September 21st, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
There is, of course, an Independent Party, and people have differentiated members of this party from independents by using the phrase “small ‘I’ independents” to denote those who aren’t part of any party.
Few independents have any interest in joining a third party. They consider this a worse option than signing up as a Democrat or Republican.
Most independents share a frustration with both major parties, and they see partisanship itself as symptomatic of America’s problem. Independents especially dislike the political wrangling of party battles.
But let’s get one thing clear: In nearly all elections, most independents end up voting for a candidate from one of the two big parties.
There are several lessons to be learned from this.
First, independents need the parties.
Perhaps a non-party arrangement like the one envisioned by America’s founding fathers will someday offer a better system. Or maybe independents will eventually take over one of the major parties.
But in our current system, independents need the parties to be and do their best. Independents need to be able to choose between the highest caliber of candidates and policies, and the sheer numbers affect both the ability to get a message out, and the ability to attract willing candidates.
Bottom line: the parties are still providing the available options for our votes.
Second, the two-party system needs independents.
When the big parties hold a monopoly on political dialogue and innovation, centrist members of both parties congeal together a great deal and the parties often seem more alike than different.
Throw large numbers of independents into the mix, however, and the parties are forced to energetically debate their platform and the weaknesses of their opposition’s candidates, policies and so forth.
They have to articulate their message more clearly and differentiate themselves in order to garner independent votes.
Ironically, as much as independents abhor political fighting, it is by contrasting themselves with such “vulgarity” that thoughtful, idealistic and principled independents define themselves.
Not as a group, of course—but as individuals who are independent of and above the disingenuous and exploitive methods and motivations they believe typify the party loyalists.
The noisy and unproductive debate is the point to which independents are counter-point.
At the same time (and this is point number three), the strong influence of independents keeps either party from obtaining too much power for long.
Studied, serious-minded citizens who think and act independently and make their influence felt are exactly the type of citizens the American founders hoped would populate the republic.
Party loyalties too often reduce this level of independence. At their best, independents function as much-needed checks and balances on the two-party system that has become too powerful.
The independents need the parties, and the two-party system needs the independents.
But a fourth lesson might be the most important. The individual parties themselves actually need independents.
Political parties are only as strong as their collective members, and there are certain types of members that are extremely valuable to party influence.
For example, parties benefit from Traditionalist members—people who were raised with passionate loyalties to Democrats or Republicans.
Such members nearly always vote for the party and its candidates, and often they cast straight party votes without seriously considering other options. Their allegiance to the long view of Party dominance overshadows their concerns and even outright disagreements with the Party.
Politicos are a second important group of members in any party.
Politicos love politics. They watch it with as much interest and passion as dedicated sports fans follow their team. Politicos listen to party leaders, think about and memorize talking points (often unconsciously), and promote the party line. They also study lots of literature debunking the other party and pass along these arguments.
A third type found in both parties is the Intellectual. Intellectual Partyists are distinguished most by their habits of skepticism and asking questions. They consider party literature mere propaganda and instead search out and study original sources.
Intellectuals typically read opposing party sources as much or more as works from their own party.
Policy Wonks are a fourth type in any party, and they care most about specific proposals, plans and models, and enjoy studying them in detail, discovering patterns and flaws, and creating counter-proposals and solutions.
They examine, scrutinize, analyze, write and attend lots of seminars, panels and other events filled with discussion. Most of them make their living doing this in academia, media, punditry, the lecture circuit or blogosphere, or the like.
A fifth type of party people, Activists, are usually familiar with the other types but they put most of their effort into influencing state or federal legislative votes, agency policies, judicial cases or executive acts.
They are found at all levels of government from local to international organizations. Some of them put most of their focus into elections.
Party Officios, a sixth type of party promoters, hold party positions (voluntary and informal as well as official) in local precincts all the way up to national committees.
Some are full-time paid professionals or experts, but the large majority of them voluntarily serve as officers, delegates, candidates, unofficial advisors and other roles in the party.
Among party Officios are those holding office. These elected and appointed officials represent their party in specific positions of public service.
Seventh and eighth types are Donors and Fundraisers. They of course play important roles in all parties, since politics is expensive and funding often significantly influences policy and elections.
There are various other types of people that help parties succeed, but the most influential type of all is the people who could simply be called “Majorities.”
The obvious power of Majorities is that they have the numbers and therefore the votes to steer the party. They elect the delegates who elect the party candidates, and their influence is deeply and widely felt in general elections.
Majorities are mostly made up of regular, non-politician, thinking citizens who have the most influence on party delegates, general donations and the general voters.
Majority types are usually not Traditionalists, Politicos, Officios, Wonks or political experts.
But they keep track of what is happening in society and think seriously about political concerns, issues and elections. They spread their influence day after day and impact thinking widely and consistently.
The media is seldom able to predict close elections because of this wildcard: Since Majorities’ type of engagement is largely internal and interpersonal, and because their influence is largely in a realm that is under-valued (or perhaps beyond the control of) those in power, it is almost impossible to know what Majorities are really thinking and to predict how they will impact outcomes.
Save the Cheerleader
So why do the parties need independents?
At first glance, it might appear that the parties would do better if independents would just split and join the big parties.
But a deeper analysis shows how significant the growth of independents has become.
Independents aren’t just the new numerical majority; they are the barometer of success.
As a type, independents aren’t Traditionalists, Politicos or Officios. Most of them are Majorities, and a lot of them are Wonks.
In short, they care little about the future of the party, and a lot about helping both people in particular, and the nation in general.
Parties need the votes of independents, but they need something more. The two big parties both need independent Majorities.
When they are receiving independent support, they know that they are probably on track. Or, when they lose independents, they know to step back reevaluate their direction.
There are certainly times when government officials need to ignore independents and everyone else and stand firm on the right path.
But most times they can pretty much tell how well they are doing by finding out what the independents are thinking.
Of course, independents aren’t always right. But they are right more often than the big parties because in general, they care more about the nation than about party power. Madison and Jefferson would applaud.
This is a great benefit to both parties. In some ways, independents have made it easy for politicians. Win the independents, win the election.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.