The Easiest Political Force to Ignore Is Only Getting Bigger

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The Capitol riot was the latest reason to worry about political polarization in the U.S. But while partisan anger reached new heights in January, something else was happening, too: People were opting out of the fight. According to ABC News, thousands of Republicans changed their registration to “unaffiliated” or “independent” in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It was the latest reminder of an underappreciated trend in American politics in recent years: the rise of independents as a political force.

Back in 1939, the Gallup organization began polling Americans about their political affiliation. About 41% of respondents identified as Democrats, 35% as Republicans and only 18% as having no affiliation, or simply “independent.” By the end of World War II, that number had shrunk to 15%, while the number of Americans who identified as Democrats had risen to 43%. Republican voters dropped to 33% of the total.

Not coincidentally, this period ushered in an era of political compromise, not polarization. Despite the fact that more Americans firmly identified with a single political party, legislators in Congress were more likely to work together, not less.

Political scientists have confirmed this using statistical measures that quantify how often legislators crossed party lines to vote with the other side, as well as the so-called overlap interval — the number of Republicans who are to the left of the most conservative Democrats and the number of Democrats who are to the right of the most liberal Republicans.

Back in the 1960s, more than 50% of legislators occupied this middle ground. This makes sense: When moderates and independents are a smaller share of the total, the coalitions that form each party represent a more diverse set of interests. Crucially, they include moderates. Compromise becomes necessary — and possible — because the two parties meet closer to the center.

This fragile state of affairs held into the late 1960s, when the number of Democrats began to decline. Though the Republican Party gained some of these defectors, more became self-proclaimed independents. In subsequent years, the number of Democrats declined still further. After President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, the ranks of independents began to grow again.

As George H.W. Bush headed toward a one-term presidency in 1992, the unthinkable happened: For the first time, the number of adults who identified as independent became the largest cohort of all, hitting 36% (Democrats and Republicans claimed 33% and 28%, respectively). Democrats, led by presidential aspirant Bill Clinton, responded to the moment by embracing what they called third-way politics — an attempt to reclaim the center. Meanwhile, conservative Republican leaders like the Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich moved aggressively to the right while embracing scorched-earth partisanship.

Perhaps as a consequence, the number of Americans who identify as Republican has gradually declined since 1995, though it ebbed and flowed with events like 9/11 and the war on terrorism. This trend intensified dramatically after 2008: more independents, fewer formal members of the established parties, with Republicans registering the greatest declines.

Over the past six years, independents have claimed as much as 43% of the total, though 2020 concluded with them at 41%.* While they are a diverse group, a few facts stand out: They tend to have more moderate views on hot-button social issues, they tend to be younger and are more likely to be men. They also chose Biden over Trump, 54% to 41%, according to exit polls.

Independent voters refuse political labels, but they are not usually neutral. Most voters who embrace this identity lean one way or the other. In 2016, 42% of the electorate eschewed formal affiliation with a political party, but of those, 16 percent leaned Democratic and 14 percent leaned Republican. Only 12 percent described themselves as genuinely unaffiliated.

Whether they lean or not, independents do not want to express a formal fealty to a particular party, in no small part because the party in question does not fully represent their views, or stands for things that make them uncomfortable. In the last decade, the number of these voters hit all-time highs.

If anything, there’s growing evidence that a good chunk of the nation has sworn off formal identification with a particular party precisely because of growing polarization. For example, a small but growing body of research has suggested that witnessing like-minded partisans engage in uncivil behavior drives many people away from political parties and toward more moderate positions.

This contradicts facile assertions that the country is so deeply polarized. It would be more accurate to say that the base of each of the two political parties is deeply polarized, and the political elites they elect equally so. But this has left a large and growing number of disenchanted voters in the middle.

As with earlier periods of party realignment, there is an opportunity for the formation of new parties. The Republican Party was born in just such a moment of intense polarization, welding together the remnants of the Whig Party with other factions to create a newly powerful political force in the 1850s.

But there’s also an opportunity for the existing parties. Since winning the election, President Joe Biden has refused to engage with former President Donald Trump’s provocations. He’s celebrated the virtues of bipartisanship even though Republicans have showed little outward interest in cooperation, and has otherwise signaled an aversion to partisan warfare.

These overtures may seem naive, but Biden’s gambit could turn out to be canny. The major parties have attracted large numbers of independents before and can do so again. Democrats are especially well-positioned to reclaim a healthy chunk of them since the party is closer to the center on most major issues than Republicans, who have increasingly adopted more extreme positions over the last two decades.

Will it work? Check back in four years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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