The plurality political self-identification of Americans these days is not Democratic or Republican but independent. According to the most recent quarterly measurement by Gallup, 44 percent of Americans say they are independents, while 30 percent identify as Democrats and 25 percent as Republicans.
But it’s now an established principle of political science that most self-identified independents are functionally partisan in that they consistently favor one party’s policies and candidates over the other. In that Gallup assessment, only a fourth of independents are truly independent; the rest regularly “lean” R or D in a way that is difficult to distinguish from regular old partisan affiliation.
At FiveThirtyEight, Geoffrey Skelley reinforces these long-known facts, but makes a somewhat more troubling argument as well: calling oneself an “independent” is more likely a sign of disengagement than of nonpartisanship:
[M]any Americans are so dissatisfied with politics and turned off by how ugly and partisan it has become that they now refuse to openly identify with either party — even though most still consistently back one party. This is troubling because it suggests that Americans not only are less willing to share their political beliefs but also no longer engage in politics in ways that go beyond just voting — developments that have negative ramifications for the health of our democracy.
In other words, these “nonpartisan” voters aren’t a potential constituency for some hypothetical centrist third party, or even for “more moderate” Republicans and Democrats, because they are too checked out, and too inclined to distrust all partisan politicians, even those for whom they regularly vote. So in effect they have ceded the initiative to the more strident partisans and ideologues whose battles they ostensibly despise. It’s quite the vicious circle. And it has been apparent for a while, Skelley notes: “As political scientist and FiveThirtyEight contributor Julia Azari wrote for Vox in 2016, the defining characteristic of our politics may be that the parties are weak while partisanship is quite strong.”
In that same 2016 piece, Azari discussed the destabilizing effects of strong partisanship alongside weak parties in words that sound even more compelling in 2021:
Partisanship as a way of expressing both team loyalty and policy beliefs can be very useful. But it needs to be balanced with a sense of the party as an organization — a team in a more concrete, social sense. Team-spiritedness also needs to be balanced out by organizations that have an interest in the next fight: robust party organizations that want to win next time, and believe that they can.
You can get a sense of the danger of disengaged crypto-partisans who deem themselves disgusted with the very parties they support from the Trump supporters who tend to resonate to his attacks on “the Swamp” and “the Republican Establishment.” When aligned with hard-core partisans and ideologues who are very engaged in politics, they can become a potent and destabilizing force. It may seem counterintuitive, but disruptive hyper-ideological insurgencies of the left and of the right can be fed by self-identified independents who are too estranged from the formal party to feel any stake in defending it. And thus partisanship gets more intense, even as “centrist” pundits deplore it and “independent” voters grow more disenchanted with the very parties whose candidates they still support.
These realities should serve as a splash of cold water for those who think of the rising numbers of self-identified independents as signaling the imminent end of polarization and some sort of glorious new Era of Good Feelings where people work together to solve problems in a bipartisan or nonpartisan matter. In fact, greater engagement with both the major parties may be the best way to make them stable and functioning institutions that are less vulnerable to “outsider” demagogues like Donald Trump.