they don't identify with either party, nor does it mean they aren't "open to persuasion." But would you really expect any viable Democratic candidate to move far enough to the right to capture their vote?

And tracking voting patterns is just as likely to leave the impression that voters are partisan, especially if they are passionate about something that the major parties have made into a plank of their platforms. If a woman's political views are all over the map, but she feels strongly that abortion rights need to be protected, she's likely to vote for Democrats time after time, given the very strong correlation between party and public stances on reproduction issues.

Given that, only the experiment in which people rated plans where the partisan label of the plan was chosen by the researchers seems to be a worthwhile test of direct partisan loyalty. But, we knew that. This story, or some variation on it, seems to come up in every election cycle. You could almost set your calendar by it.

Therefore, a more interesting story would be about why the independent label is so highly sought after, and why so many independents feel themselves the intellectual superiors of their more partisan neighbors. While some partisan pundits (mainly on the right, if I remember correctly) have denigrated independent voters as unwilling to make up their minds as to what's right and wrong, for the most part, the American public seems to prize a certain level of free thinking in politics. Maybe next time.

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