Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. -- George Washington, Farewell Address
With a couple of big elections coming up in the near future, everyone is wondering whether the shortcomings of the Bush administration are enough to drive voters away and give the Democrats a chance to regain power. As with every election, victory largely comes down to who can win over the independent voters who make up about a third of the electorate. As elected officials from both parties underperform and disappoint the voters the number of independents has been growing as disaffected members drift away from the parties. These alienated voters are the key to winning more and more elections.
While both parties can count on their partisans fairly reliably, the independents can go either way so most campaign efforts are directed at winning them over. Although their core constituency is slightly smaller, in recent elections the Republicans have won over more of the independent vote and that has given them victory after victory. To reverse that trend the Democrats need to find a way to appeal to those independents more than the Republicans do.
As has been demonstrated again and again since campaigns started heavily 'going negative' in the 1980s, voters find it a lot easier to focus on the negative than the positive. It's easier to win votes by smearing your opponent than by promoting your own ideas and it's easier to lose an election by committing a faux pas than it is to win an election by doing good works.
In this negative atmosphere both parties tend to be judged by their most extreme elements. And both parties certainly contain some wacky extremists whose views are shared by only a fraction of their own party, much less the general population. Independents are mostly relatively moderate politically, so they often face the unpleasant challenge of figuring out which party's radicals hold positions they find least unacceptable.
It is this dynamic which has paid off for the Republicans and will likely continue to do so in the future unless the Democrats find some way to control or eliminate their ideologically unappealing fringe. The problem for the Democrats is that the key to the independent voter is that they tend to vote based on their obvious self-interest. They're alienated from politics, hostile to government and to both parties and they mostly want to be left alone. They vote their pocketbooks, on the basis of their family's welfare and on what is likely to be best for their friends and neighbors. You might call them selfish, but basically they're realists who know that the best kind of government is one which does the least harm. They've gone beyond expecting a government which looks out for their interests and are willing to settle for a government which isn't trying to screw them at every turn.
Independent voters want to protect their interests and protect their rights. They know that the activist extremes of the two major parties have agendas which involve whittling away their rights in all sorts of areas, in service of religious, moral and political ideologies. They also understand that the parties have to cater to these extremes in order to turn out reliable, core votes. But above all, they have a simple agenda of their own. They want to be left alone and to protect their families, their property and their wallets. In picking how they will vote independents have to decide which party's extreme agitators are more threatening to them.
This is where the Republicans tend to win out. While the radicals of both parties want to limit liberty and impose intrusive restrictions on people to further their marginal causes, the general threat level of the Republican extremists is more acceptable, however reprehensible their specific issue positions may be. Most of the ways that extreme Republican factions want to persecute people and take away their rights apply primarily to small groups who are relatively politically unpopular and to rights which many people see as being of secondary importance. In contrast, the radical elements of the Democratic party tend to promote policies which impact very fundamental rights and which would affect much larger portions of the population. In grade-school terms, the Republicans are like playground bullies who are going to take lunch money away from the whiney unpopular child who picks his nose in class, while the Democrats are the crusading parent who wants to ban recess for everyone because someone could get hurt on the playground.
The main bugaboo of the Republican party is the religious right. They're mostly out to get homosexuals and to ban abortion. Both of these issues target relatively small and unpopular segments of the population. Homosexuals are everywhere, but they're less than 10% of the population and they're out of the mainstream by definition. They are seen as alien, threatening and objects of derision by a lot of people, even though they may know better. Everyone knows that unplanned pregnancies are a problem, but underlying the surface sympathy is a resentment of the mother and a condemnation of the presumed promiscuousness which created the situation. Again, women seeking abortions are a small and powerless group and one which doesn't evoke a lot of genuine sympathy. In both of these examples most independent voters can easily say “what do I care, I'm not gay and I'm not going to get knocked up with an unwanted baby.”
The same holds true with the issues of the extreme 'law and order' Republicans. Most people don't plan to commit a murder so they don't mind the death penalty. Most look down on drug users so they put up with the War on Drugs. Most can even look at infringements of privacy rights under the 4th Amendment and not worry because they aren't criminals or terrorists and therefore have nothing to hide. Restrictions on social service programs are an acceptable evil because those people should work harder and provide for thesmelves. This attitude even extends to some degree to situations like the War in Iraq. It mostly afflicts people in a foreign country, and a very small number of US soldiers who volunteered to be there in the first place. In all these cases the independent, self-centered voter can frown and say “What does it matter to me? I'm not really directly hurt by any of this.”
The independent voter may not like any of these programs. They may be nominally pro-gay and pro-choice and anti-war and pro-drugs, etc. But when it comes down to making a choice most of them ultimately decide that if it doesn't hurt them directly it's an acceptable compromise.
In contrast, the more radical elements of the democratic party promote policies which independent voters find much more generally threatening. These are generally political objectives which go against the three most basic rights of life, liberty and property and which apply to the majority of people in the society.
Social reformers on the left want to implement 'economic justice', which to the independent voter means higher taxes to pay for more social welfare programs. That hits most voting citizens directly in the wallet. They aren't targeting some small and isolated group. They're threatening to take money away from everyone and give it to someone less deserving. That's…Dave Nalle has worked as a magazine editor, a freelance writer, a capitol hill staffer, a game designer and taught college history for many years. He now designs fonts for a living and lives with his family in a small town just outside Austin where he is ex-president of the local Lions Club. He is on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus and Politics Editor of Blogcritics Magazine. You can find his writings about fonts, art and graphic design at The Scriptorium. He also runs a conspiracy debunking site at IdiotWars.com.