Independents Hate Both Parties as Never Before

The recent wave of alienation could hit Democrats and Republicans alike in 2012. Will voters throw the bums out again?

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In the shadow of the bitterly fought agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, the independent voters who usually hold the balance of power in American politics are expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress, and the Washington system itself.

This towering wave of alienation presages more volatility for a political system that has seen the public turn from Republicans in 2004 toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only to snap back toward the GOP with near-record force in 2010. Now, on several key measures, the public's assessment of Congress is even more bleak than it was at this point in the last election cycle--even as Obama's ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his presidency, particularly among independents.

With each party hemorrhaging public support amid political polarization and economic stagnation, the implications for 2012 are complex and unpredictable. American history lacks a true example of an election in which voters turned out large numbers of incumbents from both parties, but to some observers that no longer seems impossible amid the declining support for both Obama and congressional Republicans. And while no serious independent presidential candidate has yet emerged, the numbers show an unmistakable opening for a Ross Perot-style outsider candidate who mobilizes voters unhappy with both major parties.

The stock market's stomach-turning decline Thursday both parallels and reinforces the dismal verdict on Washington rendered in recent surveys: as the market Thursday tumbled almost as fast as the latest approval ratings for Obama and Congress, it seemed as if we were witnessing a simultaneous vote of no confidence from the public in both the American economy and its national government. On both fronts, the gathering gloom points to a wavering of national confidence certain to draw comparisons to the national "malaise" that undermined Jimmy Carter's presidency in the late 1970s and provided the backdrop for Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide.

Rather than reversing the public disillusionment with Washington, this week's agreement to avoid federal default and institute a process for long-term reduction of the federal deficit appears only to have deepened the doubts. That marks a stark contrast from the last major bipartisan deficit-reduction deal between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress in 1997, which strengthened both sides and drew support in polls from about two-thirds of Americans in each party. "Unlike the budget deal of 1997, which in the end of was kind of a grand moment of looking forward to the future of the country, this one ended badly for everybody," said Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster at the time. "There weren't any real winners, and the system looked bad for potentially endangering the country's fiscal future because of political games."

The results of polls taken just before and after the debt-ceiling agreement announced last Sunday underscore Penn's conclusion. They show a dim assessment of the agreement, all the key players, and Washington itself, especially among the independent voters who provided the decisive votes for Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections and for the GOP in 2010.

Consider these recent findings:

  • On Wednesday, Gallup reported that a 46 percent to 39 percent plurality of Americans said they opposed the agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling. Among independents, the reaction was much worse: just 33 percent approved, while 50 percent approved.
  • In a CNN/ORC poll conducted on Monday and released on Tuesday, just 14 percent of those surveyed said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, while 84 percent disapproved. That was not only the lowest level of approval, and the highest level of disapproval, that the CNN poll has recorded -- the gap between the approval and disapproval numbers were as wide as Gallup has recorded in any of its polls measuring congressional performance dating back to 1974. The public verdict on Congress today is more negative than it was just before the election landslides that switched control of Congress in 1994, 2006, and 2010: Gallup surveys in the fall of those years put congressional approval between 21 percent and 26 percent.

Image credit: Reuters

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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