By Sarah Lyons
Pew Research Center released a survey last month which was encouragingly called "Beyond Red vs. Blue." Encouraging, that is, for the growing number of Americans eager to find a way out of the partisanship which has come to dominate public policy making at nearly every level of government.
The study — a 150-page analysis — was quickly digested by reporters eager to get a leg up on the latest political trends just as the Republicans held their first televised presidential debate in South Carolina which, notably, holds both an early primary and an open primary in which independents are allowed to vote.
"Voters More Complex than Red/Blue" wrote ABC political director Amy Walter. "The Misunderstood Independent," echoed Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.
The fifth study of its kind conducted by Pew since 1987, the survey aims to give a broad overview of the character of electorate and sorts Americans into eight cohesive groups based on values, political beliefs, and party affiliation.
Three of the eight classifications that emerged from this year's study were dedicated to independent voters — up from 2 classifications in the 2005 survey. More importantly, the presence of independents was evident across all five of the remaining classifications including those meant to define Democratic and Republican voters. In those groups, independents comprised 15 to 34 percent of their total makeup. Independents are everywhere it seems.
Pew acknowledged this in their report stating, "In recent years, the public has become increasingly averse to partisan labels. There has been a sharp rise in the percentage of independents — from 30 percent in 2005 to 37 percent currently."
The survey also encouragingly pointed out that contrary to much theorizing that independents comprise "the center" of American political life, they remain a diverse lot with strong opinions. "The growing rejection of partisan identification does not imply a trend toward political moderation, however. In fact, the number of people describing their political ideology as moderate has, if anything, been dropping," wrote Pew, acknowledging that while independents have come to played a central role in the last three national elections, this does not a "center" make.
Pew's findings amplify our own, discovered not through polling, but through the activity of organizing independents over the course of two decades. Independents are not in the middle between Democrats and Republicans. Rather, they want to move beyond the confines of parties altogether.
Perhaps more so than any other group of American voters, independents are attuned to the fact that partisanship is not a behavioral issue, it is a structural one. Since partisanship is produced by the structure of politics, addressing the issue of partisanship meaningfully means changing the political structure. That's why reforms like open primaries and nonpartisan elections are so popular among independents.
Sarah Lyons is the Director of Communications for IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independent voters and activists based in New York City.