Independent voters took most pundits by surprise on election day. They broke with precedent and supported Democratic candidates by wide margins, especially in races where the GOP candidate was mirroring Trump. But it was a nuanced state-by-state showing. Ron DeSantis won independents by large margins, and the New York State Democratic Party completely ignored them and paid a steep price. Now that independents have arrived, an “independents are suspect” counter-narrative has been gaining momentum.
Most attacks on Senator Krysten Sinema (and Andrew Yang before her) cast her embrace of political independence as nothing more than cynical self-preservation – as if every politician’s political decision-making isn’t colored by such considerations.
And the dominant narrative within political science is that independent voters are less a force and more an illusion. They recategorize them as “leaners” and subject them to a quasi-psychoanalytic questioning of their motives and authenticity. Aren’t you really a Democrat or Republican who thinks it’s cool to say you are independent? Partisan voters are considered normal. Independents are viewed with suspicion by the academy.
Lee Drutman recently asserted in the Atlantic that political independence is both misguided and essentially meaningless: Therein lies the problem of political independence. Independence exists only in relation to the existing alternatives in a weird negative space. It does not build. It only rejects.
An ironic statement. Drutman rejects the rejectors because they are insufficiently aligned with his analysis of how to fix American politics. It’s a mistake.
The anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century was a rejection movement. Its adherents – whether abolitionist, anti-expansionist, or moralist – were rejecting the inhuman and unsustainable institution of slavery. The building process, which led to the creation of the Republican Party and the election of an independent president, grew out of the fertile soil of rejection. Drutman, who advocates strongly for the creation of new parties, should think twice before he negates a mass base of Americans who, deprived of meaningful tools to assert a new direction for the country, are doing what they can, namely identifying themselves as a rejection of the corrupt and partisan status quo and voting in ways that give some expression to that sentiment.
Fifty years ago, most Americans chose to affiliate with a party. Today, the largest and fastest-growing segment of the electorate are independents. This mass migration/rejection should be studied and taken seriously by politicians, policy analysts, political scientists, and political reform advocates – not negated or minimized because it doesn’t fit neatly into existing models.
A small handful of forward-looking researchers and advocates are taking the time to listen to and learn from independents. What they are finding is a heterodox grouping of voters–not a mushy middle–troubled by the culture and norms of Red v Blue politics.
In their book, The Independent Voter, authors Thom Reilly, Jacqueline Salit, and Omar Ali talked to dozens of independents. What they found was a consistent desire to be “treated with respect and recognized as independents-neither closet Democrats nor Republicans” and a deep concern about “moving the country forward in inclusive and democratic ways.”
Sociologists Cecilia Balli and Michael Powell interviewed dozens of Texas Latino independent voters and found widespread distrust of both major parties: “The intense ideological and power struggles they perceive between the parties has led many participants to feel that the focus of electoral politics is not truly about representing citizens’ interests and needs.”
Drutman is 100% correct that independents do indeed exist in a “weird negative space.” That’s the price you pay for refusing to play along with the two-party violence we call politics. But the rejection of partisan allegiance by millions of Americans is creating new opportunities and space for experimentation and creative organizing. Independents are putting increasing pressure on a political system designed to ignore them. An independent was just elected speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. They are providing leadership to the political reform debate and are building campaigns, conversations, and organizations across the country.
No matter how hard some may wish them away, more and more Americans are embracing political independence. It’s time to listen to what they are saying.
Jeremy Gruber & John Opdycke
Jeremy Gruber (left) is senior vice president and John Opdycke (right) is president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization. They are the co-authors of “The Next Great Migration: The Rise of Independent Voters.”