Like any President taking office with impossibly high expectations and in the middle of a serious crisis, Obama's approval ratings have declined steadily since Inauguration Day. It is easy to look at the aggregate numbers and start jumping to conclusions but the partisan breakdown is far more interesting:

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Essentially there has been no change among Democrats. The trend is nearly flat. Republicans have behaved predictably. Frankly it's amazing that Obama had a 35% approval rating among that group nine months ago, and it was inevitable that the moment he did anything one might expect from a generic Democratic president that modicum of support would disappear. Independents show the same trend as Republicans. The magnitude is different, obviously, but the pattern of immediate and gradual decline of support (and increase in disapproval) is identical. Why?

Political science may not have revealed everything about the mind of the American voter, but we do know that "independent" doesn't mean what the media thinks it means. It is important to understand the loaded meaning of the term, the prevalence of social desirability effects (the tendency of survey respondents to give the answer they feel is expected of them or is most socially acceptable rather than an honest answer), and the scant attention most Americans pay to all things political. In this context, "independent" means any of the following:

  • 1. A person whose ideological preferences legitimately lie between the two major parties. These are True Independents, and this is what pundits and political figures have in mind when they use the term. But there is no evidence that they form a majority of the Independent group.
  • 2. "I don't know." When someone asks you a question to which you don't have an answer "Independent" is a convenient out. Few adults are keen to admit that they pay absolutely no attention to politics.
  • 3. Republicans who are tired of Obama-lovers giving them crap about being Republicans. The same effect would have been in play in 2003-2004, when voters to the left of Goldwater might have chosen Independent as a way out of conversations they didn't want to have with their yellow ribbon-clad friends and co-workers.
  • 4. People who have a strong ideological preference but think that being Independent makes them look cool. Seriously. There is a psychological benefit people can derive from declaring that they are Independents, i.e. free thinkers who are open-minded and unwilling to submit to a party label or to follow crowds. If you don't think independence and individualism are loaded and comoddified terms, watch Nike and soft drink commercials for an hour and get back to me.
  • 5. Something I like to call "Dr. No Syndrome" – people who oppose everything, including the major parties. No matter what Obama does, these folks won't like it. Government is bad, the parties are bad, the media is bad…

    When we understand what Independent really means, graphs like the ones shown above make more sense. Democrats stand by their man. Republicans surrender whatever hope they had of Obama being a Republican. And Independents are an amalgam of the angry, the ignorant, the dishonest, and the legitimately moderate. The last group receives the most attention and their motivations are imputed to all voters who call themselves Independent. The media's willingness to assume that all Independents are thoughtful moderates is but more evidence of how favorably the concept is looked upon in our society. Phenomena like the tendency of Independents to be strangely hostile to Democratic presidents or the seemingly random fluctuations of opinion within the group are an artifact of its status as a catch-all category for voters with very different motivations, levels of information, and ideological preferences.

  • 10 thoughts on “INDEPENDENCE FROM REASON”

    • "Independent" also may equal "please don't burden me with the matched nine-piece Samsonite baggage of the major parties, or even the Libertarian party, because they are all nuts."

      A lot of the people freaking out about Obama right now, I believe, were subconscious racists who took a big leap down the wrong path when he turned out not to be Superman. It doesn't help that the Democratic party turned out to be kryptonite.

      I laughed when I read your line, "Democrats stand by their man." Yes, indeed! That's why we have a health plan now, right? Apparently Independents are not the only ones who answer polls to the tune of self-image and socially desirable results.

    • Ladiesbane, the polls that Ed is talking about are polls of citizens, not members of Congress. Obviously.

    • Polls show that people hate Congress but tolerate their Congressman, hate politics but tend to vote for more of the same, don't like Lady Gaga as much as web counters would suggest, don't like porn but it's the same way with the web, and so forth. We are a shallow people who like what we like, don't want to admit it, and are comfortable living out our lies.

      Change such as major healthcare reform isn't easy, any change is hard when half the country wants to stop it, and it's even harder when there is so much money riding on the result. The polls that say most people support reform aren't as important as the polls that bring its opponents back to office again and again.

    • I have a cousin who is fairly conservative, but when challenged in political conversation always jumps to "I'm independent, I don't follow a certain party on every front." This is in spite of the fact that he defended Palin as a viable VP pick. One would think an "independent" person would be more reasonable than us partisan hacks on both sides. My cousin obviously flies high in the category 4.

    • Cassie, I wasn't speaking of Congress directly, but of the people registered to the Democratic party, some of whom have allowed themselves to be misled into fear of government-subsidized health coverage, when they perhaps should be out-shouting the nuts at Town Hall meetings.

      I have been baffled by the number of Obama supporters who are now behaving like frightened farm animals rather than voicing outrage over the lies and misrepresentations, and I do think Congressional reps would behave in a more unified, partisan way if their voters made it clear future elections were at stake. I apologize for not being clear.

    • "…The last group receives the most attention…"
      Frankly, they may receive the most lip service but, at least from my years of watching the media, genuine moderates recieve very little attention. The parties have shifted so far to the right that a moderate, regardless of party identification or lack thereof, is pretty indistinguishable from a slightly left-of-center Democrat.

    • Huh? I'm an independent because I'm not registered as either a Republican or a Democrat, or any of whatever minor third parties are floating out there, and I never have been. I've lived somewhere to the left of the Democratic Party for most of my life on most (not all) issues, and I'm rapidly losing my hope in Obama's leadership of his party and his commitment to explicit (and explicitly progressive) campaign promises on gay issues, secrecy and executive privilege, and health care. So where do you want to fit me into "Independents are an amalgam of the angry, the ignorant, the dishonest, and the legitimately moderate"? If I may be permitted to edit, I'm "angry… legitimately"

    • Late response, I know, but yes, Zach, I got to point # 5, and while I am fond of characterizing myself as an oppositionist, I do not in fact oppose everything, nor do I think government is bad. I'm all for government in the abstract, and am quite attached to many aspects of government in the particular when they work: public schools, trustbusting legislation, lesbian bike cops, seat belts, my train ride to the city. I even heard this Medicare thing is run by the government, and I can hardly wait. (And it's looking like I'll have to.)

      I'd like to take additional issue back in point # 1: "A person whose ideological preferences legitimately lie between the two major parties. These are True Independents…" Huh (again)? I can't be an Independent if my ideological preferences legitimately lie to one side of one of the major parties? I live in California and one of my Senators is Dianne Feinstein, reportedly a Famous Democrat. With her example before me, I'm afraid I find the ground between the two major parties kind of muddy. It's largely been the long (and now increasingly determined) Republican march to complete insanity that's managed to preserve the gap, but so many congressional Democrats are such accommodationists I'm half-expecting a compromise from them proposing that Obama was born in Mauritania. It's closer, after all.

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