The Triumph of the Independents Confirmed

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.

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  1. 1
    Christoher Skyi says:

    “I still see Obama’s victory as a sign that the Democrats are moving in a more socially liberal and economically conservative direction.”

    “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.”

    Boy — I wish you were right (and maybe you are), but it seems to me (and I’m not alone) that the country is moving any direction BUT economically conservative. There’s been a steady and increasing drum beat for MORE regulation and higher taxes on the “rich.”   Hardly a true fiscal conservative position.

    As far as the current massive government intervention into the economy, sure they say it’s “temporary.” What else are the going say?  The more accurate description is “accidental” or “crisis” socialism (a unique American variant). 

    It’s doubtful it’s going to be temporary because government action is what is largely driving the crisis (see “Did Lehman’s Fall Matter? The financial-service firm’s collapse didn’t trigger the meltdown. Congress did“).  As things fail to get better — in fact, as they get worse, the government will “have to” get more and more involved, which will just make things worse — See:

    Ron Paul is predicting the collapse of the U.S. dollar.

    Trust in the Fed is also starting to weaken —  The Naked Capitalism Blog, now one of the most influential expert blogs out there, has put out a formal call for more oversight of the Fed.  Not because such oversight has been historically overdue but because of its recent alarming expansion of powers:

    It’s been obvious to anyone who bothered paying attention that the Fed is increasingly acting as an extension of the Administration, without the oversight and disclosure to which the Executive Branch is subject. This began as soon as the Fed began to take private credit risk (default risk) onto its balance sheet by accepting private securities as collateral in repos, at the discount window and at one of the myriad facilities it has created since August 2008. It is possible – I would say likely – that the terms on which the Fed accepted this often illiquid collateral implied even an ex-ante subsidy to the borrower. But the Fed is refusing to provide the necessary information on the valuation of the illiquid collateral, interest rates, fees and other key dimensions of the terms granted those who access its facilities, for outsiders, including Congress, to find out what if any element of subsidy is involved.”

    Finally, Nick Gillespie of the Reason Foundation  sounds like he’s about had it “up to here” with hope and change.

    Obama on Taxes and Traffic: Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? Or, can we start talking about Obama’s vision deficit?

    It’s quite a rant, almost unprecedented, but it speaks to a lot of people, and yes — I do think it’s wrong to tax the rich simply because they are rich and they (unlike the super, super wealthy) have no protection from Washington in terms of industry influence, $$,  and lobbyists.

    In case you think this was just a one-off from Gillespie, check out: The President’s Briefing Book is B.S.!—Nick Gillespie on Obama’s latest fake P.R. stunt

    Obama was the clear choice over McCain and the GOP, not only for me, for other libertarians and Gillespie.  However, now that the bad memories of GWB are fading, like Gillespie, I too have started to get that “WTF is going on?!”  feeling too. And what the hell is coming next?!

    It remains to be seen if in the long run independents will continue to support Obama. 

    Back in 1976,  study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Robert B. Cialdini et al. that examined the BIRG effect i.e., the tendency to “bask in reflected glory” (BIRG) by publicly announcing one’s associations with successful others. In the field experiments conducted, the research team found that the BIRG effect occurred even though the person striving to bask in the glory of a successful source was not involved in the cause of the source’s success.

    Well, I’ve always been worried that Obama looks good because of a reverse BIRG effec, i.e., comparied to GWB and the GOP, Obama looked and sounded grreat, but mostly only because of the  comparsion. 

    OK — have at me! 🙂

  2. 2
    Taxpayer Union 1776 says:

    The Triumph of the Independents Confirmed – Liberal Values …: The political values of independents are mixed a..

  3. 3
    Mike says:

    The money, taken from taxpayers, given by the government to a few automakers. Ones whos workers on the average were paid more than other automakers. This would be an example of corporate welfare, the conservative concept of using government to transfer wealth to the wealthy. Correct?  When you say: “Events have altered policy, hopefully for the short term, in requiring a more activist government on economic matters.”   When has, in the history of this country, there been a time that government got their hands into something that they later released? Where do you get the hope that this entanglement by the government in so much of the private sector will ever be untangled?  I’ll admit I haven’t verified this, but I’ve heard it said that income tax was started as a temporary measure to pay for the Spanish-American War.   I work at a bank  that after Sen. Chuck  Shumer besmirched, we had a clearly correlated run on deposits, causing its collapse.  That bank was Indymac bank.  The feds took over us, owned us, then “sold” us under phenomenally generous terms to a group of investors who has named us “One West Bank”.  Perhaps you have heard the name of one of the key investors. George Soros.  I guess that is conservatism at work again, government transferring wealth to the Ultra-Wealthy.  I will share to any other reader what I’ve already told Dr. Chusid privately: that I’m a guy who has listened to a lot of radio, and has heard nothing but those well known right-wing shows.  Now I’m here to try to listen to the other side.   As a kind of sidebar-  I think I’d rather have “wrong minded” politicians, however you wish to define wrong mindedness, than simply power hungry, self serving politicians, which I believe dominate both parties.  

  4. 4
    Mike says:

    I just got from the U.S. dept of Treasury website the history of U.S. taxs.  I was quite a bit off when I said Income tax started with the Spanish-American war.  Also I have to conceed that indeed, the U.S. government once had an income tax that it later repealed.  That being said, it still is a sad legacy as to the way the government keeps exceeding its limits. It was a constitutional admendment that re-introduced income tax, and at its inception it was only  from 1% to 7% and only for people making 500,000 or more in the year,oops I already forgot, I think 1916. Given inflation, about how much would that be in today’s dollars?

  5. 5
    union1776 says:

    The Triumph of the Independents Confirmed – Liberal Values …: The political values of independents are mixed a..

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    Keep in mind that this post is about where public opinion is based upon the Pew survey, not necessarily where the country is right now.  Therefore when I say the country is moving in a more economically conservative direction I’m speaking of broader long term trends, now speaking of events of this year which were precipitated by the economic crisis.

    When speaking of economic conservatism, I should also repeat the caveat that I am not speaking of either laissez-faire capitalism or of current Republican policies. Unfortunately our political labels are extremely limited and can lead to considerable misinterpretation.  Another obvious caveat is that there are a wide variety of views among independents and not all are going to fit into the overall trends showed in the poll.

    It has become a common meme on the right that all “temporary” government action becomes permanent. This is a simplitic argument used to oppose any government action they object to. In some ways the government has grown over the years, but the pendulum does swing in both directions at different times. There have been many times of crisis, such as in wars and duirng the depression, that the government has taken on more power with this decreased over time.

    On the one hand Republicans cannot stop speaking of Ronald Reagan. On the other hand they conveniently ignore the Reagan years when denying that there are times of decreases in government economic regulation as well as increases.

    Regardless of whether these measures due turn out to be temporary, the point is that I am speaking of public opinion, especially the view of independents.  At present independents do believe the measures are needed temporary measures and are backing the Democrats.

    This doesn’t mean it is a sure thing that the Democrats will continue on a more economically conservative course in the future. That is one reason why I speculated on where the independents will go in the future. If the Democrats were to support bigger government than most independents support, then there is the possibility of independents either returning to the Republicans (especially if they change the path they are now on)  or possibly even supporting a new party.

    While independents in general are suspicious of big government, this also doesn’t mean that government will shrink in all areas. There are areas where increased government action is necesary, such as in health care, and independents support this.  Many programs of the depression did not last, while Social Security did as it met a need which transcended the economic crisis of the time. Similarly, while many of the actions being taken now are temporary, it is likely that increased government action to promote greater access to health care will continue.

    We are also likley to see greater regulation of the financial industry, with even some former opponents of this, such as Richard Posner, now saying it is necessary.

  7. 7
    Fritz says:

    Ron — would it be fair to say that almost all government “temporary” measures last far longer than they were advertised for?  “Forever” is a loaded word. 

    I don’t think the US government is going to stop owning a majority of GM (assuming the deal goes through) in my lifetime, and I’m in my 50s.    Yeah, I think the economy will be (at best) flat, but that’s not the reason.

    First, banks with any sense will not lend money to the company.  OK, we have demonstrated that many bankers have no sense.  But the government is using public hectoring and pressure from TARP controls to try to force bondholders with secured loans to lose out to bondholders with unsecured loans (UAW and the Feds).  Given that, would any banker figure that future bondholders with unsecured loans (them) would win over stockholders, if the majority stockholder is the government?  I do not think so.  Obama has taken the huge step of inverting the rules of precedence in a bankruptcy — that will come back to haunt the economy.

    Second, the government, as majority stockholder, will be politically unable to let GM design cars people want to drive or to close underutilized factories (and put union members out of work).  In a matter of years, the only people buying GM cars will be the US government (because Congress will mandate that to protect the US investment) and the Chinese (because Buicks are huge status symbols there for some reason).

    I grew up in Cleveland.  I watched a government run a business (Cleveland and Municipal Light).  It was an interesting demonstration.

  8. 8
    Fritz says:

    I would not say that “Social Security met a need that transcended the economic crisis”.  Social Security allowed multi-generational families to break up — this gave grandparents relief from the kids and allowed the new “nuclear family” to be displaced around the country at the whim of industry.  More importantly, it allowed the Feds to hide deficit spending for decades and put off any solutions for the future.  And the future is happening in about a decade now.   That will be morbidly entertaining.

    Lots of other Depression-era programs survived whether they were sane or not — look at farm subsidies, for instance.  There are some pretty funny ones.  Peanut growing licenses, for instance.  The key to program survival is not whether it makes sense but whether it can be unwound in a politically doable manner.

    Think about the mortgage interest deduction.  All it really does now is increase the value of housing.  Which simply means the banks write bigger loans and get more interest money in the long term.  But you can’t kill the program because that would decrease the value of houses.

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