No group in American politics gets more respect than independent voters. Pundits and reporters probe what these allegedly moderate citizens think about this issue and that candidate, major party strategists seek the golden mean of messaging that will attract independents to their camp and/or alienate them from the opposing one. Presidential nominees and aides struggle to come up with phrases and settings that will soothe or excite them. But what if millions of independents are really just a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
That is certainly the impression one gets from dipping into the finer details of a mid-April survey of 1,000 likely, registered voters conducted by Democracy Corps, the outfit run by Stan Greenberg and James Carville. Beyond the usual questions about Obama’s job approval and that of House Republicans, this poll performed the valuable service of reading out each party’s talking points about the current budget debate and then asking respondents which ones they found convincing.
The results are mildly hilarious. By a margin of over 20 points, voters agree with these GOP lines: “Both Democrats and Republicans have run up deficits, but now they are out of control under President Obama and threatening our economy”; Paul Ryan’s plan “changes the reckless path of over-spending and borrowing”; and, “Over-regulation and high taxes punish companies for success.” At the same time, by slightly higher percentages, they also agree with the Democrats that Ryan’s budget would “eliminate guaranteed Medicare and Medicaid coverage”; “force seniors to negotiate with private insurance companies, which are free to raise rates and deny coverage”; and “decrease taxes for CEOs and big corporations, giving millionaires another huge tax break.”
Since avowed Republicans and Democrats line up consistently behind whichever arguments come from their side, it is the independents who are responsible for the contradictory results: Almost 50 percent agreed first with the GOP positions, and then, with those of the other party. As the pollsters observed, “[I]ndependents … move in response to the messages and attacks tested in this survey.”
To a sympathetic eye, this result might connote a pleasant openness to contrasting opinions, perhaps a desire to give each group of partisans the benefit of the doubt. But I think it demonstrates a basic thoughtlessness. At a time of economic peril, when one party wants to protect the essential structure of our limited welfare state and the other party seeks to destroy it, most independents, according to this poll, appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard. Scariest of all, come 2012, they just might be the ones to decide the future course of the republic.
Back in the 1920s, Walter Lippmann and John Dewey engaged in a fertile discussion, part of which took place in the pages of The New Republic, about whether ordinary citizens could be trusted to make sound decisions about which policies to favor and which politicians could be trusted to carry them out. Lippmann thought the public was easily manipulated by clever propagandists and ideologues; a complex industrial society required public-spirited experts to run the show. Dewey acknowledged the need for expertise, but he also called for well-informed progressives to involve the citizenry in learning about and participating in the democratic process. The people, Dewey wrote in The Public and Its Problems (1927), in his earnestly awkward way, should “have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns.” To advocate this kind of public pedagogy was, at the time, more daring that it sounds today. In the early twentieth century, only a minority of Americans finished high school, and just a tiny elite went to college.
Nearly a century later, governance has only become more complex and consequential. Yet most American adults have attended at least a year or two of college, and the Internet offers limitless ways to inform oneself about government programs and the politicians who embrace or reject them. Of course, misinformation abounds as well, but probably no more than it did in the 1920s, when four million Americans joined the KKK and many others believed the Klan’s charge that Catholics and Jews formed an “alien bloc” that, if unchecked, would topple the democratic order. So, in theory, Dewey’s vision, in updated form, might be easier to realize in 2011. After all, loyal Democrats and Republicans still compose at least two-thirds of the electorate. Both groups tend to follow politics and engage in partisan debates, and they understand there are marked, even irreconcilable, differences between liberals and conservatives.
But then, there are independents, many of whom, according to the Democracy Corps poll on some of the most pressing matters facing the country, seem to be more myopic than moderate. Either they believe, in their ignorance, that slashing the budget and cutting taxes can be accomplished without touching any entitlement program they favor. Or they care little about politics and so are willing to consent to whatever messages get thrown their way, however contradictory they may be. As former Rep. Richard Gephardt once put it, only half-jokingly, “We have surveys that prove that a good portion of the American public neither consumes nor wishes to consume politics.”
Independents vote in lower numbers than do party loyalists, but, in close elections, they nearly always cast the deciding ballots. As in other recent polls, the one conducted by Democracy Corps shows President Obama in a neck-and-neck race with Mitt Romney; it finds the same result for a hypothetical contest between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat running for Congress. This means that, unless the political dynamics change fundamentally over the next 18 months, independents will be critical again in 2012.
Of course, the dynamics could change, giving one party or the other a landslide victory. But I wouldn’t count on it. Indeed, the Democracy Corps poll reveals that our next holders of state power might end up being chosen by a minority that seems to stands for very little—or, perhaps, for nothing at all.
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. His next book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August (Knopf).