In the 1960’s over 90% of all voters identified as Democratic or Republican. Today 42% of voters identify as independent.
These independent voters are still more likely to support Democratic or Republican policies. So as rational voters in a two party system they still consistently lean towards one legacy party or another. Which means the growing number of independent voters isn’t all due to policy differences with the Democrats and Republicans. So why are voters who consistently vote no Republican or Democrat policies not joining those party? Something is happening.
American democracy also has foundational values largely informed by the enlightenment. Though it’s true that we have too often fallen short of achieving or honoring these values, these are still American democracy foundational values even if imperfect in implementation. When our government works best, it has adhered to American democracy foundational values. The rights of the minority; hard work; honoring public service ; the democratic process; fairness; equality; equal economic opportunity; justice; fair play.
So how does a person – a voter – react when a political group whose policies she generally supports no longer honors some of the important fundamental moral foundations and American democracy foundation values? It seems logical that they’d quit that organization, though in our two party system, they’d still continue voting in a logical pattern in support if the party candidates due to policy position.
In other words, you’d see the party affiliation trends we are now experiencing. Growing numbers of independents, reducing membership in the Democratic and Republican (legacy) Parties.
The American Values Voter
Today’s independent voter is the modern American values voter. We are identified by the weight we place on moral foundations and American democracy foundational values when making political decisions. Not that partisan voters ignore these foundational values, but there key differences between American values voters and many legacy party partisan voters.
Partisans give more weight than independents to loyalty to the party rather than the moral foundational value voters. Independent American value voters have freed themselves from the loyalty to party value so give more weight to whether a particular candidate adheres to our moral foundations and American democracy foundational values. Polling showed for instance that independent American values voters were reluctant to vote for Roy Moore even if they were closer to him on policy matters. Republican Partisans believed it was more important to have a Republican in the Senate and were willing to overlook his serious violation of moral foundational values.
That’s not to say that policy isn’t important to Independent American values voters or that moral foundational values aren’t important to partisans. But American values voters do care more about how a candidate incorporates moral foundational values and American democracy values into their candidacy, relationships and actions. In fact, for many, it’s the most important trait of a candidate. Modern American values voters can accept a candidate that has a different position than we do on school vouchers perhaps, but we’re unlikely to support a candidate who agrees with us on vouchers but ridicules the rule of law in a tweet.
Some Defining Characteristics of the American Value voter
American values voters may be clustered around the traditional political center, but they also include very liberal and very conservative voters who understand the importance of our American democracy foundational values and their importance to our Democratic institutions.
Core characteristics of the modern American value voter could include:
Fairness and justice: Today party operatives and political advisers – the political industry – have largely ignored fairness and honesty. They use technology, the media, voting barriers and importantly the inherent weakness of our election architecture that allows just two political parties to challenge for power, to divide us into two tribes using hate, anger and fear. They find more success by making us distrust and fear anyone not part of our tribe. Modern Values voters are disgusted by the political games that have undermined our democracy. (In a recent Pew Research poll, they found 71% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats cite the harm from the opposing party’s policies as a major reason to affiliate with their party.)
Character: Protecting minority interests requires the powerful to have good will and to act fairly. Negotiating with your loyal opposition requires honesty. Being a part of the opposition caucus requires loyalty to our democratic institutions. Asking Americans to sacrifice requires the willingness to self sacrifice. Elected officials who lack character seldom veer from established party dogma because doing so may create a primary revolt from the zealot party activist base motivated by fear and anger. Honest disagreement within a party based on a matter of conscience or character or legitimate disagreement on fact is a rare thing today.
Loyalty to American values, Country over party: Independent Value voters honor our democratic process and our men and women in uniform. Most independents recognize and admit to the flaws of our country, including the greatest flaw – America’s original sin – but we also recognize our strengths of institutions, and our people. Importantly, Independent American values voters believe in country over party. They reject tribalism and are loyal to all peoples of America and not just the “ingroup” represented by party affiliation.
Authority and respect: Independents understand the value of our constitutional democratic process and institutions. That we can’t always win but we must respect the authority of the outcome. They know that an independent judiciary is vital to freedom and liberty. They respect wisdom, education, science, and institutions that have those values.
Hope and working together: As contrary as it may seem, independent modern American values voters seek to work together for the betterment of our country and world, and actually have hope in America. It may not always seem that way. Independents will vent, display frustration, or be critical of our governance and elections. But that’s because of our frustration at how the current political elite continue operate in violation of moral foundational values and American democratic values. It’s why we’ve left the legacy parties. And why we’re looking for a new path to restore moral and American democratic values.
What Impact Will American Values voters make?
Independent voters represent an unmet demand for candidates elections and processes that represent American democratic foundational values. But our current election architecture makes viable independent or third party candidacies rare and building a third party difficult because under our current first past the post voting architecture there’s really only room for two parties. There is a possibility that the Democratic or Republican party will decide to focus on character and American democratic values. But the sad fact is, tribalism and fear is more powerful than hope, and the current strategies of dividing us into tribes has worked. And from a business standpoint, no political consultant has ever lost a job by giving the same advice that every other consultant offers.
The best path may be in States that allow citizen initiatives, such as Oregon, where the people can petition for a change to their election choice architecture. This would be vehemently opposed by the entrenched political industry and the Democratic and Republican Party leadership. In Maine the people passed Ranked Choice voting by initiative and both legacy party leadership did all they could to subvert the reforms. But, a modern American value movement could use States as proving grounds for different reforms. There are plenty of new values voters who would support such a path if they could be organized to contribute, walk, talk and work.
The need and demand is out there. Americans have always been innovators. We need some political innovation right now.