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Independents are commonly assumed to all be in the middle of the political spectrum, i.e., “moderate.” WRONG.
According to a May 2007 national survey*, 25% of Independents surveyed saw their views as politically liberal, 38% as moderate and 35% as conservative. On social issues, 35% identified themselves as liberal, 32% as moderate and 31% as conservative. Fiscally, 15% of those surveyed were liberals, 35% moderate and 48% conservative. Across these three areas, then, approximately two thirds of Independents surveyed are not moderates.
Expecting Independents to be politically moderate should not be that surprising in today’s highly polarized political landscape. But our political world was not always thus, and here’s a word or three on how the Democrats and Republicans have come to be perceived on the conservative- moderate- liberal continuum.
During the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, traditional loyalties of family, religion and region were torn in every direction, with many shifting their political identity and focus from party to cause or candidate. In his 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter didn’t pick up the pieces of the Democratic debacle of 1972; he largely ignored them, running successfully against entrenched politics per se. He was to be turned out in 1980 by a Ronald Reagan who had raised conservatism to an art form, stamped it with an elephant, and won the votes of millions of conservative Democrats.
Indeed, 1980 was not so much the triumph of a party, but over one. Reagan’s solidification and expansion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and its ascension to control did more than put him in the White House. It set the stage for the American political dynamic that we have today. Previously, each of the parties had a notably wider philosophical spectrum. There were, in fact, a fair number of liberal Republicans in the Senate and whole state delegations of conservative Democrats in Congress. Reagan’s success in claiming the conservative mantle for the Republican Party challenged conservative Democrats to rethink their affiliation.
Reagan’s landslide win in 1984 showed the Democrat Party of the Great Society and a thousand causes to have become politically irrelevant and practicably unworkable. Bill Clinton moved the party to a more moderate middle ground in 1992 and unseated George Bush, Reagan’s vice president and successor. However, despite eight years of economic prosperity, budget surpluses, welfare reform and lower crime under Clinton, in 2000 the Republicans defeated Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, in large measure by painting him as liberal.
All of this has left us with a political spectrum whose conservative registers are owned by the Republicans with the Democrats viewed generally as liberal, though with many of its ranks uncertain as to just how liberal they really are, or need to be. It is this “politics of the poles” that inclines many to see Independents as moderates. This is, however, to miss the complexity of the Independent community. And for the politically engaged Independent, it means taking great care to learn about and sort among the issues and candidates.
This is why we built IDn. We want to help you think, to ask questions and to find answers. Your thoughts on how IDn can do this better are always welcome.
Survey of Political Independents; Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University; May 3-June 3, 2007.