The Myth of Third Party Growth in the United States

One of the primary talking points to surface in the wake of Chris Christie’s ambition-dashing scandal, ‘Bridgegate’, is the importance of ‘aisle-crossing’ moderates in American politics. It’s no big secret that the partisan gulf remains 0ne of the most problematic elements of democracy in the US. The gap, which continues to widen as mainstream neo-conservatism has gained ground, is reflected in record-low public confidence levels. Recently, a Washington Post and University of Virginia study found that 69% of respondents felt that the largest threat to the continued existence of the American Dream is the lack of cooperation in Washington.

The current spotlight cast on Governor Christie has had the side-effect of bringing American centrism to the forefront. Considered widely to be a Republican front-runner for the 2016 Presidential election, Christie’s success (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the scandal will likely have symbolic repercussions on the credibility of moderates and the bipartisan project for years to come. While the government shutdown of late 2013 represented a significant setback to those who remain committed to productive and conciliatory politics, there are still those who believe in crossing the partisan divide. Notorious aisle-crosser Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, was joined by five other GOP Senators in voting to allow the progression of a bill that would extend benefits from the federal government to Americans experiencing long-term unemployment. It’s absolutely crucial that efforts like these do not go unnoticed.

Using the long-term unemployment bill as a case study, we see that the majority of Republican leadership stands in stark opposition to a compromise. Firebrand Florida Junior Senator Marco Rubio continues to deny that income inequality plays a significant role in the country’s on-going struggle with underemployment in the ailing economy, and remains adamant in finding an alternative to(as oppressed to improving) the White House-sponsored plan. After an erratic (if not downright manic) 2013, during which he played a prominent role in perpetuating the government shutdown, presidential hopeful Rubio kicked off the new year with a speech about poverty in America that slammed the unemployment bill and Democratic strategy. In his speech, the Tea Party superstar outlined a series of policies designed to implement a distinctly Republican-flavored agenda of austerity-based reform. While the Democratic caucus is certainly not rushing to the negotiating table, the proposals of Rubio and his caucus are clearly designed with a priority placed on defeating the White House’s ambitions and not on the creation of a plan to rectify the country’s embarrassing levels of poverty and umployment through traditional means (i.e bipartisan compromise).

John Darkow
John Darkow

While Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic responded in a surprisingly tame manner to Rubio’s remarks (‘Rubio Talks Poverty, Says Things That Are Not Totally Crazy‘), he could not ignore the realities. While he praised the Senator’s initiative, he also made sure to remain honest about the usefulness of the policies:

Republicans these days tend to ignore poverty altogether or to blame it on the poor themselves. Rubio, the Senator from Florida with well-known presidential aspirations, took a different approach on Wednesday. He talked about the persistence of poverty as a crisis. And he made some policy proposals along the way.

That doesn’t mean they were good proposals.

It is plain to see that partisan ideologues have claimed a disproportionate amount of public attention in recent months. Culminating with the government shutdown, the far-right’s efforts to derail the democratic process and hijack centrist discourse have been met with surprisingly little resistance. However, a recently released Gallup study has diverted a fair amount of media buzz  away from the now-normal narrative of partisan clashes. The new report, constructed from an aggregation of ’13 separate… multiple-day polls’, shows that a ‘record high’ (42%) number of Americans now self-identify as political independents. Naturally, this spawned a litany of sensational headlines from the blogosphere decrying the death of party politics in the United States. Bloggers like Care2’s Kevin Matthews have predicted trends in America’s heavily-‘Independent’ future such as a ‘shift away from Conservativism’ and a ‘fall (strikeout) dip of the Two Party System’  that not only flies in the face of established logic, but also ignores an overwhelming amount of evidence that points to the continued polarization and entrenchment of both parties at opposite ends of spectrum.

The reality, however unfortunate, is that the shift identified by Gallup is likely far more superficial than a such headlines suggest. The public’s retreat from major party affiliation is, unfortunately, not the sign of an ideological revolution. Rather, it should be viewed as a symptom of  the reflexive response that has been developed by the public at large against any close association with the extremist antics so common at the fringe. The American electorate is not rejecting the two major political parties, nor is it demanding establishment of a viable third party. Instead, Americans are simply refusing to be publicly associated with political outliers. The extremists that exist at the outside edges of acceptable party ideology have been publicly rejected and privately revered, much as they always have been since the country’s inception. If anything, citizens are simply becoming less willing to out themselves as party-line voters, even if they continue to behave as such.

Why, then, does 40% of the American population self-identify as ‘Independent’ while behaving to the contrary? What is the aversion to declaring party allegiance?  The answer is, as usual, disappointingly simple.

The reality, as betrayed by all of the available evidence, is that an overwhelming majority of American ‘Independents’ adhere just as strongly to major party ideologies, agendas, and candidates as ever before. It is merely the labels that have changed. While the number of those who claim to be politically Independent is certainly on the rise, tangible results have been few and far between. Voters have elected only two ‘Independent’ Congressman. Both are Senators from New England (Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King of Maine) and both have  swiftly joined the Democratic caucus after being elected. There are currently no registered Independents occupying seats in the House of Representatives. Likewise, there has not been a US President without major party affiliation since President Andrew Johnson’s failed Nation Union coalition push in the 1860s. Despite the recent surge in visibility of movements like Libertarianism, veritable Independents that actually vote ‘Independently’ compose a very small portion of the electorate. Poll data from the Gallup survey show that 47% of Americans either affiliate with or lean towards the Democratic Party, with 41% enjoying a similar relationship with the Republicans. The ‘40% claim’ needs to be read with this in mind.

The most apparent motivation for such duplicitous behavior is the prevalence of ‘illusory superiority’ among voters. That is, the aversion developed by the American layman to personal association with the individuals (thus, the parties) that perpetuate the folly of partisan gridlock. The excessive amounts of media sensationalism heaped onto contemporary airwaves has only functioned to exacerbate this behavior. In an Op-ed put together by Political Science professors Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klar (of Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, respectively) entitled ‘Why people call themselves “independent” even when they aren’t’, the duo expounds on this idea. Pointing to the social unacceptability of support for the political status quo of staunch partisanship, the authors have concluded that:

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party. Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

Indeed Krupnikov and Klar, conclude that the recent increase of ‘Independent’ (non) party identification has produced little in terms of change in the voting public’s ‘actual political views’. Writing in Politico, Poli-Sci professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University provides further support for phenomenon of what he has labelled ‘closet partisan[ship]’. Despite the fact that more and more voters are eschewing party labels, Abramowitz points to the fact that ‘almost three-fourths of independents surveyed by Gallup during 2013 indicated that they leaned toward one of the two major parties’. He believes that despite the shift towards superficial nonpartisanship, Americans are in fact becoming increasingly divided on party lines. Abramowitz points to data from the 2012 American National Election Study to illustrate his argument. Not only did the report show that over 85% of ‘Independent Democrats’ (87%) and ‘Independent Republicans’ (86%) voted for their party’s candidate, but ‘Independent Democrats’ were more likely to vote a straight Democratic ticket than those who reported a weak affiliation with the party. These results are entirely in line with the general decline of ‘split-ticket’ voting patterns, yet another factor contributing to the growing chasm between progressives and conservatives.

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It would be irresponsible to highlight the increase in ‘Independents’ without simultaneously giving lip service to the drop in self-identified Republicans. This is an area where the aforementioned desire to publicly distance one’s self from the fringes is especially apparent. The contemporary Libertarian agenda, for example, shares a large number of core values with what is now considered to be the Republican ‘old school’. If anything, the Millennial predilection for Libertarian affiliation should be viewed as a successful rebranding effort, and not an idological shift. The two movements share many elements of their political platform including: the virtues of ‘bootstraps style’ self-determination, regressive taxation, international isolationism, strong national defense, and an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.

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 As seen in the graphic above, the Gallup poll shows a sharp rise in Independent affiliation in the fourth quarter of 2013, a period that contained both the government shutdown and rollout of the Affordable Care Act. This seems to support the notion that the increase in ‘Independent’ self-labeling is, in large part, a knee-jerk reaction by voters who are capricious enough to be significantly affected by day-to-day developments in Washington. Extravagant amounts of media sensationalism and spin on topics such as the Obamacare rollout, Benghazi mission attack, and NSA domestic spying scandal, have produced equally high levels of distrust  in the machinations of the government. ‘Crooks and liars’ rhetoric, a disturbingly popular excuse for non-participation in America, is as pervasive as ever. Vast swathes of the population have adopted an aggressively apathetic tone and have found a comfortable, if temporary, home under the cover of ‘Independent’ self-identification.

By playing off of the young conservative voter’s fear of being associated with the socially regressive neo-conservative movement of past generations, the Libertarian movement has successfully co-opted many would-be Republicans into its own ranks. This is certainly not limited to the younger crowd, though. A significant number of Baby Boomer-era (former) Republicans that hold  traditionally conservative values are jumping ship as well. As the Neoconservative Right continues to abandon a reasonable conservative platform in lieu of one that plays to the extreme periphery of the party, moderate Conservatives will continue to abandon their cause. The neo-conservative commitment to such radical policies (such as: incessant climate change denial, refusal to recognize marriage equality, aversion to ‘common sense’ gun control legislation, removal of the social welfare safety net, commitment to the continued corprocratic influence, and the nonsensical perpetuation of the War on Drugs) is another factor driving a significant number of Americans away from major party affiliation. While this may not account for the majority of the trend towards ‘Independence’, it is plain to see that the demographics of the ‘newly Independent’ and ‘formerly Republican’ have heavily overlapped in recent years.

While the authors of the Gallup report believe that the increasing level of Independence ‘adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections’, there is little actual evidence to support this. If anything, it is likely that the discontent felt by the vast majority of self-identified ‘Independents’ will result in higher levels of voter abstention rather than a grandiose wave of political coat turning. That is to say, this phenomenon is first and foremost a manifestation of the pervasive desire to ideologically disassociate from the embarrassing political establishment rather than any positive ideological shift. At the end of the day, the increase in ‘Independent’ identification among American voters has much more to do with falling levels of confidence in the dysfunctional establishment than it does with any real shift in political allegiance or beliefs. As long as the  intransigence of Washington lawmakers is continually glorified and the efforts of the far-right to destabilize and discredit the political process are tolerated, the number of Americans who are too embarrassed to publicly identify with a major party, especially the GOP, will continue to rise.