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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Behind the ‘Independent’ Facade: Partisan Embarrassment

At The Monkey Cage John Sides addresses an interesting question, “Why are so many Democrats and Republicans pretending to be independents?” Sides interviews via email political scientists Samarra Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, who have written “Independent Politics,” which explores the dynamics behind the increase in the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as “Indpendents,” even though numerous studies have documented a sharp rise in political partisanship in recent years, as measured by attitudes toward policies and candidates.
The authors explain that “People “go undercover” — or hide their partisanship behind the label “independent” — because they are too embarrassed to admit their partisanship. Being embarrassed to admit your partisanship leads you to avoid behaviors that are overtly partisan.”
“This is a big problem for democratic politics,” say Krupnikov and Klar, “since overtly partisan behaviors are often the behaviors that have the most political “voice.” In short, independents are just the tip of the much larger, more consequential iceberg of political inaction.”
Unfortunately, the interview doesn’t have much to say about the role of political “branding” or “shaming,” which may be a significant factor in party self-i.d. Republicans have for decades conducted a relentless campaign of villification of the term “Democrat,” likening those who embrace it to weak-minded dimwits who raise taxes, throw money at social problems and advocate government meddling in all aspects of citizens’ lives. Many Democrats have trashed Republicans as greedy defenders of ill-gotten wealth and advocates of racism and other forms of bigotry.
Generally, the Republican message machine has done a better job of implanting the meme in the media, perhaps as a result of superior message discipline and coordination, in stark contrast to Democrats who rarely focus on a single message of the day.
At present, however, more Americans self-i.d. as Democrats than Repubicans. According to a Gallup Poll reported on January 11th, 42% identify as independents, 29% as Democrats, 26% as Republicans. Firther, reports JeffrewyM. Jones at Gallup,

Last year, in addition to the 29% of Americans who identified as Democrats, another 16% said they were independents but leaned toward the Democratic Party, for a combined total of 45% Democrats and Democratic leaners among the U.S. population. Likewise, 26% of Americans identified as Republicans and an additional 16% identified as independents but leaned toward the Republican Party, for a combined total of 42% Republicans and Republican leaners.

Klar and Krupnikov note, however, that “Popular portrayals of partisanship, particularly over the last two decades, have been decidedly negative, focusing on polarization and disagreement.” Further, say the authors:

The parties provide plenty of fodder for this narrative. In the book we coded a series of presidential debates, as just one example. We find that the percentage of phrases used in presidential debates that conveys insurmountable conflict between the two candidates has dramatically increased over recent decades.
When Americans learn about politics, they learn that partisans are angry and stubborn. And, understandably, people don’t want to seem this way to others. With dozens of surveys and experiments, one clear message resonated over and over again: Associating oneself with partisan anger, stubbornness, and inflexibility does not seem like the best way to make a great impression.
On the other hand, being independent and above the partisan morass seems much more impressive. This is yet more evidence that, even in anonymous surveys, people behave in ways that they perceive to be socially desirable and that cast them in the most positive light.

Then there is the Trump phenomenon, which is a growing source of embarassment for Republicans. No one should be surprised if the fallout of his campaign includes a drop in the the percentages of those who call themselves “Republicans.” A Democratic landslide in November may also produce a substantial uptick in self-proclaimed Democrats. Most people would rather hang out with the winners.
The consequences of negative branding of political parties and polarization, say the authors — “a reluctance to discuss politics in social settings, a refusal to wear stickers or put up yard signs, a hesitance to even publicly admit which candidate you’re supporting — are, ultimately, a bad thing for democracy.”
Calling oneself an “Independent” is often based more on a reluctance to indentify with either the Republican or Democratic party, than a genuine political philosophy. But how many of those who call themselves ‘Independents’ do so because they are low-information voters who lack the confidence to be assertive about their beliefs, or conflict-averse individuals who simply dislike arguing?
Increasing the numbers and percentage of those who self-identify as Democrats can certainly be helpful for campaign fund-raising, recruitment of volunteers and GOTV on election day. But the best course for Democrats may be not to worry too much about party self-identification — as long as Dems get most of the votes of those who call themselves ‘Independents.’
When Democrats begin to win stable majorities nation-wide and in most of the states, they will be able to enact legislation that benefits ever-increasing numbers of citizens. When that happens, the Democratic ‘brand’ will attract many more supporters.

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