Democracy Dies in Darkness

Monkey Cage

Why are so many Democrats and Republicans pretending to be independents?

By John Sides

April 4, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Painted tabletop models of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey shown in 2002 in D.C. (Jacqueline Roggenbrodt/AP)

In their new book, "Independent Politics," political scientists Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov unpack one of the more important trends in the U.S. electorate: why the percentage of Americans calling themselves "independent" continues to rise, even though partisanship is stronger than ever. They answered some questions via email. An edited transcript is below.

Q: Political science research on independents often emphasizes that, in reality, many of them think and behave like Democrats or Republicans. Your book doesn't dispute that, but you ask a different question: Why are so many people "going undercover" as independents if they're really somewhat partisan? What is your answer, in a nutshell?

KRUPNIKOV: Our goal isn't to suggest that independents are real, but to ask, in essence, "If they are no different than partisans, why won't they just admit that?"

People "go undercover" — or hide their partisanship behind the label "independent" — because they are too embarrassed to admit their partisanship. Being embarrassed to admit your partisanship leads you to avoid behaviors that are overtly partisan.

This is a big problem for democratic politics, since overtly partisan behaviors are often the behaviors that have the most political "voice." In short, independents are just the tip of the much larger, more consequential iceberg of political inaction.

Q: What's changed in popular portrayals of partisanship that's made it such an undesirable identity?

KLAR: Popular portrayals of partisanship, particularly over the last two decades, have been decidedly negative, focusing on polarization and disagreement. There is a prevailing narrative of conflict and polarization, suggesting that the parties have insurmountable levels of disagreement and that the parties dislike each other intensely.

The parties provide plenty of fodder for this narrative. In the book we coded a series of presidential debates, as just one example. We find that the percentage of phrases used in presidential debates that conveys insurmountable conflict between the two candidates has dramatically increased over recent decades.

When Americans learn about politics, they learn that partisans are angry and stubborn. And, understandably, people don't want to seem this way to others. With dozens of surveys and experiments, one clear message resonated over and over again: Associating oneself with partisan anger, stubbornness, and inflexibility does not seem like the best way to make a great impression.

On the other hand, being independent and above the partisan morass seems much more impressive. This is yet more evidence that, even in anonymous surveys, people behave in ways that they perceive to be socially desirable and that cast them in the most positive light.

Q: In fact, you did a fun experiment where you asked people about how they would describe their partisanship if they wanted to make the "best impression" or the "worst impression." What did you find?

KRUPNIKOV: This is a classic experiment for figuring out if people might lie about their responses to seem more impressive to others. People are asked to answer a question, but some are randomly assigned to answer the question as if their goal is to make the best impression on a person and others are assigned to answer the question as if their goal is to make the worst impression on a person.

In our version of the experiment, people are significantly more likely to pick independent — or report that they are independent with a partisan leaning – when they are asked to make a good impression. In contrast, people report that they are strong partisans when they are asked to make a bad impression.

Q: Part of what seems unattractive to people about partisanship is when partisans disagree. How does this affect people's views of partisans?

KRUPNIKOV: People are especially likely to reject partisanship when they are reminded of partisan disagreement. By disagreement, we don't mean that the parties have different positions on political issues, but that the parties are engaged in interminable political battles.

For example, we asked some people to read an article about political disagreement and others to read an article about bipartisanship. Then, we showed people photographs of two beautiful neighborhoods and asked them to compare the two photos.  We manipulated these photos so that some people compared a neighborhood in which a political yard sign was visible with a neighborhood that had no political yard sign. Others compared the same two photos but without any political yard sign in either of them.

We found that when both photos had no political signs, people liked the neighborhoods equally. It didn't matter if they had read about political disagreement or bipartisanship, the neighborhoods seemed virtually identical to them.

In contrast, the combination of reading about partisan disagreement and seeing a photograph of a neighborhood with political signs led people to evaluate the neighborhood a lot less favorably.  Nothing else about the neighborhood had changed — it was still the same photograph of the same neighborhood — but people didn't want to live in that neighborhood and they didn't want to socialize with people from that neighborhood.

We don't see this among people who read about bipartisanship, so reading about disagreement specifically changed the way people felt about living with neighbors who are publicly partisan.

Q: Partisan disagreement affects behavior too, you argue. Another fun experiment involved political stickers. Tell us a bit about that.

KLAR: It was really important for us to measure people's willingness to do something, rather than just having them speculate as to whether they might do it.

I conducted the sticker experiment with the help of undergraduate students at the University of Arizona. The students approached people around Tucson and asked them to complete a short survey in which some people were randomly assigned to read about another negative example of partisanship. Afterward, students offered them a "thank-you token" of a sticker, and the respondents were invited to choose which sticker they preferred.


John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.

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