According to a Gallup poll out on Thursday, more Americans than ever—46 percent—self-identify as “independent.” But before the trumpets are sounded for a new, free-thinking, gridlock-free world of unaffiliated, presumably moderate voters, it’s important to parse what this might mean—especially given the deep divisions that still cleave the country.
To start with, the word “independent” has a number of meanings. The Gallup poll makes it easy for voters to have the word act as a substitute for “none of the above.” There are all sorts of reasons voters nowadays would not want to tell a pollster they're Democrats or Republicans. Neither party or its leaders is held in high esteem by voters. The favorability rating for the Democratic party reached an all-time low of 36 percent in November, according to Gallup data. At 42 percent, the GOP was up slightly from recent polls, but viewed historically, both numbers were fairly grim; both groups stayed higher than 50 percent for most of the '90s and early 2000s. And the poll numbers of the institutions those parties control—Congress, the White House, even the Supreme Court—are even worse. Congress, site of a long stalemate that is an advertisement for the parties’ ineffectiveness, has flirted with an approval rating in the single digits.
But the unwillingness of people of people to identify with parties doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve changed their attitudes, or even their voting behaviors. The ground of their beliefs—what psychologists call “implicit identity”—is harder to shift. In a paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Carlee Beth Hawkins and Brian Nosek wrote, “Independents may self-identify as such because they want to convey the social values of objectivity and the ability to think about the issues based on the facts rather than just going with a group.”
For their study, Hawkins and Nosek had independents quickly categorize words associated with either Democrats or Republicans. How they categorized those words turned out to predict how they would rate different policies. First, subjects were asked to select welfare policies that had obvious party connotations. Those who had identified with the Democrats chose the broader welfare plan, while those who identified more with Republicans chose the more stringent plan. Next, the subjects were told to evaluate a more obscure piece of policy for special education. The party affiliation for mainstreaming versus separate classes was randomly assigned, and the self-described independents chose whichever policy matched their implicit identity.
“We have two sides of ourselves, who we want to be and who we are,” Nosek said. “What drives what we do is not our intentions and our practices, but also our implicit attitudes.”
And, as a legal and political matter, “independent” means different things from state to state. In many states, voters are allowed to register as independent, much as they'd register to be a Democrat or Republican. In some states with open primaries, like Arizona, citizens are effectively incentivized to register as unaffiliated, since it allows them to keep their options open by voting in either party's primary without changing their registration. It is unsurprising that independents are the state's largest affiliation.
In this vein, the biggest long-term driver of Americans to think of themselves as independents may be California's elimination of party primaries. In 2010, the most populous state moved to a system in which the top two primary vote-getters would face off in the general election, regardless of party. In the last two Novembers, some of the state's most hard fought congressional races were between Democrats, who distinguished themselves from one another along generational, demographic and ideological lines. One example was a 2014 House race in Silicon Valley between old-guard incumbent Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna, who tried to be a champion for the tech industry. The 2016 Senate election could end up the same way. The Democratic party definitely became less doctrinaire, more capacious. But are voters who rally behind one of those candidates more or less likely to think of their salient identity as “Democrat” or “independent”? In California, the latter isn't even a legally meaningful term; non-affiliated voters choose “decline to state” when registering. According to the California's Secretary of State's office, some 21 percent of registered voters were unaffiliated as of April.
As Gallup notes, the term always picks up appeal during a non-election year when the act of voting compels citizens into consider their place in the two-party framework. In 2010, Pew declared that “Independents Oppose Party in Power...Again.” Perhaps, but isn't it more logical that people busy opposing the party in power just like to think of themselves as independent? That year, polls showed most of those who considered themselves part of the Tea Party described themselves as independents, but 87 percent of them said they would vote for the Republican candidate for Congress.
A record number of independents in a country that is as ideologically riven as ever is a paradox that's not really a paradox. Most of the new independents are liable to be indistinguishable from Democrats or Republicans by belief—they just wouldn’t want to call themselves that.