Like more than 20 percent of my fellow Californians, I am now classified as a no-party-preference voter, registered to vote but with no affiliation to any of the state’s political parties.
I am for lower taxes and for marriage equality. I am tough on crime, and I am anti-abortion. I believe that a pathway to citizenship is a necessary part of immigration reform and that student test scores should be a critical component of teacher evaluations.
Given the nature of modern-day politics, I’m not sure either party would have me.
Those of us who consciously choose not to ally ourselves with a party are the fastest-growing portion of the electorate. The millennial generation has the highest percentage of independents, suggesting that nonpartisan voters are poised to play an increasingly influential role in shaping state politics and government in the future.
But these statistics tell only one small part of the story. Because independents’ dissatisfaction with party politics tends to make them less engaged than their partisan counterparts, the result is an electorate in which the most motivated liberals and most devoted conservatives wield a disproportionate influence over an election’s outcome. So while the ranks of independent voters continue to grow, the most ideologically extreme members of both parties are tightening their grip on the political process.
Independent voters are not necessarily centrist. In fact, numerous studies have shown that most independents do not significantly differ in their policy positions from more traditional partisans. But by definition, their willingness to separate from a party that advocates for their preferred policy solutions suggests an openness to compromise that most committed partisans no longer share.
The practical impact of this polarization can be seen both in the halls of government and in the dwindling turnout for elections. When citizens see their elected representatives paralyzed by gridlock, they become increasingly discouraged about their government’s ability to confront society’s challenges. When they see invective and name-calling dominate policy debate rather than negotiation and compromise, they become increasingly disgusted. And when they see the most ideologically extreme special interests on both sides of the aisle pouring millions of dollars of undisclosed and unregulated money into so-called independent committees every election season, they throw up their hands in disgust and simply opt out altogether.
This is not to suggest that centrists are inherently superior to principled progressives and principled conservatives. Our system requires strong partisans engaged on behalf of the issues and causes that they value. But it also requires politicians to sometimes work across party lines, and for that, there must be common ground on which the two sides can meet to negotiate their differences.
I believe that candidates running without party affiliation would be well-suited to lead the effort to rebuild the political center, and with that in mind I ran as an independent candidate for secretary of state in the last election. I was unsuccessful, as have been the overwhelming majority of independents who’ve run in California. One day that may change, but that will require educating voters about the potential benefits of electing a nonpartisan candidate. In the absence of better information on that front, most voters will continue to opt for the familiar party labels when casting their ballots.
Until centrist voters are prepared to embrace independent candidates in statewide races, the alternative is for them to exert more pressure on the choices presented to them by the existing parties. Redistricting reform and the top-two primary system have created opportunities for voters to express their preferences for less ideologically extreme candidates. But more sweeping change requires not just new rules but new attitudes.
In politics, a smaller group of citizens with an intense commitment to a cause will almost always prevail over a larger group who lack that same fervor. It’s easy to blame Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd for the state of politics today. But they are simply advocating as forcefully as possible for the things that are important to them. The answer for those of us who want to repair a broken system of politics is not to denigrate these activists but to outwork them.
There’s an old saying on the campaign trail: There’s no such thing as a raging moderate. For politics to work again, those who occupy the center of the political spectrum will have to invest the time and effort to prove that adage wrong.
Dan Schnur is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.