If you’ve ever been in a conversation about politics, you’ve probably heard someone say, “I don’t like either party” or “Politics is just so ugly these days.” That person also may have claimed not to identify as a Democrat or a Republican but as an independent instead.
Today, that person is pretty representative of how Americans identify politically. The share of Americans who say they’re independent has climbed considerably, according to Gallup’s quarterly party affiliation data. In the late 1980s, roughly one-third of Americans identified as Democratic, Republican or independent. Now, 40 percent or more identify as independent, while the share who identify as Democrats or Republicans has fallen to around 30 percent or lower, as the chart below shows.1
On the one hand, more Americans identifying as independent probably doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Independents are often portrayed as more open-minded and less dogmatic in their political views. And in a nation whose founders feared factional politics, the value of political independence is also an attractive one to many Americans.
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The problem is that few independents are actually independent. Roughly 3 in 4 independents still lean toward one of the two major political parties, and studies show that these voters aren’t all that different from the voters in the party they lean toward. Independents who lean toward a party also tend to back that party at almost the same rate as openly partisan voters.
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“Independents tend not to look all that different from partisans,” said Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona and co-author of the book “Independent Politics.” “But they do tend to be more averse to identifying themselves as a partisan when there is a negative stigma associated with partisanship. So, it’s really the arguments, the hostility, the negativity that seems to be driving this behavior.”
And polling shows Americans of all political stripes really are tired of partisan bickering. In January, 93 percent of American voters agreed they were “frustrated by the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians,” according to a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group for Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. In the same poll, 82 percent also said that the nation’s political, racial and class divisions were getting worse.
In their research, Klar and her co-author, Yanna Krupnikov of Stony Brook University, found that exposing people who identified with a party to news coverage of partisan battles in Washington did make them more likely to identify as independent. But that didn’t mean they lost their previous partisan identity; they just became more inclined to hide it. “They’re not actually changing their views on politics,” said Klar. “[Independents] are simply recusing themselves from publicly identifying themselves as a partisan.”
In other words, many 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.
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“[Independents are] not going to put up yard signs, they’re not going to volunteer, they’re not going to work the phone banks, they’re not going to tell their colleagues and their friends who to vote for, they’re not going to extol the virtues of their favorite candidate to their neighbors,” said Klar.
Now, that might not sound like a big deal — it’s not as though campaigns have trouble reaching people online or through TV ads — but Klar and Krupnikov argue in their book that this lack of engagement can damage political parties at the grassroots level.
In fact, we’ve already seen some of the consequences of this, as elected officials from the two parties are increasingly far apart ideologically, both in Congress and at the state level. The abandonment of voters openly identifying with one of the two parties has led to less political engagement, which means Americans are exerting less influence on what the parties look and sound like. That’s a real problem since the parties are still the fundamental building blocks that organize our politics. But with party building left to more stringent partisans, the parties’ bases have largely cultivated candidates who tend to be more ideologically extreme than the voters they seek to represent.
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. That sounds counterintuitive given how many more Americans are identifying as independent, but remember that most aren’t actually independent. Independents are still voting largely for one of the two major parties; they’re just refusing to affiliate with them publicly.