Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Nation of Partisans

Last month Brian Schott reported at UtahPolicy.com that the existence of a broad swath of independent voters is a myth. Citing studies by Alan I. Abramowitz, it is noted that only about 11% of voters are true independents. (I have seen other references claiming that truly independent voters make up only about 5% of voters.)

Most voters that identify themselves as independent actually show a clear preference for one of the major parties. They “are virtually indistinguishable from regular partisans in political outlook or behavior,” regardless of how they are registered. Moreover, those that are true independents vote at lower rates than their partisan leaning counterparts.

Abramowitz refers to a 1992 book titled The Myth of the Independent Voter, which asserts that four decades of data showed at that time that most Americans were psychologically attached to one of the major political parties. This is the case even for those that choose not to vote. Abramowitz writes, “What was true then is even truer today. Partisanship is not only alive and well in American elections, it is thriving.”

Independent voters, writes Schott, “for the most part, act like partisans and should be treated as such.” It can be convenient to be an “independent partisan,” because it relieves any pressure to be involved at the party level. There are no caucus meetings, county conventions, or state conventions to consider attending. Others take care of that winnowing process and you simply have to select among the resulting limited selection.

Given that nonvoters tend to functionally think similarly to ‘independent’ voters, presumably they too should be treated as partisans. But nonvoters are a special class because they are voting by choosing not to vote. Why do they ‘vote’ this way? For one thing, the average American doesn’t begin to become politically interested until they hit middle age. This means that larger numbers of young adults are nonvoters than are more seasoned Americans.

The conventional wisdom, particularly among those that feel politically disenfranchised, is that many nonvoters don’t vote because they are dissatisfied with their options. But studies show that most nonvoters are as satisfied with the outcomes of the races in which they don’t vote as are those that do vote in those elections.

Most nonvoters are happy to let their more politically active neighbors represent them at the voting booth. They tend to turn out in much greater numbers when there is a tight race and/or when they socially identify with a particular candidate. They seem to innately understand the marginal value of their individual vote.

While most people — voters and nonvoters alike — tend to identify with one of the major political parties, this does not mean that our two-party system always serves us well. Our political duopoly tends to enforce two-dimensional thinking, seeing everything in black and white. The system is well suited to creating fairly clear winners and losers, but it is ill suited to dealing with complex issues.

Still, it appears that most people are relatively content with our current political system, regardless of how they are registered or whether they vote. What this means for third parties and extra-party political movements is that the broad systemic malcontent that they intend to seize upon simply doesn’t exist.

Yes, people gripe about politics and about the government. It’s one of our great American pastimes. But it is an error to misconstrue this sentiment as the kind of frustration that leads to action that can cause a significant shift in power. We’re not there yet. I am doubtful that we will ever get to that stage in my lifetime. People will put up with an awful lot before they will revolt in earnest.

3 comments:

RD said...

The biggest reform I ever here anyone talk about is term limits.

I would love to see that, of course I would like to see proportional voting, grand restrictions placed on lobbying, the control of tax's removed from congress, And perphaps electro-shock therapy for the wing nuts on both sides.

d.eris said...

Good post Reach. I think the flaw in the "myth of the independent voter" thesis is that they basically argue that independents are "leaners" or "weak partisans" because in elections, self-described independents tend to vote either Republican or Democrat. But this does not tell us much, because often that is the only "choice" one has, if one even has that choice at all, i.e. if both major parties are running a candidate. I would like to see the results of a poll which asked all self-described partisans if they actually "lean" independent or toward a third party. I've been thinking through this issue a bit recently, and have been arguing that we can dispel the myth of the "myth of the independent voter", by imposing terms limits on Democrats and Republicans ourselves, by no longer voting for them.

Reach Upward said...

RD: I love your suggestions.

d.eris: I have also thought about the possibility that independents may act partisan because of the limited choices offered due to the extremely high barriers erected by the establishment parties. I can sort of imagine a shake-up of the current limited political duopoly coming about over a period of time as margins of independents gain a foothold against and newer voters become comfortable bucking the existing system.

I note the pretty much every independent politician mentioned in your post has a pretty specific ideology that is generally claimed as the domain of one or the other big party. Some of them are actually de facto members of one of these parties, even receiving donations, support, and official endorsements. So, I think we've still got a very long way to go.