People who are surprised at the rise of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders shouldn’t be, according to Samara Klar, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.
Trump, a Republican, and Sanders, a Democrat, are both anti-establishment candidates who appeal to voters tired of the machinations of political parties, even their own.
This frustration with politics as usual also is reflected in the fact that more Americans now identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans. The Gallup Organization tracks independents at 42 percent — the highest percentage in more than 75 years of polling.
In their new book, "Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction," Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, assistant professor of political science at Stony Brook University, delve deeper into the identity and motivation of independents.
The media tend to describe independents as pivotal for electoral outcomes, as if the independent voter is carefully weighing the pros and cons of the candidates in both parties.
However, although some independents (around 13 percent) won’t express a preferred party — these people are usually disenfranchised and often don’t vote — the rest are actually closeted partisans.
"We started to think, 'Why?'" Klar said. "Why does someone who is voting for the same party every year say they are independent? There has to be something that is motivating them to do that."
Embarrassed by Party Affiliation
Through experiments and large-scale surveys, the researchers discovered that many Americans are embarrassed by their political party and do not wish to be associated with either side. Instead, they intentionally mask their party preference, especially in social situations.
Klar and Krupnikov found that Americans view independent voters as more likeable, trustworthy and physically attractive than Democrats or Republicans. They are preferred over partisans as discussion partners and workplace colleagues.
"Much of what people see in the news about the parties is ugly," Klar said. "Candidates are angry, and party activists often seem stubborn and aggressive. As a result, it makes sense to tell people you are independent."
They found that the more that people hear about disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, the worse they feel about the parties. They also found that people are just as frustrated with partisan disagreement among voters (rampant on social media platforms such as Facebook) as they are with partisan disagreement among politicians.
In one experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to read an article about political discord or bipartisan agreement. Those who read about political disagreement were more likely to say they were independents.
In another study, which was designed by students in Klar’s spring 2014 course "Methods of Political Inquiry," students went around Tucson and randomly assigned respondents to complete one of three surveys. The only difference between the surveys was the introduction: One commented on the battling between the parties (negative statement), one commented on how both parties were presenting their issues (positive statement) and one had no introduction. At the end of the survey, participants were offered an eagle sticker, a Democratic Party sticker or a Republican Party sticker.
"Students found that when subjects read a sentence about parties fighting, they became significantly more likely to select the eagle sticker," Klar said. "When they read the survey that began with the positive sentence, they became more likely to take either the Democratic or Republican sticker."
Political scientists actually discovered in the 1990s that most independents are really partisans and wrote them off as inconsequential. Klar and Krupnikov, on the other hand, believe they are very important and that they impact the outcome of elections in unanticipated ways.
Reluctant to Declare, Volunteer
According to Klar, the same motivation that leads people to identify as independent also diminishes their willingness to engage in any form of political action, such as putting up yard signs and volunteering for campaigns. Although such independents may vote for their preferred party, they will most likely stay mum on political candidates and issues.
"As a result, elections become saturated with the voices of those who have no problem proclaiming their partisanship loudly, which in many cases are the people with the most extreme positions," Klar said.
Fueling the growth in independents is the increasingly negative focus of news coverage, created in part by the 24-hour news cycle.
"Of course, the media isn’t pulling this ugly image from thin air — the parties provide ample fodder for all the drama," Klar said.
Indeed, the researchers found that the language used by presidential candidates during debates has become more antagonistic over time.
At the same time, Klar said that political parties are more polarized than the actual population.
"I do an exercise with my students every semester where I ask for their party identification and their position on various issues," she said. "We see Democrats and Republicans tend to agree on a lot of things. They are much closer than they think they are. And this is something we see nationally, not just with college students.
"The fact that so many Americans are ashamed to admit their partisanship says something important about the state of American politics and should give both parties a reason to do some serious soul searching."
In March, Samara Klar will be at two events at the Tucson Festival of Books, speaking about her new book and the state of American politics:
- "Race in America: Changing Cultural Landscapes," Sunday, March 13, 2:30 p.m., Student Union Gallagher Theatre
- "The Direction of Democracy, " Sunday, March 13, 4 p.m., Student Union Gallagher Theatre
Contact: Samara Klar, UA School of Government and Public Policy, 520-621-0206, firstname.lastname@example.org