The Rising Tide of Political Independents

What was once unfathomable to me and many others who found solace in belonging to a traditional majority has now become the only rational option

Kimberly Ross
Feb 4, 2019 · 6 min read

In 2019, fractures within our political system are more noticeable than ever. Our spectrum of differences has collapsed into a rigid binarism from which there is no easy escape. The categories “left” and “right” used to accommodate a range of political philosophies. Increasingly, only the extreme versions of those perspectives are seen as morally urgent and politically viable.

If you identify as a Democrat, you’re pure, anti-American evil in the eyes of Republicans. If you belong to the GOP, Democrats see you as part of a racist, populist phenomenon. There is no middle ground. Those who claim independence from the two major camps are charged with aiding and assisting “the enemy,” and branded contributors to the problems that currently plague political life and the broader culture.

Disowning this rampant tribalism has become an exhausting sport in itself.

The 2006 version of myself is someone I no longer recognize. The years following my college graduation became a gradual gathering of all things on the right side of the political aisle: Fox News was my channel, Bill O’Reilly was a staple of my day, Democrats were the clear — and only — enemy, and I even excitedly carried one of my Sean Hannity books to a meet-and-greet with the author himself.

Over the years, I’ve made my way from FNC cheerleader and uncritical Republican to independent conservative. I continue to hold fast to beliefs in small government, free markets, fiscal responsibility, and the sanctity of life, to name a few. But the last remaining vestiges of GOP loyalty were pushed off not long before Donald J. Trump made his way down that escalator in June 2015 to announce what was supposed to be a longshot candidacy.

To those who equate merely winning with winning well, the refusal to join the Republican crowd despite recent successes is a rather confusing turn. However, the tendency to reject the establishment in favor of the less popular, more unconventional path is slowly becoming a more favorable avenue for members of a frustrated electorate who claim a variety of ideological persuasions. The mentality of the independent-minded voter is one that is growing in popularity.

According to a recent Gallup poll, political independence is currently overtaking its partisan counterparts.

More U.S. adults continued to identify as political independents (42 percent) in 2018 than as either Democrats (30 percent) or Republicans (26 percent). At least four in 10 Americans have been political independents in seven of the past eight years, including a record-high 43 percent in 2014.

This independent exodus is bipartisan in nature as Democrats and Republicans have seen their numbers decrease.

The recent rise in independent identification has come at the expense of both parties about equally. Compared with 30 years ago, when 33 percent of Americans identified as independents, the percentage of Republicans has fallen five points and the percentage of Democrats has fallen six points.

That both parties have seen defections to the middle, or at least to the officially unaffiliated, says much.

This rejection of what has become the new political establishment is due to fringe elements on both sides of the aisle. Not all Trump supporters embrace the suspicious, nationalistic feelings of their peers and applaud the constant juvenility of our 45th president; yet, unquestionably, a fair number do. Conversely, not all who make up the “tolerant” left view the individuals who reside between the coasts as uneducated rubes existing several status planes beneath them; yet, unquestionably, a fair number do. The dismissal of these generalizations is what pulls partisans away from the comfort of the larger groups to a more central place within American political life.

It is not the absence of principles that remakes one into an independent; it’s the realization that hyperpartisanship damages more than enhances the cause.

A majority of the factors that lead toward independent thinking as the attractive alternative were around long before the current political climate began forming. There has always been an eternal struggle between left and right. However, the last presidential election seemed to magnify the tensions to an incredible degree. A discordant campaign period was not remedied by the advent of a new administration, or by some appeal to our historical legacy of peaceful presidential transition. The intervening years have only caused further strain and we see the damage right before our eyes.

The incident between Covington High School students and an elderly Native-American man after the March For Life in Washington, D.C. serves as a perfect showcase for partisan loyalty. Numerous writers, media personalities, news sites, and celebrities got the incident wrong from the start. Without waiting for more facts—or digging for them themselves—they reached conclusions that ultimately supported their long-held prejudices. Video evidence shows that the teenagers were not verbally abusing Phillips and had been the ones to experience ridicule prior to him entering the scene. Still, the presence of MAGA hats removed any chance at claiming innocence. These young men were seen as casual representatives of the president and his administration, and because of that, represented nothing but racism and tyranny. But this only tells half the story.

The desire for proof of the MAGA mentality gone wrong spurred media to make claims that could not be supported with facts. There is certainly an issue with mainstream pundits, and even what are taken to be straight news sites, finding problems where none exist. But there are cases when the regular crop of Trump haters at CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere get things right. More often than not, those moments go unnoticed or dismissed by Trump supporters who believe everything their man says and disregard criticism from any source.

To those who lean independent, the Covington-Phillips drama was a chance to reflect on just how far partisanship has taken us. Without blaming the teenagers for a situation beyond their control, we were left with many questions: Where were their adult chaperones? Who allowed these young people to wear partisan apparel at what should be a non-partisan pro-life event? Why did the media instantly side with Phillips without questioning his role in increasing the tension? Let’s say some of the students in fact acted in a highly immature fashion, how do we reconcile their portrayal by the media as despicable avatars of limitless racism with their actual level of guilt? How did the country spiral to this point so quickly? Can’t both sides learn some serious lessons from this?

We’re left with deep frustration and the knowledge that tribalism is not only hurting both parties, but chipping away at the very foundation of our nation. No wonder independent affiliation looks better all the time.

In the years ahead, this trend may grow somewhat static as Donald Trump eventually exits the national political scene. Without him, there is sure to be a reduction in tensions. But he is not so much the cause of this severe polarization as he is a symptom of what has always been there, only partially dormant, for decades. These hostilities will never disappear.

Most of all, those of us who have finally detached ourselves from the larger groups closest to us want honesty. If the truth is most important, it shouldn’t matter if our side wins or we “own” our enemies. Sadly, being the victor, no matter the cost, seems to be the ultimate goal of too many political players.

As long as that outlook drives the card-carrying members of the two main parties, independents will increase in numbers. What was once unfathomable to me and many others who found solace in belonging to a traditional majority has now become the only rational option.

Kimberly Ross is a columnist at Arc Digital. Read more of her work and follow her on Twitter.

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