Last February, when it appeared likely that the presidential race would between Barack Obama and John McCain, I called this a triumph for independents. Instead of each party following Rove-style politics and turning to its extremes, each appeared likely to nominate their candidate who most attracted independent voters. In several posts I saw the country as moving in a more socially liberal and economically conservative direction. I described such economic conservatism as being pragmatic in support of generally free market principles, as opposed to following Republican economic policies of using the power of the state to transfer wealth to the wealthy, while continuing to support government action where necessary.
At that point in 2008 when few had heard of Sarah Palin, John McCain did appear to be a more moderate choice, even if I questioned whether he was really as moderate as his reputation. I also saw the predicted victory by Obama over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards as an example of victory for social liberalism combined with more free market principles over the populism of his opponents. Events have altered policy, hopefully for the short term, in requiring a more activist government on economic matters.
Looking at the long run, I still see Obama’s victory as a sign that the Democrats are moving in a more socially liberal and economically conservative direction. This is the direction which the country also is moving in, as demonstrated by a Pew Research Center Poll which shows independents to be at their greatest level in seventy years:
Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.
While the Democrats gained a sizable advantage in partisan affiliation during George Bush’s presidency, their numbers slipped between December 2008 and April 2009, from 39% to 33%. Republican losses have been a little more modest, from 26% to 22%, but this represents the lowest level of professed affiliation with the GOP in at least a quarter century. Moreover, on nearly every dimension the Republican Party is at a low ebb – from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.
By contrast, the percentage of self-described political independents has steadily climbed, on a monthly basis, from 30% last December to 39% in April. Taking an average of surveys conducted this year, 36% say they are independents, 35% are Democrats, while 23% are Republicans. On an annual basis, the only previous year when independent identification has been this high was in 1992 when Ross Perot ran a popular independent candidacy.
Independents now have a slight lead, approximately equal in support to the Democrats, with Republicans remaining in the low twenty’s as in several other recent polls. A look at the views of independents show their views to be much closer to Democrats:
The political values of independents are mixed and run counter to orthodox liberal and conservative thinking about government. Over the past two years, both Republicans and independents have become more wary of expanding the social safety net. However, most independents join with most Democrats in saying that a free market economy needs government regulation to best serve the public interest. In effect, the public’s two-mindedness about government is a product of the way that independents, not partisans, think.
But independents continue to be much closer to Democrats than to Republicans with respect to social values, religiosity and beliefs about national security. Indices measuring the relative position of Republicans, Democrats and independents in these three areas show that the views of independents and Democrats have consistently been aligned, while Republicans continue to take a substantially more conservative position.
Is is notable that while independents in general are more wary of expanding the social safety net, 85% of independents believe the government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible. Even most Republicans actually agree with this, while a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats or independents also express concern that the government is becoming too involved in health care.
Independents remain supportive of Obama and the Democratic Party. I believe this is partially out of a realization that increased government economic action is necessary at the moment and a belief that this is temporary. While the Democratic Party in recent years has been becoming more fiscally conservative we cannot be certain that this trend will continue.
It is unlikely that one political party will be able to please such a high percentage of voters for long. The question is what happens when more independent voters begin to look for an alternative to the Democratic Party. In the past we would see the pendulum shift from one party to the other. I am not certain that this can happen again. The Republicans are suffering from delusions that they lost because they are not conservative enough, and are even writing moderate Repubicans such as Gerald Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Colin Powel out of the party. The Republicans are losing support from virtually every demographic group except for those who attend church frequently. While they might still turn it around, at present the Republican Party is turning itself into a party dominated by less-educated religious voters of the South and Mormon belt of the west. This is hardly likely to encourage independents who left the GOP to consider returning.
With independents even outnumbering Democrats at present, I wonder if we will see the Republicans go the way of the Whigs and be replaced by a new party. Ross Perot might have won in 1992 with his support from independents if not for his own erratic behavior. While the two major parties have a tremendous institutional advantage, the internet provides a somewhat more level playing field. If the Democrats should follow Obama with someone from the Clinton or Edwards wings of the party it is conceivable that they will be successfully beaten not by a Republican but by an independent or member of a new party.