The Declaration of Independents

Meet the future of American politics.

(Page 2 of 3)

Goldberg may have been onto more than he realized. Yes, Americans are designing their own politics, just as they are designing their own hyphenated identities online, in the workplace, and in the marketplace. Every sector of modern life outside the dead zone of governance has seen long-entrenched incumbents take a battering, as individuals seize every opportunity to create a personalized, consumer-first interface with the world. Powerful duopolies of yore, as Fujifilm’s onetime dominant rival, Kodak, can surely tell you, are on the run.

Rise of the Libertarians

Since 1987 the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has conducted surveys every six years to determine the various “typologies” within the greater body politic, such as “liberals,” “bystanders,” and “social conservatives.” In May 2011, Pew discovered a new tribe, comprising 9 percent of the electorate, which it christened “libertarians.”

The Pew survey characterized libertarians’ “defining values” like this: “Highly critical of government. Disapprove of social welfare programs. Pro-business and strongly opposed to regulation. Accepting of homosexuality. Moderate views about immigrants compared with other Republican-oriented groups.”

How “Republican-oriented” are Pew’s libertarians? A whole lot, yet not much. Fully 77 percent “lean” toward the GOP, compared to just 11 percent toward Democrats. Yet 67 percent of libertarians self-identify as independents, compared to 28 percent as Republicans and 5 percent as Democrats. “A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse,” Pew concluded. “Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.”

Pew’s findings track with what the Cato Institute found in its 2010 study titled “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” which, using American National Election Series data, estimated the bloc of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters at 14 percent (while noting other methodologies that put the number as high as 59 percent). Authors David Boaz and David Kirby found that libertarians are detaching themselves from the GOP and becoming more of a swing vote. Their margin for Senate Republicans over Democrats dropped from 59 percentage points in 2002 to just 4 points in 2006, for example, then jumped back to 49 points in 2008. Boaz and Kirby also cite the work of UCLA’s Sylvia Friedel, who found that libertarians voted Republican for president 69 percent of the time from 1972 to 1988, but just 46 percent of the time since the end of the Cold War. Young libertarians in particular skew independent, and (unlike older libertarians) preferred Obama to John McCain by a wide margin.

Interestingly, Boaz and Kirby suggest that many libertarian voters do not fully recognize or name their own tendencies. “Why is this substantial and growing libertarian strength not better recognized?” they ask. “Political scientists have taught for more than 50 years that politics is arranged on a liberal-conservative continuum, so we’re all used to that. And indeed, political activists and elected officials do seem to have arranged themselves into those two camps, rather than a more accurate reflection of the total electorate. Because of the constant repetition of the liberal-conservative spectrum, most libertarian-minded voters don’t identify themselves as libertarians, and they aren’t organized in libertarian groups.”

The All-American Backlash

We know that independents are sick of the political status quo, that the libertarians among them want to reduce the size of government, and that both blocs are growing as a share of the electorate. But what about the rest of Americans? Well, they’re pissed.

During the November 2010 election, CNN exit polls found that 74 percent of voters were “dissatisfied” or even “angry” with government. Approval ratings for Congress keep reaching all-time lows. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in January 2010 found that 58 percent of adults generally favored “smaller government with fewer services,” compared with only 38 percent who preferred “larger government with more services”; those numbers were 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in June 2004. A 2009 Ayers-McHenry poll asking the same question showed 69 percent of Americans calling for a smaller government and only 21 percent rooting for a bigger one. 

The first Reason-Rupe Poll (see “Cut the Debt By Cutting Government,” page 42), conducted in March and April, revealed a country that is far more radical than its political leaders. An overwhelming 96 percent of respondents deemed reducing the national debt either “important” or “very important,” and the most preferred solution by far was to cut government spending while leaving taxes as they are. Independents and libertarians are arguably the vanguard of American public opinion, an advance scouting party hinting at where and how hard the country as a whole will turn against its leaders. 

The numbers put statistics behind what we’ve all seen with our own eyes. Since the very first days of the financial/political crisis in September 2008, there has been a yawning chasm between popular opinion and the actions of politicians. This gap was apparent when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan political elite put down a House of Representatives rebellion against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, when solid majorities of Americans disapproved of Barack Obama’s new health insurance overhaul, and when the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives tried to backpedal from campaign promises to eliminate earmarks and cut spending. When the gap between voter desire and government policy—between the way people actually live their lives and the way government wants them to behave—grows too wide, a situation that looks stable can turn revolutionary overnight. 

Independents’ Day

You do not have to love or even like the Tea Party movement —to cite the latest (though not the last) example of a decentralized network of alienated citizens using technology to overturn the applecart of American politics—to appreciate its tactical success. To our minds, Tea Party loyalists are too inclined to indulge in military intervention, anti-Shariah paranoia (see “Fear of a Muslim America,” page 20), and constitutional amendments to prohibit activities they do not like. But the movement remains potent in large part because it generally has refused to take the bait on divisive social and foreign policy issues, focusing instead with admirable single-mindedness on a fiscal crisis brought on by reckless government spending. Check out the message discipline contained in the Tea Party’s 2010 “Contract From America”: 

1. Protect the Constitution

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • Crickets||


  • coniefox||

    Behind the government must have an economic groups supporting him.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you don't vote for one of the two established parties you lose, and if you vote for one of the two established parties you lose.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Said it before, I'll say it again.

    I've never really gotten the "wasted vote" argument. If there a candidate who reflects my views (80% or more), I'll vote for him or her. The idea of "winning" with a candidate I disagree with 65% (or more) of the time isn't really all that appealing.

  • sarcasmic||

    I can accurately guess the outcome of an election by the inverse of my ballot.

  • Nomad||

    The idea is that by voting for someone who absolutely won't win, you're giving up what little power you have to choose between Giant Douche and Turd Sammich. Maybe you think one will be .5% less awful?

    Of course, the argument also assumes that you can somehow magically determine how each of them would rule, since what they say and even their prior record, to a certain extent, isn't much of an indicator. ...and it also assumes that your vote somehow is statistically significant...

  • ||

    You know, if, say, the LP were regularly getting 10% of the vote, their ideas would get the attention of the major parties, simply because they need that 10%. Granted, that might only mean more libertarian rhetoric and no other changes, but if libertarians can just move us a little off the statist course, that would be worth doing.

  • Bill||

    But then when they only get 4% and are completely ignored, it's frustrating. Maybe this time it will be different? Let's hope so.

  • some guy||

    When you choose between Team Red and Team Blue, you aren't choosing the lesser of two evils, you're just choosing the next, new form of oppression. Would you prefer to lose social choices or economic choices after the next election?

  • ||

    I've never gotten that one either (and I hear it from friends and family at least every four years). I can only figure that most people need a win real bad, and think that by voting D or R they actually can claim one.

  • ||

    Good essay, though you (too conveniently) ignore all the contradiction in the polling that pops up when Americans are asked what programs they're willing to let go of in the name of smaller government. While they may say in overwhelmingly large numbers "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum, policy-wise: the people are delivering clearly conflicting wishes to a polity that is hard-wired (as the essay points out so well) to hate the "evil other". Until Americans (especially the much-vaunted Independents) can be cured of the "I want my cake and eat it, too" disease, we can rely on political dysfunction as the operating norm.

  • Frederic Bastiat, 1848||

    Citizens! In all times, two political systems have been in existence, and each may be maintained by good reasons. According to one of them, Government ought to do much, but then it ought to take much. According to the other, this two-fold activity ought to be little felt. We have to choose between these two systems. But as regards the third system, which partakes of both the others, and which consists in exacting everything from Government, without giving it anything, it is chimerical, absurd, childish, contradictory, and dangerous. Those who parade it, for the sake of the pleasure of accusing all governments of weakness, and thus exposing them to your attacks, are only flattering and deceiving you, while they are deceiving themselves.
  • ||

    "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum, policy-wise: the people are delivering clearly conflicting wishes to a polity that is hard-wired


  • I||

    our independence from politics

    Hilarious! Do the Reason editors know that politics is a branch of philosophy? That politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics? That politics by any other name is still politics, and that it cannot exist independently of the other philosophical disciplines? That abandoning the two-party system in favor of an "independent" (libertarian) gang is still politics? This clumsy sleight of hand in rebranding libertarian politics and calling it anything but politics is comically transparent. The Libertarian Party, plagued with irreconcilable differences and superficialities and devoid of a consistent, comprehensive philosophical base, was and is a failure, so let's replace it with..."Independents!"

  • ||

    Yes, only by becoming Objectivists will we achieve political success. Brilliant!

  • NotSure||

    Last time I checked politicians do not practice metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, more like mud slinging and baby kissing.

  • cynical||

    Don't confuse politics with ideology. Politics is about power -- who is allied with whom, procedural rules, factionalization, caucuses, lobbying, deals, and that sort of thing.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: I,

    Do the Reason editors know that politics is a branch of philosophy?

    Hey, genius: Nick and Matt meant politics as known colloquially. Of course you cannot get away from Politics, but you can make yourself independent from the political 3-ring circus.

  • CrackertyAssCracker||

    2-ring circus man. 2 rings.

  • some guy||

    And they have a BIG overlap.

  • I||

    Beautiful evasions! Wondrous ignorance! Take a bow, all of you!

  • NotSure||

    Hey genius care to point out all the metaphysical politicians out there in the real world (as opposed to your made up "objective" one).

  • I||

    Keep writing. We laugh and laugh.

  • NotSure||

    Vote for me, my metaphysics, epistemology and ethics is better than the other guys. Vote for me my high brow sophisms really mean absolutely nothing in the real world, but hey that makes me a better politician.

  • MJ||

    Yes, claiming independence from politics is impossible in a representative democracy. Politics is the word we use to describe how differences in opinion in how the nation should be run. The only way to have no "politics" is to have near perfect consensus on how the government does and operates, or to have a tyranny. "Independents" is classification that says more about these people's dissatisfaction with the major parties than their political agreement about anything. The article states that independents comprise 38% of registered voters, but only 9% of the populace would describe themselves as libertarian. This means that at best, libertarians are only about a quarter of the independent vote, which suggests there is a wild diversity of political opinion among the so-called independents. How will those differences be resolved? By the process we call "politics".

    Libertarians are Independents, but Independents are not Libertarians. Trying to claim independents as a coherent political force is a delusion at worst, wishful thinking at best.

  • I||

    Somebody gets it. Not too difficult, right?

  • sarcasmic||

    You can ignore politicians, but that doesn't mean they will ignore you.

  • ||

    variety is the spice of life...

  • ||

    I will read your book gentlemen. You currently have the best audience for your sentiments that there will ever be. The Duopoly does not work and everyone knows it.

  • some guy||

    Certainly the Duopoly does work... to some extent. The evidence is all around us. We, counting our debt, are wealthier than any other group of people in history. Our quality of life is better than ever before. The question is whether the Duopoly can be improved upon. Certainly it can.

  • ||

    When the party hacks speak of the need for "informed voters engaged in the political process", what they really mean is "voters who agree with MY party and always vote for it no matter what promises it breaks or what crimes it commits."

    An active electorate isn't necessarily the key to salvation anyway. I'm currently reading Richard Evans' three volume history of the Third Reich (I'm halfway through the second volume The Third Reich In Power). One point that he makes is that the German electorate of the '20s and '30s was very much engaged in the political process; for instance voter turnout was often in the high 80s. We may remember how that turned out.

  • some guy||

    Exactly. What do we do when we find out that all these independents want less gov't spending and less taxes, but don't want any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or Defense? Many independents are less reasonable than strict party adherents! At least the Democrats think they can force us to pay for those expensive programs...

  • Saro||

    I think I've determined how my next vote for president will go down: If no party fields a candidate that I think can turn this country around, I'm just going to vote for the candidate I think will bring the country down faster.

  • some guy||

    So... you're voting for Obama.

  • MrGuy||

    Voting third party is a vote against freedom, and for terrorists. You don't want terrorists killing you do you?

  • MrGuy||

    "...revolution". So it has officially begun?

  • wildbillnj||

    The trouble with all the "cut spending" talk (and how it breaks down when you mention top-tier line items such as Medicare) is that there are massive amounts of waste, at every level of government, because they're all spending OPM.

    School districts that throw out perfectly good desks, books, etc. just so they can justify the same budget (or more, usually) next year.

    Construction projects that involve kickbacks for everything involved, because the Congressman's brother-in-law owns a building materials supplier.

    "Farmland Preservation" (this may be specifically a NJ thing) that involves government purchasing development rights for many acres of horse farms at a premium price, that are owned by millionaires related to the politicians who passed the law that created the program.

    And this is just "waste". I haven't even begun to discuss fraud.

  • Kjelene||

    I divorced my Republican party at my local Board of Elections...I wrote in my party as "other" party afilliation! It was thrilling! Free at last!!!

  • MattTrey||

    I generally describe myself as a conservative libertarian. For example, while I don't agree with homosexual marriage, I believe it is a state's right to decide, so I do not support a federal marriage amendment.

    As much as I would like to consider myself an independent, I keep my voter registration as Republican, otherwise I will not be able to vote in the primaries.

  • ||

    @DjG2TheWorl per your;
    ~Americans are asked what programs they're willing to let go of in the name of smaller government. While they may say in overwhelmingly large numbers "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum,~~

    That's not necessarily true, unless of course the poll question was, "would you like to see these 'programs' eliminated?' We still have plenty or room for cutting back on those programs without the elimination.
    Polls are Not accurate. The questions are asked in the form of positive or negative thinking. There is no in-between.
    Hence, the division of people and political forecasts.

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  • ||

    I have read, and enjoyed, your book. I was gratified that it so closely paralled my thoughts which produced the following plan. Should you read it I'd appreciate your comments.

    1. All persons residing in the U.S. shall come together in “tax units”. Members need not be related, need not reside together, and a tax unit may consist of as few as one person.
    2. Each year congress shall set a "minimum wage" and a "tax rate".
    3. The following shall not be subject to taxation:
    • An amount equal to a year's earnings (2000 hours) at the minimum wage, for each adult (age 20-65), decreasing 10% per year to 50% at age 15, and increasing 10% per year to 150% at age 70.
    • All payments for necessary health care including medical care, pharmaceuticals prescribed by a health care professional, vision and hearing aids, and fees for health-enhancing entities such as gyms. Health care insurance premiums may be deducted but not health care expense paid for by such insurance.
    • All educational expenses including day care for children or legally incompetent persons, the portion of state and local taxes used for education, and tuition, fees and educational materials for private school education, including that portion of parochial school tuition and other expenses going for non-sectarian education.
    • All income saved into an account for investments; withdrawals from this account for the benefit of any member of the tax unit shall be reported as income.
    4. The "tax rate" shall be applied to any income greater than the deductions listed above, regardless of amount.
    5. Any municipality having greater than 100,000 inhabitants or any state may impose on their citizens a surtax which shall be applied the same as the Federal tax.
    6. Tax units whose deductions exceed income, shall be paid a sum equal to the tax rate multiplied by the shortfall in income.
    7. There shall be no federal tax on corporations or other business entities.
    8. The Office of Management and Budget shall compute revenues to be expected using the newly set tax rate and minimum wage, applied to the previous year's reported incomes. No expenses in excess of that amount may be made without approval by 75% of each house of Congress. This tax shall be the only source of revenue for the federal government.


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