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America’s Independents aren’t very independent. That’s the conclusion according to a report published this week by Pew Research. Most Independents (estimated, collectively, at 38% of America’s electorate) are ‘party leaners’—17% lean Democrat and 13% lean Republican. Fewer than 10%, according to Pew, are truly independent (that is, not in the ‘Leaner’ category).

Independents

Pew also found that Leaners and party affiliates tend to think alike. For example, 85% of Republicans and 73% of Republicans Leaners said they like the way Trump is handling the job of president. 89% of Democrats and 87% of Leaning Democrats disagree.

I do not doubt that Pew does an excellent job at evaluating Independent’s political preferences. I’m an example. An unaffiliated Progressive, I often vote for Democrats. Pew would file me in the ‘Leaning Democrat’ folder, and that’s a fair call.

But Pew and others (like Gallup) whiff on something else—studying Independents’ commitment to democratizing American politics. Here’s an example. If adopted across the U.S., open primaries—a priority among Independents—would democratize the political process by opening up the primary system to all voters.

Because there’s considerable pressure from the parties to retain the status quo, change requires Independents banding together and working for reforms. And that’s what’s happening at IndependentVoting.org, a national organization with the mission of “working to gain the respect, recognition, and reforms that independents deserve.”

The time Independents devote to initiatives associated with IndependentVoting.org isn’t unlike the time that party affiliates devote to the political parties. There’s an underlying political agenda in each case. But there’s a big difference, too.

IndependentVoting.orgisn’t a political party and doesn’t seek to organize Independents into party form. The goal is to stimulate and advance the exercise of political independence and to improve the political process for all Americans. An example is replacing a rigged gerrymandered system with a non-politicized way of drawing district boundaries. That’s precisely what happened in Michigan.

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Researchers, pundits, and the parties frame Independents through the lens of the two-party system. Too often, that framing relegates Independents to an affiliative political status as either “closet” Democrats or Republicans.

Neither Pew nor Gallup studies what I’ve just described—this ‘other,’ and very important, characteristic of America’s Independents. The framing they use disallows it.

By framing I mean what one sees as s/he looks at something of interest. Think of framing as what a photographer sees through the lens of a camera. If a photographer points in one direction, s/he’ll see what’s in that direction. But what happens if a matter of interest is located elsewhere?

The conventional view of Independents is like that. Researchers, pundits, and the parties frame Independents through the lens of the two-party system. Too often, that framing relegates Independents to an affiliative political status as either “closet” Democrats or Republicans. When viewed that way, it’s easy to conclude that “there aren’t many true Independents” as Ed Kilgore did this week in New York Magazine.

But that’s a myopic way of framing America’s Independents. When Independents are organized and active—as they are at Independentvoting.org—they devote time and attention to advancing the American political system. And they do it in ways that the major parties haven’t and (I think it’s fair to say) can’t and won’t. Party-centeredness is the reason.

Let’s face it: advancing a party line can undermine democracy. Gerrymandering is one example, closed (vs. open) primaries is another, recent efforts by multiple state legislatures to undercut the ‘will of the people’ (as voters expressed in the 2018 elections) is a third, and voter suppression is a fourth.

And ‘fixing what’s wrong’ isn’t the only thing that captures the attention of Independents. Innovative approaches are also on the bill. For example, in Maine, Independents worked aggressively to get ranked-voting approved in the state. Success came when Jared Golden was the first member of Congress elected by that method. In ranked-voting, voters rank candidates. If, after first choices are tallied and no candidate gets 50% or more of the vote, then the bottom-ranked candidate is dropped from the tally. The second choice then gets added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. If no candidate gets 50% of the vote, the routine is repeated until there is a candidate who secures at least 50% support.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my case: Independents can’t be understood fully by looking through a two-party frame. Across the country Independents are working actively to improve the political system—yes, sometimes in concert with the political parties (almost always Democrats)—but very often (no pun intended) independently.

So, just how ‘independent’ are Independents? The answers are ‘not very’ and ‘considerably.’ It depends on your frame.

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Frank Fear