The power of independent voters is being heralded in the wake of the Massachusetts Senate race. The winner, Scott Brown, a Republican, went so far as to declare election night, "Tonight, the independent majority has delivered a great victory."
The number of voters without allegiance to political parties is large and increasing. Thirty-six percent of American voters identify themselves as independents, according to the Pew Research Center. Significantly, 45 percent of voters between the ages 25 and 40 describe themselves as independent.
The prevailing image of independents is that they are savvier, more skeptical voters than partisans. But a closer evaluation of independents - and the causes and consequences of their growing numbers - provides disturbing insights into the health of our democracy. "Independents were an ornery lot in an angry mood" was one pollster's assessment of why Brown won. "Volatile" is a label commonly applied to independents. A more penetrating description is "disconnected."
Surveys shows that people who identify themselves as independents are less politically knowledgeable, interested and active than partisans, especially strong partisans. For example, the American National Election Studies, a long-running survey, has found that independents are less likely than partisans to seek news about a current election, contribute money to candidates and vote.
Because they tend to be less informed, independents are less capable of evaluating candidates based on policy positions or facts. Independents are more likely to be attracted to candidates who, regardless of their ideology, appear genuine and honest - "straight shooters" and "mavericks" - and who challenge the status quo - "outsiders." They seek "change," but without specifics. They applaud attacks on "special interests," even if, as the case may be, the interests being protected are their own.
All of this helps explain the election of Brown, a Republican partisan who successfully projected the image of a change-seeking outsider.
Unfortunately, the growing number and fickleness of independents has a disproportionate - and negative - impact on our political discourse, as candidates appeal to them with images and buzz words, tapping into the mood of the moment, while providing less insight into their views on the policies and issues that impact their constituents.
The growth of independent voters is not an isolated phenomenon. Social scientists and other analysts have identified signs of weakening social ties and disconnection at various levels of society. These range broadly from shrinking membership in unions, bowling leagues, local political clubs and civic groups to the decline of newspapers, reduced trust in institutions of all kinds, and withdrawal into like-minded enclaves.
These trends, along with deepened cynicism about government and politicians bred by the Vietnam War, Watergate and a more sensational press, nurture and sustain the increase in independent voters.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, partisanship can be healthy for democracy. Partisans, more so than independents, inform and engage those around them about politics and policy. Partisans are, in this sense, fuel that powers our democracy. And political parties are an important engine - helping identify issues and interests, educating and involving voters, supporting candidates and holding elected officials accountable. Unfortunately, the rise of independent voters signals a triumph of style over substance, reaction over engagement and disconnection over democracy.