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Americans tend to look at politics through the prism of the party system. But the numbers on Americans’ political preferences offer a different perspective.

organizing independent voters

America’s Independents as Third Force, What Will It Take?—Frank Fear

Earlier this year The Gallup Organization reported that 55% of America’s electorate—a scant majority—self-identified with the major parties, 29% Democrats and 26% Republicans. But nearly half of the electorate—42%—self-identified as Independents.

Those findings aren’t a blip in time, either. Independents have polled at 40%+ of the electorate for five consecutive years. And Independents are the only block of self-identified voters that has grown since 1988.

So why do we remain committed to the party system? One reason is that parties are well-organized and -financed, embedded powerfully in America’s political architecture. Independents, on the other hand, are more like a blob—large in number, but dormant and generally unorganized.

What if Independents began thinking and acting as a consequential group? They could become America’s “Third Force”—not a third party, mind you, but an assemblage of voters with presence and clout.

What if Independents began thinking and acting as a consequential group? They could become America’s “Third Force”—not a third party, mind you, but an assemblage of voters with presence and clout.

But Independents don’t generally view themselves that way. And neither does the media. Independents are portrayed typically as “votes to be captured” by the parties.

It’s time to change that narrative. Independents could transform America’s politics—moving the needle from party-driven to voter-centered.

One challenge is clear, though: Independents span the political spectrum. Any organizing attempt requires empowering diversity—making it easier for voters and candidates with different positions and preferences to achieve outcomes they prefer. That means mobilizing and sustaining a coalition of independents, including bringing together an array of existing and emerging interests/groups that neither work together currently nor see themselves as unified.

So how might we empower diversity to create a Third Force? Here are ideas that could help.

The starting point is applying a fundamental principle about enacting change: use an organizational form that fits what you have in mind. That’s exactly what Silicon Valley did to make the Tech Revolution succeed. Start-up tech companies were largely built with non-hierarchical and boundary-permeating structures and lean systems—a design well-suited to stimulate innovation. That’s a very different approach from the conventional organizational design, which relies on hierarchical structures and procedure-bound management systems.

What like-minded model fits Independents’ circumstances? Here’s an example from the banking industry.

Decades ago, a banking executive named Dee Hock faced a gnarly problem—increasing the amount of unsecured consumer credit via credit cards without creating undue risk for banks. That objective was giving banks fits until Hock and his team came up with a new model. Called chaordic, the model combines elements of chaos and order.

Hock and his associates facilitated a conversation among interested (and soon-to-be member) banks. A diverse coalition agreed on basic purpose, generated a small set of operating principles, and put in place a strong, but lean, governance system. The creation was minimalist in design, structure, and process because diverse parties wouldn’t have been able to agree if there had been too many requirements. But neither could they afford to trade ease of agreement for increased financial risk.

The entity that emerged we know today as VISA International, a global giant in the financial industry with revenues of $14 billion USD (2015).

Hock’s model made sense in two ways. It fit the innovation (reduce risk/enhance profit). And it fit the context (banks differing in size, location, management approach, etc. agreed on a common governance structure). The model did something else: it optimized what’s called the strength of weak ties. Weak ties are especially relevant in today’s post-modern, networked world.

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The conventional path for relationship-building is to develop deep ties. You do that by meeting with people regularly—often face-to-face—exchanging ideas, helping them out, and engaging in a variety of other forms of reciprocal behavior.

The strength of weak ties is different. It involves building relationships with people you don’t know well, don’t see often, and probably don’t live near. Face-to-face contact is either limited or non-existent—something that happens a lot in the Digital Age, where social networking is often done electronically.

What’s the carrot for strengthening weak ties? Benefits loom.

Here’s an example, what I call “how strangers became co-workers.” I’m the managing editor of an East Coast internet publishing site, a role that evolved from my writing articles for the site. The transition to editor began when I asked the site owner if he could use help. Even though I now handle day-to-day responsibilities, the owner and I have never talked—either face-to-face or by phone. We communicate regularly by email only.

What strength was generated from this ‘weak’ relationship? The site owner gets an experienced, reliable hand to manage daily tasks. I have an opportunity to work with young writers from around the world.

What’s the relevance of strengthening weak ties and Hock’s chaordic model? They’re boundary-spanning tools—useful for addressing challenges in today’s world, including political challenges.

The problem with parties in that regard is that they do a good job of protecting and expanding boundaries, but they don’t span boundaries either easily or well. That’s why we have so much gridlock.

Thankfully there’s evidence the public understands the implications of party myopia. Consider the results of a national survey released last week. The authors reported that only 28% of young Americans feel that the parties well represent the American public. That’s essentially a no confidence vote.

It’s time to build on the indubitably American concept of independence—translating and applying that meaning in electoral politics—locally, at the state level, and federally. And the timing couldn’t be better, given voters’ recent wide scale rejection of politics as usual.

It’s our best alternative among two other options. While we shouldn’t abandon the goal of party reform—good things are happening—I don’t believe the consequences will be either deep or lasting. And I don’t think that expanding the number of major parties or establishing new ones will help much, either. Why? No matter how many parties we have—or what they stand for—parties are parties, after all.

What we need—and don’t have currently—is a meaningful, workable alternative to institutionalized politics. For substance and direction in that regard I recommend looking at the work of Independentvoting.org, the largest coalition of independents in the country. With post-partisan mission the group’s intent is to “create new electoral coalitions…support new models of nonpartisan governance, and strive for the broadest forms of ‘bottom-up’ participation.”

The boundary-crossing leadership exhibited by its president, Jackie Salit, is impressive. Salit has on-the-ground experience (e.g., she managed Michael Bloomberg’s NYC mayoral campaigns) and intellectual acumen (e.g., she authored a topical book, Independents Rising (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Salit’s clarion call is compelling. Consider what she wrote in an article published in The Huffington Post this week: “It’s time to advance a new majoritarian, trans-partisan, and multi-racial electoral coalition, one that’s pro-development and breaks with status quo decisions.”

Salit conceives Independency as mindset rather than political category. That’s the launch point for changing the political culture, said Salit, during last week’s American Citizens Summit. The quest is to transfer power from the Establishment to The People. Enabling that outcome isn’t just a political activity, Salit told the audience, “it’s an emotional activity, a spiritual activity, and—without question—a revolutionary activity, too.”

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Thankfully it’s underway.

Frank Fear