Don’t Be an Independent, Join a Political Party

Michael Wear writes:

The rhetoric around independents is and has been quite bold and self-congratulatory. It goes: Independents are citizens who have the moral courage to declare a pox on both houses, and the capacity for free-thinking that enables them to say “no” to the partisan options that have been presented to us; they chart their own path. These independents supposedly hold the key to breaking through our bitter partisanship, our rampant tribalism.

But if independents were truly the key to fixing our politics, our politics would be just about fixed by now. In 2014, the percentage of Americans who identified as an Independent reached an all-time high of 43%. Today, it sits at 42%. There are more Independents in this country than either Democrats or Republicans. Fifty percent of Millennials are political independents. So why don’t our politics reflect these free-thinking, morally pruned voters? A rise in independents should result in a politics more focused on common ground, not less — right?

The problem is that politics is not an individualistic endeavor. Independents tend to spurn institutions generally, and then feel vindicated when our institutions do not reflect their views. But while Independents think they are sending political parties a message, political parties do not hear them.

This is not an abstract argument. It is a practical problem. In many states, you cannot vote in a party’s presidential primary unless you belong to that party. You cannot become a party delegate and vote on the party platform unless you belong to that party. In essence, Independents actively minimize their impact on elections and party positions. When people leave (or fail to join) parties in protest, they starve those parties of ideological diversity, driving them to their extremes….

If you believe one party more closely — not perfectly, but closely — aligns with your political views of what is best for your neighbors and your country, you should join that party. If you believe your party, however flawed, is still the best option for the country, stay and fight for it — regardless of the immoral actions of its leader. If after taking into consideration the structural impediments in our system for third parties, you still believe investing in a third party is the best choice, do that. But to withdraw from our political parties is to unilaterally forego one of the primary levers we have of influencing the direction of our government. Party participation is not an identity statement. It is a choice about how to use your power as a citizen.