Linda Killian's book, The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents, is finally getting some attention. A string of authors -- Douglas Schoen, John Avlon, and Omar Ali, to name a few -- have been writing for years about the nascent movement of independent voters, now 40 percent of the country, to little notice from reviewers, pundits and the like. But last week, Killian finally drew the wrath of Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at The Center for American Progress, writing for The New Republic.
Teixeira emphatically denounces Killian's book for propagating "the greatest myth in American politics: that independents are actually independent." He is outraged that Killian, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report.com and now a resident scholar at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., has dared to assert that independent voters are something other than partisans in disguise. Citing a University of Michigan National Election Study showing that some 80 percent of independents lean to one or another of the two major parties, Teixeira pronounces the 40 percent of Americans who are independents to be a fiction, and Killian to be either an idiot or an incompetent.
Wow! For a man (actually, make that a MAN) who has devoted his political career to resuscitating a Democratic Party governing majority (he co-wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002), you would think he'd be a little more cautious about denouncing independents. Otherwise, his hoped for majority may get another slam, as it did in 2010 when independents expressed their disappointment and frustration with President Obama's inability to conquer the partisanship in Washington, including the partisanship of his own party. Ruy might rue the day he tried to tear down Killian and the volatile movement-in-the-making she writes about.
Teixeira argues that voters are defined by who they vote for. Ergo, if independents vote for a Democrat or a Republican, they are really aligned with that party and are not independents at all. Hence, concludes Teixeira, why recognize the category at all? Leaving aside the obvious point that in nearly every election, the only choice voters have is a Democrat or a Republican, here's where the rubber hits the road. Independents may cast a ballot, or ballots, for one or another major party candidate, but they still feel it is important to maintain their independence. In 2008, 60 percent of independents cast ballots for Barack Obama in the 33 states with open primaries or caucuses, handing him -- rather than Hillary Clinton -- the Democratic nomination. Independents then went on, as a whole, to support Obama 52 percent to 44 percent over John McCain in the general election. They chose the Democratic nominee and the President, but they did not become Democrats.
Similarly, in 2010, when independents punished Obama for subordinating their demand for post-partisan governance to the Democratic Party agenda, they did not re-register as Republicans. The post-midterm election Gallup polls show the percentage of independents increasing (38 percent), the percentage of Democrats on a decline (31 percent), and the Republican levels virtually static (29 percent). At the very least, it seems to me, Teixeira has to offer an explanation of that.
The problem, though, is that to do so means he'd have to give up the equation he has made up: who Americans vote for is who Americans are, politically speaking. My advice is put aside all the polls, the data and the focus groups and just listen to what the 40 percent are saying. They do not wish to enroll in any political party. In a system such as ours, where parties are quasi-governmental institutions which rule the roost, that is no small thing. It is an act of defiance against the partisan establishment. Will that defiance develop into an organized movement? Groups like mine which organize independent voters -- IndependentVoting.org -- believe it will.
To be fair, there are things in Killian's book with which I disagree, most importantly her tendency to characterize independents as "centrists." They aren't. They span the political spectrum on traditional issues. I know this from 30 years of organizing. Even the Pew Center agreed that "The growing rejection of partisan identification does not imply a trend toward political moderation...". However much their ideologies vary, though, independents do coalesce around agendas for structural political reform, something that Teixeira belittles with a yawn, even though the parties wield an obscene amount of power over the political process. As former Congressman Mickey Edwards, a champion of nonpartisan reform notes, "The goal is not to destroy parties but to transcend them; to welcome their contributions but end their dominance; and to take back from these private clubs control of our own elections and our own Congress."
Teixeira observes that Obama's efforts at compromise with Republicans cost him support among independents, which is surely true, but not because independents are really partisans, as he argues. Obama's efforts failed to win independent support because compromise between the existing political camps is increasingly seen as both futile and insufficient. Independents want a new kind of political culture in which parties, partisanship and ideology do not rule the day, a radical demand in the face of the existing culture. The Obama camp would do well to relate to independent voters on that basis, but Democratic partisans like Teixeira seek to hold Obama hostage to a partisan coalition. There will never be a new progressive majority in this country without including independents as independents, not as "leaners." Given how partisanship is standing in the way of social and economic development, the Democratic Party cannot substitute itself for that broader coalition.
Like most establishment analysts, Teixeira does not see or value things, in this case movements, which are in the process of becoming. He is correct that NO LABELS and Americans Elect are vaporous, but that's because they are champions of centrism. They are not organizing independent voters to become a force for political transformation. They're trying to spruce up the old partisan system. Good luck!
The problem with political science, which Teixeira worships, is that it isn't a science and it's extremely political. Killian's book may have its flaws. But she did punch a hole in the Big Boys' prevailing political science paradigm, the one that is strangling the country. You go, girl! That's worth a read right there.
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