NPR came out with a gem of an article last week that utterly confuses, I think, both the role and ethos of the independent voter (read: I took it personally). The strawman presented is someone like this: a voter who would like to believe they are an independent-minded person doing their civic duty by refraining from endorsing one political party or another, but who is in fact secretly so totally besties with either the Democrats or Republicans (more likely the Democrats, according to the article).
Despite this overarching misanalysis, the article does somewhat aptly address the myth that independents are swing voters at the core—the misconception that a candidate can gain crucial ground with self-described independents, presumably middle-of-the-road folks, by tailoring a message to appear less strident than the party's base would like. I've resorted to this fallacious thinking a bit myself, often reasoning that, in a presidential election, a candidate attempting to win moderates can afford to soften the rhetoric, as the base will never abandon their horse; for instance, no flag-bleeding conservative Christian will vote Democrat in 2012, even if, assuming he wins the nomination, Mitt Romney decides to tattoo a barcode on the back of his neck and shave his head. There may be some truth to this, but it would probably be a mistake to think that moderate independents represent a large enough voting bloc to make a significant, or at least bankable, difference. By the latter reasoning, a candidate might be better off concentrating more intently on the base rather than on the margins. Speculation abounds, including my own. I'm just sayin'.
What really chapped my ass was the article's attempt to call independents who vote for major parties "closet partisans," as if a party preference somehow strips the independent of their claim to the title suggested by their affiliation. Are some independents closet partisans? Undoubtedly. But to say that one is a loyal Democrat or Republican (essentially what the article claims) and not an independent because they hew to the lesser-of-two-evils mentality during general elections is flat wrong. It fails to account for the difference between political and voting philosophy, which is to say one might adhere to a political philosophy not engendered by the major parties but, when it comes time to vote, chooses the candidate he/she considers to be less destructive. (Campaigns appear to have hordes of believers, and to be frank, I think this was the major problem with Obama's 2008 campaign. At the end of the day, I suspect most people view their meager choice as the opportunity to pick the person who will fuck up less.)
While I might not agree with the prior voting mentality as described, I don't think it's fair to call these folks partisans. Third-party candidates often leave as much to be desired as do their major-party counterparts. I'd probably consider voting libertarian, but I won't vote for Ron Paul even though I respect his candor and gumption, and very much would like to see some of his agenda receive bigger play on a national stage. In 2008 I voted Green Party, but given the chance, I doubt I'd want to cast another vote for Nader. (Thankfully, he's not running again.) Neither of those parties, however, reflect my political views exactly; in many ways, they're opposed to one another. But each addresses issues mainstream politicians are unwilling to tackle, and knowing full well that any vote is a vote of compromise, I could still be persuaded should the right candidate come along bearing a third-party standard. (Really, I'm a cheerleader for alternative parties and vote for them often, but in the end we're voting for people, remember, and voting for someone you really don't like ravages the psyche. Kerry, for one, will be on my soul until the heat death of the universe.) Yet my choices in November 2012 may come down to Romney, Obama, or No Confidence, and while my whimsical little heart might like to think the last of those options would be a resounding fuck you to the big, bad establishment, I may find myself in a different mood when I crawl behind the curtain to do my, mostly symbolic, civic duty. With those unenviable choices in front of me, who would I pick? Well, personally, I recommend castration for anyone who winds up in Mitt Romney's corner, and I'd like to keep my anatomy in tact for as long as possible. Plus, I live in Illinois, so my vote will count even less this year than it normally does. Maybe I'll just write in Indiana Jones, or Hannibal Lecter.
Would that make me a Democrat? Hell no. Still, I most likely won't be able to bring myself to tick a D on the presidential ballot.
The more rampant ideology I run into, the more suspicious I am that its holder has willingly entered an echo chamber. Is—ought remains the implacable philosophical hurdle. Once we've proposed an ought, we've made a choice that, no matter how much we may think so, does not by default follow from the is. We begin to make moral distinctions. So politics is the belief system by which we argue with one another from our respective patches of mucky, infirm ground. By avoiding the neat designations and party machinery, I think many independents put themselves in the position to avoid the immediate knee-jerk reactions and group-think that true partisans display. But that doesn't preclude them from voting Democrat or Republican, or favoring one or the other, nor should it call upon them the insinuation of partisanship.
Forgive the lame ice cream analogy. Someone always makes one and, today, it's my turn: if you give me a choice between chocolate and vanilla, I'll pick vanilla most of the time. What really gets my blood pumping, though, is cookie dough... or cookies 'n' cream... or mint chocolate chip. Sometimes I just can't decide.
(Before I finished this post, I came across one by Will Wilkinson on Big Think entitled "Politics vs. Empathy," in which he outlines a study that found subjects' did not project their visceral-state feelings onto those perceived as dissimilar, specifically those of different political affiliation. Prior research has shown much the same thing, and it's worth taking a look at Wilkinson's brief description, where he provides a link to the full-text and an explanation of what sorts of projections came into play. To me, this is a neat little anecdote that reinforces my suspicion of political group affinity.)