Trying to label independent voters is a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. The very fact that they’re independent makes it difficult to pull them all together, and it certainly makes it a tough task to draw many conclusions from the recent increase in registrations by those labeling themselves as independents.
But independents are playing a big role in this year’s presidential election. Both major parties have said that part of their main strategy is courting the independents – the same group that gave President Obama his edge in the 2008 primaries and election, and then helped give the Republicans control of the House of Representatives in 2010.
So despite the challenges it presents, Jacqueline Salit attempts to put a face on independent voters in her new book, “Independents Rising: Outside Movements, Third Parties and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America.”
Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org, a strategy and organizing center for independents. She will be in Saratoga on Wednesday to discuss her book and the looming national elections.
Salit says independent voters now make up 40% of the electorate, which is the highest such percentage in 75 years. “More and more people are dissatisfied and disaffected with the political parties,” she says. And their frustration goes beyond the parties themselves, but to the very institution of politics itself, “which reinforces and incentivizes partisanship and division.”
And that’s why, she says, voters are registering as independents.
Salit is not alone in the belief that more and more people are becoming frustrated with politics as usual. Bill Hillsman of the group Independent Voters of America recently told the organization Truth-Out that, “We've got a government with very little accountability; we've got a government with no productivity; and we've got an increase in partisanship on both sides, which means they become less accountable and they do even less. So, I think there's good reason for a lot of taxpayers to be frustrated right now.”
This problem so many people have with the institution of politics in America, says Salit, makes it increasingly difficult for Washington to address 21st century issues. “We have a 20th century political arrangement that isn’t suited for 21st century problems.”
Salit says this is the unifying issue for independents. “The singular thing that emerges as tying these independents together is the need and the want to have a different kind of political culture and a different kind of political process.
“When people say, and they often do in the pundit world, independents are centrist, independents are in the middle, that’s flat out wrong… they’re all over the political spectrum. But they are saying something, and increasingly they are attempting to do something about the entrenched partisanship of the system.”
So the simple question becomes, just what is it they want? Independents want a non-partisan political process, says Salit. “They want the opportunity to introduce innovation in fields like education, economic development, and health care policy. But most particularly, they want a political process that allows us to move beyond parties and beyond partisanship. And they are becoming in my experience a powerful force for structural political reform.”
Getting there won’t be easy though, she says, especially since the nation’s two major parties together hold most of the nation’s political power. “If the fundamental issue is taking power out of the hands of the parties and putting it in the hands of the voters, how do you do that given that Democrats and Republicans control the levers of power in the electoral process, that’s the challenge of the movement,” says Salit. “We sit on and we organize on the cusp of that conflict.”
“You look to find the levers that you can, and you mobilize public opinion, and you put pressure on elected officials, and you use the growing power of this huge voting block to the extent that you can harness it in various kinds of ways to achieve those kinds of structural changes.”
But no one thinks such a challenge will be easy. Organizing in general can be a daunting task, but with this group of Americans, says Salit, it’s made even more difficult by the reality that the independent movement today is not a party-building movement. “If anything it’s an anti-party movement. So the form that it takes and the kinds of things that it does, it’s very uncharted territory.”
As such movements have in the past, anyone attempting to harness this voting block must contend with the possibility that the movement could just fade away. So the hard work will include an effort to keep the independent voters together as a cohesive movement. “There’s no guarantee in this situation. But you do see the kind of intractable insistence on the part of so many people that they are independent, they intend to remain independent, they want to have voting rights as independents, they want to be able to participate fully in the political process as independents, and that’s not going away.”
Meet the author
Brown Bag Lunch at noon, Wednesday, October 3rd
112 Spring Street – lower level
Photo Credit: Jaqueline Salit
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