The Trouble With “Independents”

Over at The New Republic, Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin writes:

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?

Care to guess the answer to that last question?

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.”

I would note that each of the Democratic talking points is just a simple statement of fact.

The standard euphemism for the sorts of people Kazin is discussing is “low-information voters.&rdquo. To judge from the poll results reported in the essay it would seem to be an apt moniker. These are the folks towards whom all political campaigning is directed, since anyone who pays the tiniest bit of attention to politics surely knows long before election day which candidate best represents his interests. Republicans can only get elected by conning a lot of middle-class voters into voting against their interests. That they are routinely successful in doing just that should definitely give us pause. Or, as Kazin puts it:

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.”

Comments

  1. #1 mxh
    April 26, 2011

    Reminds me of that Family Guy episode about undecided voters.

  2. #2 josef johann
    April 26, 2011

    I think the goofiest think of all is the independent ideology that many voters are attracted to, which is bolstered by the manufacturing of false equivalences in a misguided pursuit of high-mindedness.

  3. #3 Rob Jase
    April 27, 2011

    Ah the low-information voter – what a lovely euphemism for moron.

  4. #4 csrster
    April 27, 2011

    In Britain they’re known as Sun-readers.

  5. #5 llewelly
    April 27, 2011

    josef johann | April 26, 2011 11:23 PM:

    I think the goofiest think of all is the independent ideology that many voters are attracted to, which is bolstered by the manufacturing of false equivalences in a misguided pursuit of high-mindedness.

    Brought to us by the grotesque glorification of “tell both sides of the story” … as if there were only two sides, of equal validity.

  6. #6 llewelly
    April 27, 2011

    “low-information voters.&rdquo

    “&rdquo” must be followed by a semi-colon. (“””)

    (I can’t help but suspect the error is in part due to a software bug …)

  7. #7 Stephen Lucas
    April 27, 2011

    I’m not completely sure that all political advertising is aimed at independents. In a system such as ours, where voting is a voluntary process, it seems to me that most of the effort is to get the base out and actually vote, and very often a change in government is based upon how many of either side actually voted. Witness the most recent midterm US elections, where the numbers suggest that substantially less Democrat leaning citizens voted than Republican.

    I look back fondly at the Australian system, where voting is compulsory. In that system you don’t need to “get out the vote” and so you really are aiming at the swing voter. Policies on either side of government are thus a lot closer to the mean than here. Then again, this may simply be a case of remembering through rose colored glasses!

  8. #8 franz dibbler
    April 27, 2011

    @Rob
    I wonder if your “Sun-readers” in Britain fill the same low-information-voter niche as “Fox-news-watcher” here in the US?

  9. #9 Birger Johansson
    April 27, 2011

    Josef Göbbels: “For propaganda to be effective, it must be aimed at the least intelligent segment of the masses”

  10. #10 Greg Esres
    April 27, 2011

    Republicans can only get elected by conning a lot of middle-class voters into voting against their interests.

    This strikes me as potentially noble, rather than stupid, if the policies they voted for benefited the country as a whole. I don’t think that they do, but it’s certainly possible. For instance, I might vote for a tax increase for myself if the revenue were to go to something like improving the science education of high school children. Would I have been “conned” into voting for something against my self interests?

  11. #11 Scott
    April 27, 2011

    @Greg Esres #10

    “Would I have been ‘conned”into boting for something against my self interests?”

    Only if you believe that improving “science education of high school children” is against your self interest.

  12. #12 Jennifer Ouellette
    April 27, 2011

    As an independent, I resemble that remark. :)

    Seriously, there are low information voters of every political stripe. To claim that Independents are better or worse than the national mean is silly.

  13. #13 eric
    April 27, 2011

    I agree with Jennifer.

    I’d add that getting contradictory poll results are common outside of politics and so probably have little to do with one’s political philosophy.

    Remember when the PEW found a significant percentage of atheists believing in God, a personal God, spirits, or other such? Should we take from that that atheists as a group are a confused and clueless horde? No; undoubtedly some atheist respondents ARE philosophically confused. But certainly not all or even most of them. In some cases the contradictory answer probably indicates that they were confused over the poll question. And in some cases it indicates the respondent thought that none of the options reflected their opinion so they gave the ‘least worst’ response. Same goes here; just substitute ‘independents’ for ‘atheists.’

  14. #14 Jim Harrison
    April 27, 2011

    Since the independent voters decide almost every election, all politicians devote a good deal of energy to buttering them up, a cost-effective strategy since nothing is more easily manipulated than a bunch of vain dullards. Committed Republicans and Democrats no doubt have many failings, but at least they pay attention and have some idea of what they want. As a group, the independent voters are the most poorly informed and apathetic segment of the population; and their malign effects on our politics are a large part of the reason why most thoughtful people, left and right, have given up on democracy, no matter how often they invoke this empty word on ceremonial occasions.

  15. #15 todd
    April 27, 2011

    Just because you vote againts pork for yourself doesn’t classify you as a Republican rube. Less spending period.

  16. #16 Greg Esres
    April 27, 2011

    Scott @11:
    “Only if you believe that improving “science education of high school children” is against your self interest. ”

    It is unrelated to my self-interest, because I will probably be dead before I see a payoff.

    Voting against your self-interests may well be an intelligent and informed thing to do, but it might also be done out of ignorance. I’d call the latter a “con”.

  17. #17 Lenoxuss
    April 27, 2011

    How should we define “self-interest”? I don’t think it’s too mistaken to define it along the lines of “what I really want”. So, if I want lots of money to go to a certain charity, than that charity is in my self-interest.

    After all, what else could the phrase mean? “What makes me rich”? Perhaps other people want to be rich but I don’t.

    Under my definition, I suppose it’s almost impossible to make an informed, deliberate vote against one’s self-interest. Hmm. Tricky stuff.

  18. #18 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    April 28, 2011

    Seriously, there are low information voters of every political stripe. To claim that Independents are better or worse than the national mean is silly.

    I cannot agree with that, and I consider that viewpoint to be harmful. Yes, there are some “low information voters” in all camps. That does not mean that the low information voters are equally distributed. B does not follow from A. The Republican party has so thoroughly embraced anti-science, theocratic and authoritarian positions that anyone who still calls themself a Republican, or considers the Republican positions and alternatives to be of roughly equal merit, deserves to have their intellect and morality called into question.

  19. #19 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    April 28, 2011

    “Should I have porridge or strychnine for breakfast? They both sound so tasty, I can’t decide. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.”

  20. #20 eric
    April 28, 2011

    Jim Harrison @14: nothing is more easily manipulated than a bunch of vain dullards.

    Funny, I tend to associate ‘most easily manipulated’ with the folks who don’t change their vote regardless of how bad their chosen party’s candidate is.

    Who is more easily manipulated – the person who punches the card based entirely on whether a candidate has a (D) or (R) next to their name, or the person who considers other information sources?

  21. #21 Dan L.
    April 28, 2011

    It is unrelated to my self-interest, because I will probably be dead before I see a payoff [from improved scientific education].

    No, improving scientific education changes things short-term too. Kids come out of the pipeline every year and every little improvement has huge multiplier effects. And the improvements in medical technology mean you get to amortize this over a longer period of your life.

    I think you’re really underestimating the amount of value added by even small investments in education. But that’s OK, everyone else underestimates it too.

    As to the OP, I agree with a few others here that the distinction between independents who don’t know and don’t care and independents who refuse to swear fealty to any particular segment of the oligarchic class.

  22. #22 Jim Harrison
    April 28, 2011

    There is nothing wonderful about America’s two political parties, and there are plenty of independents who are knowledgeable and serious people. That’s got very little to do with the basic facts about the mass of voters who self-identify as independents. These swing voters really are a sorry lot, and the sorriest thing about them is their absurd belief that they are morally and intellectually superior to more partisan people—Republicans and Democrats but also supporters of other parties and ideologies—who actually have some idea of what’s going on.

    What we have here is not only a massive instance of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the tendency of ignorant people to be ignorant of their own ignorance, but also a case of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proxy, the tendency of right-thinking people to assume that other people can’t really be that ignorant. The thing is they can and are. Which is why I’m always amused by the hand wringing that routinely accompanies the latest newspaper story about how Americans can’t find France on a map. As if very many of them ever could! France, hell, in a country where it’s shocking news that the Republican party wants to destroy Medicare, it’s a wonder if 62% of the population can locate its butt with both hands.

    Democracy might work if elites were committed to giving people a meaningful set of choices instead of asking the swing voters whether they wanted what was behind curtain number one or what was behind curtain number two. Democracy might work if instead of journalism there were a profession dedicated to informing the public about what is going on. It certainly isn’t going to work if we refuse to recognize the realities of human limitations.

  23. #23 eric
    April 29, 2011

    These swing voters really are a sorry lot, and the sorriest thing about them is their absurd belief that they are morally and intellectually superior to more partisan people

    Jim, this is projecting. You’re practically foaming at the mouth with precisely the egoism you’re claiming indepdents show.

  24. #24 Vicki
    April 29, 2011

    The other kind of low-information voters are what you might call tribal or traditional voters. That includes people who vote for a political party on the basis that their grandparents voted for it, regardless of whether they agree with their parents or whether the party has changed. For such a voter, it is necessary and sufficient to see a label. That’s a single bit of information: “Is this candidate a Republican?” (Substitute Democrat, Liberal, Christian Democrat, or Socialist if you like; it’s still a single yes/no question. This isn’t someone who has thought about things and decided that right now, that party has the best set of policies. It’s someone who is voting for the party that her father supported in 1947.)

  25. #25 Science Avenger
    May 2, 2011

    It certainly isn’t going to work if we refuse to recognize the realities of human limitations.

    Then let’s recognize that in today’s high-tech and complicated society, where most of us cannot fix many of the tools we use every day were they to break, that it is impossible for even highly intelligent and educated people to be well informed on any issue aside from those which touch on their areas of personal expertise. Modern Democracy is one huge exercise in egomaniacal delusions.

  26. #26 Mike
    May 4, 2011

    “Republicans can only get elected by conning a lot of middle-class voters into voting against their interests.”

    And now we have the Tea Party, which is surely the definition of self-defeating. On the one hand, they argue for small government. On the other hand, they want to make startling impositions, especially in terms of social agendas.

    There’s a great video out there on YouTube at one of the Tea Party rallies where someone interviews a bunch of attendees and shows they have no clue what is in the bills they support or oppose. They also seem to have no clue about basic facts, like that a czar in the context of “the Drug Czar” does not mean the same thing as it used to in Russia. I highly recommend watching it.