Are Political Independents Not Too Bright?

Posted on 2016 May 22

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Those who refused to decide were, after all, the bold individuals, the influential ones, the creative ones, those who snatched their own authority. — Criss Jami

If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything. — Irene Dunne

It’s often said that an election victory depends on rallying a party’s extreme wing. These voters, after all, are the most dedicated and energetic.

It’s also intoned that the big secret to victory is to “go negative” — to campaign on an opponent’s alleged bad deeds or venal character. This can perk up supporters while persuading the other side to sit on its hands on Election Day.

And sometimes those in the know will assert that the key to victory is the independent vote. The folks in the middle, if they were to swing en masse to one side or the other, might determine the outcome.

So I was chatting with a local political operative, and we got around to the presidential campaign. I asked about the independent vote, wondering how the operative’s party would attract them in the fall election.

“Oh, they’re really dumb,” said the operative. Independents are dumb? I hadn’t expected that. I asked why. “They’re uninformed. They don’t know what they stand for. They can’t make up their minds.”

Hmm. I said, “Maybe they’re more nuanced than most voters. Maybe they want to see both sides of an issue and decide on the merits.” After some back-and-forth, the operative conceded that this was a valid possibility.

We got onto other topics. It wasn’t until the next day that my real question struck me: How does a party reach out to independents if it believes they’re dumb?

There has been a good deal of debate in the media about the IQs of conservatives and liberals. Much of the jawing has been at the expense of conservatives, but a closer reading suggests that each side has its smart wing. A rightist view on fiscal matters correlates to greater intelligence, while those to the left on social issues also tend to score higher.

What about independents? Are they an in-between average? Or are they wishy-washy, apathetic, and just plain dopey? And if they’re not too bright, how does a party try to communicate with them?

Worse, if they really are bright and thoughtful — and perhaps wise enough to know that the parties may try to offer concessions to garner their support — how can they be convinced to join up without a complex set of arguments and hours of work?

With partisans it’s easy: just get them riled up by hurling charges of wickedness against their opponents. But to convince someone who wants “to think about it”? The effort could be lengthy and frustrating.

Clearly, it’s tempting to dismiss independents altogether. Smart or dumb, the vacillating Middle might not be worth the effort.

I got some wry amusement from the political operative’s comment about the stupidity of independents, as I myself am an independent who sometimes swings liberal (on social issues) and sometimes conservative (on fiscal ones). Thus it might be easy to conclude that I don’t know what I believe in, and/or I possess barely the brainpower to punch random holes in a ballot. (As it happens, I do have a strongly held political philosophy. But it’s a bit more subtle than “Get the bad people!”)

Finally, it occurred to me that politicians often must hornswoggle voters on both sides — using simple sound bites and/or misleading “truths” — to win elections or pass legislation or carry out policy initiatives. How often have we learned, after the fact, that our leaders’ sincerely expressed beliefs turned out to be bald-faced lies asserted merely to trick the electorate? Kennedy and the Missile Gap story. Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf fable. Nixon and Watergate. Bush and the imaginary WMDs in Iraq. How dumb did they think we were? Pretty dumb.

It’s not just the independents they disdain; often it’s their own supporters. Given how easy it can be to galvanize a movement with inspiring lies, political leaders will grow cynical, not only about the average voter but about members of their own party.

Granted, they may believe independents are dumb. But you hard-working partisans out there? They don’t think much of you, either.

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Posted in: Politics