Politics in America have always been seen through the prism of the two parties, even when challenges to those parties have arisen. If disruptions in that two-party fabric at the end of the last century came in the form of renegade outsider presidential candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, the 2016 presidential elections brought massive voter rebellions inside the major parties. As gridlock, partisanship and dysfunction persist, we might ask ourselves, what comes next?
The answer, of course, is unknowable, as much turns on how a multitude of forces decide to play. However, an emergent force that is yet to be organized stands to play an important role in shaping new directions for American politics: the independent voter.
By all current surveys, from Gallup to Pew, the size of this community of voters is now the plurality constituency. Independents are somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the electorate, and while they may vote for major party candidates, no party can lay claim to their identity. Americans choose to be independents because they choose to make a statement that no party owns them.
At a time when the parties are desperately trying to tighten their grip on their voting bases and on the machinery of government that each controls, citizens whose numbers constitute close to the majority are choosing to render themselves outside of that control.
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Of course, political scientists, media hypesters and professional partisans have spent decades attempting to explain away this phenomenon. Independents are cast as “leaners,” looking for “cues,” or indulging in a petty game of self-glorification. However, a distinguished group of academic researchers and front-line activists has come together to attempt to look at this phenomenon in new ways, and its early discoveries underscore that independent voters may rewrite the political playbook.
The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University and the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California have teamed up with the nonprofit Independent Voting, where I serve as president, to develop new lines of inquiry on these volatile questions. Last week we jointly issued a new report titled “Gamechangers?” which maps out a new set of categories and questions to understand the dynamics that propel voters to declare their independence.
“The rising number of voters in the United States who are registering and identifying as independent is a very important phenomenon and is already impacting local, state and national elections,” said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Understanding who these voters are and what they care about is essential to a strong democracy, and I am proud to have my institute involved with this study.”
Like Einstein’s theory of relativity or Galileo’s insistence that the earth revolves around the sun, new ways of seeing the dynamics of our world can be game changing. The fixed principle of two party politics is eroding rapidly, along with the institutions that enforce that arrangement. What will come to take their place? A new party? A new alternative to parties? That is something that the American people will have to decide. But with 44 percent of Americans looking for an alternative to partisanship and gridlock, it is likely that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will suffice.
Jacqueline Salit is president of IndependentVoting.org, a nonprofit strategy center and organizing hub.