Arguably, academia is as guilty as the media, the politicians, and the two major parties themselves, of promoting partisanship.
This is, in large part, because political scientists analyze elections as a contest between Democrats and Republicans. Polls are designed and analyzed to explain or forecast red or blue victories. And even voting rights are scrutinized based on which of two political teams is advantaged or disadvantaged by a given law.
But how can we continue to credibly analyze the current state and future of our democracy when a plurality of voters in the country are independent of the major parties and the two-party system that they have created?
That is a key question behind a new roadmap released in partnership by ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy, USC Schwarzenegger Institute, and Independent Voting: Gamechangers? Independent Voters May Rewrite the Political Playbook.
In a statement given to IVN, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “[t]he rising number of voters in the United States who are registering and identifying as 'independent' is a very important phenomenon and is already impacting local, state, and national elections.”
He added, "Understanding who these voters are and what they care about is essential to a strong democracy, and I am proud to have my Institute involved with this study.”
"This paper provides an important foundation for a better understanding of independent voters, as well as the underreported undercurrent of independent sentiment in a traditionally viewed political world that is still very much controlled by the two major parties," said Joseph Garcia, director of communication and community impact for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, and director of its Latino Public Policy Center.
According to survey after survey, independent voters make up over 40 percent of the electorate -- a plurality of voters. Yet this bloc of voters is continually dismissed by political scientists who have for decades "enthroned an analytic framework that placed party identification at the center of the voter's universe."
That’s why USC, ASU, and Independent Voting are leading the way to change the rules of the academic game.
It’s no secret that political scientists and private pollsters, who hold tight to the “two-party” axioms of the political world, for example, can no longer accurately predict voter behavior in a presidential election.
That’s why they were wrong about Barack Obama in 2008. They were wrong about Donald Trump in 2016.
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And unless they try to really understand the complexity and power of the approximately 80 million voters who don’t identify as either Democrats or Republicans, our political experts will continue to derive their importance by the size of their megaphone, rather than their accuracy.
Importantly, USC, ASU, and Independent Voting aren’t alone in trying to awaken the academic world. Just recently, a Harvard Business School study analyzed the anti-competitive nature of the two-party system, its danger to the long-term health of our democracy, and the need for serious nonpartisan reform throughout the “industry” of politics.
“In the politics industry, however, most everything necessary to run a modern campaign and govern is tightly connected to—and often controlled by—the duopoly. Suppliers, then, have limited power to shape competition, but face strong pressures to align with one side of the duopoly. In fact, as elections and governing become more complex and partisan, suppliers prosper and their revenues grow. Rather than supporting solutions and finding common ground, suppliers make partisanship worse.” - Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter
"There is a basic truth behind all the data and statistics tracking the rise of the independent voter. The truth is that an entire set of interlocking institutions and paradigms -- the political parties, the standard categories of ideology, and the idea that partisan mediators are required for a democracy -- have failed the country," Independent Voting President Jacqueline Salit echoes in Gamechangers.
As Salit recognizes, the continued reliance of pollsters, partisan pundits, and mainstream media on the rigid two parties, rather than the diversity of our 200 million American voters has warped the general public's perception of elections and the body politic.
For instance, many Americans believe that the electorate is more polarized now than at any other point in American history. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The American voter is more nonpartisan than ever before.
"In each party, negative views of the opposing party are twice as large as they were a generation ago. A variety of measures of partisan antipathy, including sorting by residence, choice of friends, and marriage, indicate that partisan animus has turned into social animus," Gamechangers states, citing a 2014 Pew Research study.
"These sentiments are not shared by all -- or even most Americans... [In fact], more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want," according to Pew.
In other words, the Republican and Democratic bases are more polarized, but they do not represent the general electorate. That is the real explanation for the perceived increase in partisan voters.
Most simply, we have a political system, a political media, and political scientists that elevate the power and voice of the partisans.
As the secretary of state and current candidate for governor of New Jersey recently said in defense of New Jersey’s taxpayer-funded closed primary election, "a voter who feels disenfranchised because of a regulation that conditions participation in primary elections on party membership ‘should simply join the party.’”
This is the position of those who defend the “two-party” institution: Join a team, or don’t participate.
"Extreme political polarization among elected officials may have its roots in electoral and political institutions, and this distrust for the major parties among independents is exacerbated when unaffiliated voters are barred from electoral participation. Many U.S. states have closed primaries, where only individuals registered with a party can vote in that party's primary. Independents who are not registered with a major political party cannot cast a vote in closed primaries." - "Gamechangers? Independent Voters May Rewrite the Political Playbook," pg. 16
The paper later adds, "The two major political parties design electoral institutions in order to enhance their respective candidates’ reelection chances, and the electoral rules used to subsequently affect voters and public policy."
But there is hope for the 80 million voters who refuse to join a private political party as a condition of having a voice in our democratic process. Closed party primaries, extreme partisan gerrymandering, ballot access restrictions, exclusionary debate rules, and other anti-competitive laws are facing more and more credible challenges in the courts and even some legislatures.
Gamechangers? Independent Voters May Rewrite the Political Playbook is, perhaps, evidence of a paradigm shift that could change the two-party game forever.
Voters are demanding political independence. Activists are pursuing it. And now, with academia on their side, today’s two-party political experts may be shocked by the power of independent voters for years to come.
Read the roadmap: