What are Independents Thinking?

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No, this post isn't another angry rant like my last one directed at liberals. I've calmed down now and have now reached acceptance, Kubler-Ross's final stage of grieving. I am left with a question, though, I just don't have an answer to: What are independent voters thinking?

Independent voters are commonly defined as voters who vote based on issues and candidates rather than party affiliation (thanks Wikipedia). They have become one of the most influential forces in politics today. Because they are unaffiliated, meaning they could lean either left or right on the political spectrum, they have the power to swing elections in any direction of their choosing. We saw it in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and in the recent Massachusetts Senatorial race.

But I really don't understand independent voters. They swung toward the left in 2006 and 2008, a repudiation of the eight-year train wreck known as the Bush administration and Republican majority rule. The independent voters decided that an unfettered economy, two financial crises, two wars, just to name a few, were reasons enough to want a change in leadership in our government.

And it wasn't hard for independents to make the shift with a intelligent and charismatic then-candidate Obama offering an agenda that veered sharply from the previous presidency: health-care reform, economic reform, an end to the two wars, bipartisanship and, most importantly, hope at a time when life in America for many seemed teetering on the precipice of hopelessness.

Fast forward one year and all I can say is how times have changed. The political winds -- and the independents -- have shifted back to the right and the Democrats are now living in fear of the upcoming Congressional elections.

Here's where I struggle to understand independent voters. Why the sudden shift? I understand the anger from liberals for what they see as a failed progressive agenda. And I get the anger from the right for what they see as an agenda that is antithetical to their conservative beliefs. But why the repudiation from the middle? Have the independent forgotten what the Republicans did to our country the last eight years? Did they not understand the agenda that candidate Obama was going to champion once he became president (seemed pretty clear to me)? Were their expectations for repairing the mess that the Democrats inherited unrealistic? Are they lashing out in frustration and anger at whoever happens to be in power? Or, as voters without a partisan ideology, are they more vulnerable to whoever has the loudest megaphone and whoever controls the narrative?

I think the answers to all of the above questions is "yes." But I am most intrigued by the last question. There's no doubt that, despite the excitement and energy created by President Obama, when it came to the issues that most affect Americans, the past year's narrative has been controlled by the right, particularly on health-care reform and reaction to the economic crisis. Obama didn't help his own cause either. Obama kept silent during the summer of 2009 as the health-care battle took shape, allowing the Tea Party to not only gain a significant foothold in the American political conversation, but, more destructively, to dictate the health-care narrative. He also gave all appearances that he cared more about every group that began with "Big" (e.g., Business, Pharma, Insurance, Finance) in responding to the economic crisis than he did for the real victims of the Great Recession, those who lost their jobs, health insurance, retirement plans, and homes. At the same time, his stimulus package averted an economic catastrophe and his health-care reform would have benefited tens of millions of Americans.

In less than a year, anti-corporate populist anger against the Republicans has given way to anti-government populist anger against the Democrats. This shift obviously didn't come from the right; they have always been against the government. It didn't come from the left; they aren't, all of a sudden, going to turn against the first Democratically controlled federal government in a decade (though there are grumblings of dissatisfaction). The change has come from the independent voters who sit on the political fence.

This returns us to the questions I posed above. Have they forgotten about the damage wrought by the Republicans? Did they not know what they were getting when they handed our federal government over to Democratic control? Did they expect instant and easy solutions to a truly messed-up country? Are they acting on emotion rather than issues, out of fear for the future of our country rather than reasoned and patient approach to the changes that are needed? Have they been hoodwinked by the Right into acting against their own best interests?

The issue- and candidate-driven focus that is exhibited by independent voters allows them to be pragmatic and flexible as the situation changes on the ground. But, lacking a firm political ideology, it can also cause them to appear fickle, gullible, and impatient. They may also be more vulnerable to emotional messages that that tap into the frustration, anger, and fear they feel about the current state of our country.

I'm hoping my blog commentariat will help me (and perhaps others) to understand what independent voters are thinking.