Today’s political atmosphere is fraught with rhetoric, misinformation, and even outright lying. The battle between the Republican and Democratic political parties and their desire to control the votes of the Americans that they purport to serve has created a political arena in which both sides claim the moral high ground and denigrate the others as miscreants and malcontents while in truth, neither has much of a leg to stand on. This callous attitude has led to the creation of a political entity that was virtually unheard of as recently as 30 years ago: the Independents. Due to a rise in discontent with both parties and a few other contributing factors, the number of Independent voters continues to rise.
Independents have no stated political affiliation with either party - indeed, many states’ voter registration cards use the term “No Political Affiliation” to classify Independent voters. Independents often self-identify as “left-leaning” (towards the liberal, Democratic view) or “right-leaning” (towards the conservative, Republican view) but most use the term “centrist” along with it, implying that they are not on either extreme end of the political spectrum. A recent Gallup poll revealed that in 2011, fully 40 percent of those polled self-identify as Independent, a percentage higher than either the Republican or Democratic parties alone (they clocked in at 27 percent and 31 percent, respectively) and higher than it has been in over seventy years. Gallup identifies several factors for this uptrend: “Increased independent identification is not uncommon in the year before a presidential election year,” Gallup states, “but the sluggish economy, record levels of distrust in government and unfavorable views of both parties helped to create an environment that fostered political independence more than in any other pre-election year.”
The first factor - the sluggish economy - likely has a large influence on the latter two. Since entering a period of recession in 2008, the Republican and Democratic parties have been blaming each other for the problems and arguing incessantly as to which method of fixing the economy is best. An article printed in USA Today late last year reported that The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a so-called “supercommittee” made up of members from both major parties was unable to find a solution as recently as November of 2011. Their mandate was to find $1.2 trillion in budget cuts which would begin to address the estimated $4 trillion of cuts necessary to begin balancing the budget. The Democrats, focused on protecting social programs and increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and the Republicans, more concerned with trimming the federal government and keeping taxes at their current levels, could not find a middle ground. Despite three months of arguing and negotiating, the two parties appeared to be paralyzed by their posturing and refusal to compromise on the economic issues facing the country. As Linda Killian from politicsdaily.com reports:
"Independent voters [feel] disconnected and disillusioned with a government they do not feel truly represents them. They say they are tired of partisan wrangling, which all too often results in either gridlock and a lack of action on the most important issues the nation faces or unsatisfactory legislative outcomes, pushed through by one political party with little input from the other."
Indeed, the partisan wrangling has left government on both the state and federal levels at a complete standstill in most cases. The few exceptions appear to be in states where both major parties are able to put aside their differences and work for their constituents. On the April 12, 2011 episode of “The Daily Show,” Massachusetts state governor Deval Patrick talked with host Jon Stewart about his [Governor Patrick] state’s impressive record of a balanced budget, top academic performance, and almost 100% level of health care coverage. Governor Patrick gave a simple and straightforward reasoning for his state’s success:
"We had a Republican governor [Mitt Romney], a Democratic legislature, a Democratic United States Senator, Ted Kennedy, the business community, the organized labor, everybody came to the table and said “We have to come up with something better than the usual two choices which was between a perfect solution or no solution at all,” and we tried something. And folks have stayed together to make it work as it’s gone forward and it’s because we made a decision that health is a public good and that we ought to invest in that in the interest of the greater good."
Bipartisan leadership as it is meant to work. Clearly when both major parties put aside their political differences and work for the people, at least on the state level, they can come to an amenable compromise. Perhaps the most telling factor is that as a presidential candidate, former governor Romney has disavowed his previously bipartisan beliefs on issues like universal healthcare and same-sex marriage and now faces immense controversy and disdain from the Democratic Party.
The second and third factors - record levels of distrust in government and unfavorable views of both parties - are a natural result of the failure to accomplish what they are tasked to accomplish. The average American is tired of hearing excuses and finger-pointing while the unemployment rate rises and unemployment benefits are cut. With neither party willing to work with the other, the idea of being associated with either one becomes less and less attractive. Since the government appears to be incapable of functioning at a level that serves the populace its members have taken an oath to serve, the blame for this naturally falls on those members and the political parties that they represent.
Other political parties have attracted new members as a result. The Libertarian Party, with its strong commitment to reducing the federal government and involvement in foreign conflicts such as the ones America faced in Iraq and continues to face in Afghanistan, offers an “America First” viewpoint that many voters find compelling. Critics label the Libertarian view as xenophobic and too inwardly-focused for one of the last remaining world superpowers. The Green Party, for many years considered to be a political non-entity by the two dominant parties, has also seen an upswing in voter registration with the party. Its critics point to the Green Party’s long-standing focus on environmental issues and claim that those in the party are severely lacking in knowledge on the many other issues that government manages such as foreign policy and national defense.
The independent voters choose yet another alternative, a clean break with any labeling and the right to choose a candidate who is not beholden to any party leaders or political dogma.
There is no easy answer for the multitude of political crises facing America today, but one thing is becoming more and more obvious: Americans are losing faith in both the Republican and Democratic parties and are seeking alternatives. Where they find those answers, if any exist, has yet to be determined but in the meantime, the Independents are declaring their independence from a system that has broken down and is failing in its one and only mission: a functioning government.