Allard: Independent Isn't Apathetic
The independence movement has a branding problem.
This summer at a family barbecue, conversation turned –– as it so often does –– political. At some point in the conversation, my dad divulged that he identifies as an independent voter, to which his friends responded with shock and horror: “But don’t you care about politics?”
My dad is an independent voter precisely because he cares about politics. He cares about this country enough to research candidates on his own, and then to draw conclusions about who will best represent him and his values, regardless of party affiliation. He reads the news from sources both left and right of center, and he has canvassed for politicians about whom he felt passionate. He cares a great deal about politics and is just as upset as anyone about the current state of this country.
This summer, I interned at an organization called Independent Voting, which is the largest network of independent voters in the country. Often when I describe my summer job, I find myself entangled in conversations much like the one my dad had at that barbecue. Somehow my belief in voting based on my convictions and not limiting myself to one party is often perceived as my being apathetic or complacent.
In fact, many of the people I met through my work this summer have dedicated their entire lives to politics. Some were fervent Bernie Sanders supporters who became disillusioned with the party system after the last presidential election. Some were Libertarians who felt unrepresented by the current dominant parties. Others still were just people like me, who weren’t willing to tie themselves to one party’s platform because to do so would be to settle for representation that doesn’t quite align with my beliefs on either side.
The independent movement has a branding problem. In a time when so many people feel dissatisfied with both parties, being an independent should be seen as a thoughtful, logical choice. But too often it is perceived as an indirect way of saying one just doesn’t care.
In some states, independents are referred to as unaffiliated voters, which adds to the perception of independents as apathetic. In some states, independents are thought of as moderates. I found this to be particularly true growing up in New York City, perhaps because our mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, was an independent and a centrist. Although being an independent does not by any means imply that someone is a moderate, the two are inextricably linked in many New Yorkers’ minds, and in the minds of others around the country.
Add to all that confusion the fact that there is also an Independent Party — a far right movement based on a segregationist platform. If ever there was a group that independent voters don’t want to be associated with, the Independent Party is it.
Defining an independent voter is hard. Some are far right, some are far left, some are in the middle, some don’t believe in the party system, and, admittedly, some just don’t care. But perhaps uniting the group with a common name would be a good place to start in organizing the movement. According to Independent Voting, 44 percent of the country self-identifies as independent—that’s the plurality of the electorate. It would be a shame not to harness all that energy to change the system.
I suggest that independent voters be renamed “non-party voters.” I know that self-defining in the negative is rarely a good idea, and that campaigns based around “yes” usually win. But I think this may be an exception. There is already so much negative energy in the country around the party system. A name like “non-party voters” is clear and illustrates that voting independently is an active choice, not a passive one.
In today’s political climate, being a non-party voter is a brave choice. Tensions between political parties run high and claiming to be anything but passionately on one side can be perceived as siding with the opposition. But to be a non-party voter is to say that Americans deserve better than the best of two bad options. It’s to say that enough is enough, that voters shouldn’t have to continue to choose between two candidates who don’t represent them. It is to say that an unwillingness to compromise across the aisle is not only not an asset, it is unacceptable — legislators have to be willing to be flexible to get things done. To be a non-party voter is to say that voters don’t have to pledge to agree with one side or another forever and always because they are multifaceted and thoughtful, and it takes more than the label Democrat or Republican to win an election. To be a non-party voter is certainly not to be apathetic. We deserve a name that conveys that.