Partisan Identification

Independents Rule but GOP, Dem, & Media Establishment Says Everything Is Fine

Why are historically low numbers of voters identifying as Democratic or Republican? Because they can.



For years now, Gallup takes the pulse of Americans partisan political affiliation. As Matt Welch and I argued in our 2011/12 book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America, the most interesting trend of the current "Libertarian Moment" is voters' increasing resistance to identifying with either the Republican or the Democratic Party. Here's Gallup's gloss:

In 2015, for the fifth consecutive year, at least four in 10 U.S. adults identified as political independents. The 42% identifying as independents in 2015 was down slightly from the record 43% in 2014. This elevated percentage of political independents leaves Democratic (29%) and Republican (26%) identification at or near recent low points, with the modest Democratic advantage roughly where it has been over the past five years.

In Declaration, Matt and I put the move away from strong party identification as of a piece with greater individualization in virtually all aspects of our lives, where we have more and more choices to personalize our social, cultural, and commercial activities and communities. Simply put, there are more ways of being in the world and we use fewer and fewer broad categories to describe ourselves. Think Tiger Woods' ethnicity, which the multi-ethnic golfing legend described as "Cablinasian" in a nod to his Caucasion, black, Asian Indian, and Southeast-Asian heritage. Or think of the late David Bowie, whose insistent and playful shape-shifting provided a road map of sorts for constantly creating new and different identities.

David Deeble

The result is what we dubbed "the Libertarian Moment" or technologically enabled "comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives." We also talked about how politics is a lagging indicator of where America is headed: "It will be the last area of our lives to be transformed, but you can already see the old order breaking down."

That's what you're seeing in those Gallup numbers and in the 2016 presidential race: the long, slow end of party politics as usual. If the general election ends up being a contest between Hillary Clinton and any of the currently leading Republicans, it will be like choosing between Godzilla and Mothra, smallpox and the plague, or a giant douche and a turd sandwich. The country's two major parties, established before the Civil War and running on fumes for a long, long time, no longer represent, unite, or inspire many of us. 

Which is not a problem for most of us, who are choosing to get on with our lives in the glorious scrum of human activity that exists beyond the zero-sum Thunderdome of electoral politics. Whether it's creating the sharing economy or digital culture or accepting gay marriage and pushing for drug legalization and criminal-justice reform, we're getting on with our lives.

Of course, party leaders and folks in legacy media are quick to assert that nothing much is going on here, folks, just keep on walking by. In today's Washington Post, for instance, Philip Bump rebuts what a headline calls "the growing myth of the 'independent' voter."  Because don't you know when you factor in "leaners" (voters who refuse party identification but typically vote for one or the other party), the parties' proportions grow. When Gallup, for instance, includes leaners, the final tally has Democrats with 45 percent of the vote and Republicans with 42 percent.

That's true as far as it goes, even though it still leaves 13 percent of voters designated as "true independents." That's more than enough to sway any election and it's more than it was even a decade ago:

Washington Post

And yet even as they try to minimize the growth of independents, writers such as Bump acknowledge:

This is a long-term trend, but it clearly overlaps with what we're seeing in the presidential race. People may consistently vote for Republicans, but they would rather call themselves "independents." There's an appeal to being an outsider and to outsider politics that's reflected in how people see themselves.

Indeed, it's worth asking why there's growing "appeal to being an outsider and to outsider politics," which is especially pronounced among millennials, who are markedly less partisan (and more libertarian) than their elders. For answers, just look at what's on offer in the Democratic and Republican presidential-nomination races.