Independent Voting: Virtue or Vice?


"Partisanship and ideology" are the enemies of "true representation in Washington," according to Lou Dobbs, who apparently sees himself as the last objective man standing. David Brooks laments that independents (increasing in number) are underrepresented politically and in the media, which offers relatively few commentators who "come from an independent perspective" (he doesn't cite Dobbs as one of them). Media outlets addressing liberals or conservatives simply "deliver streams of prejudice-affirming stories," Brooks notes, implying that independents are the last objective people standing.    
A calm, rightward leaning centrist like David Brooks has relatively little in common with the demagogic, birther sympathizing Lou Dobbs, but they do share a popular tendency to romanticize independents. Celebrating his own imagined independence from ideology, Dobbs promises that his next act will entail "constructive problem solving," characterized by the "rigorous empirical thought and forthright analysis" that partisanship has allegedly banished from the public square. What do independents want from such eminently reasonable policymaking? According to Brooks they want "a frame of stability and order, within which they can lead their lives," as if people infected by ideologies (in other words, ideals) crave chaos.

But if independents value systematic order and stability, they have an odd way of forging it: their behavior contributes to disorder and instability. Independents are, predictably, the most labile of voters (with no apparent irony, Brooks describes them as "astonishingly volatile"). Unmoored by party allegiances, "their political thinking is likely to be chaotic," political scientist Nancy Rosenblum observes.

In a persuasive defense of partisanship that debunks the "faux luster" of independents:

"Research reveals that they are the least interested in politics, the most politically ignorant, the lightest voters. Independent voters know less about politics and policy, appointments and their consequences... (they) are detached and weightless...Independents neither assume responsibility for the institutions that organize elections and government nor do they owe allegiance, or even justification, to other like-minded citizens."  

So while it may be tempting to celebrate independents as pragmatic centrists, at a time when parties are associated with extremism, it's worth remembering that political pragmatism, un-guided by political ideology, is a dubious virtue, as Rosenblum suggests. Independents "score far lower than either Democrats or Republicans" on an "index of political interest and engagement," according to the Pew Research Center. They are "consistently skeptical of the electoral process and the responsiveness of officials." 

Skepticism can inform voters, of course, and arm them against political hucksters; but it can also devolve into cynicism, and cynicism enables gullibility. Hannah Arendt argued when people are "ready to believe the worst" and also believe that "every statement is a lie anyway ... one could make (them) believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism."  

I'm not suggesting that independent voters resemble the political mobs that Arendt analyzed. I am hypothesizing that what we celebrate as the virtues of independents are not so far removed from the vices attendant upon disengagement, discontent, and a view of electoral politics as a self-serving game. Independents who mistrust the political process and unprincipled partisans who exploit it may have more in common than they know.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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