Our first president, George Washington said, “I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.”
His vice president, John Adams, once wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
And the third president — and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, observed: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
Today, that independent spirit is alive and well, if under-represented in our political debates.
The fact is that 41% of Americans describe themselves as independents — as opposed to Democrats or Republicans — according to an April Washington Post/ABC News poll. Independents are the largest and fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Back in 1945, they made up 15%.
Take a look at the growth trends in some of the states where voters register by party.
In Iowa, the first caucus state, the number of registered independents grew 52% between 1990 and 2010.
In New Hampshire, independents can vote in the Republican primary and now make up 42% of the local electorate.
In the pivotal swing state of Florida, the number of independent voters increased more than fivefold since 1990 — from roughly 430,000 to 2.4 million.
And in California, our nation’s largest state, the number of independent voters rose from 1.5 million to more than 3.8 million since 1990.
The two parties would kill to have these kind of recruitment numbers. And the growth of independent voters has occurred precisely as the two parties have become more ideologically polarized than at any time in our recent history.
One way that professional partisans try to explain away these growth trends is to say that independents are apathetic and incoherent. But a Pew Research Center Poll from 2010 asked why independents were independent. Sixty-four percent said it was because “both parties care more about special interests than average Americans.” Fifty-eight percent said it was because “I agree with Republicans on some issues, and Democrats on others” — they didn’t feel comfortable walking in lock step with either party.
Only 19% said they were independents because “politics isn’t that important to me.” Independent voters are patriotic citizens but not partisans. They are nonideological problem-solvers.
Not incidentally, independent voters’ opinions tend to track closer to national opinions than either Democrats or Republicans. But this is no split-the-difference approach to politics — while some independents are conservative and others are liberal, in general they are closer to Republicans on fiscal issues and Democrats on social issues. In particular, independent voters tend to be the least religious segment of our electorate.
And 45% of voters under the age of 35 identify as independent. They have grown up with a multiplicity of choice in every area of their lives — partisan politics is the last place they are expected to be content with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.
There is a mainstream dynamic driving the independent voter movement — they can be said to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal to libertarian — and they are frustrated with the partisan fights that hijack our political debates.
Independent voters are a rising tide, and they ultimately decide who wins or loses elections.
These declarations of independence are worth celebrating on July Fourth as a new expression of an old American tradition that will take on renewed importance in the long election season ahead.