By and Large, Independent Voters are Just Healthier
According to a recent Gallup poll, 49% of Americans now identify as being politically independent. These Independent voters can be hard to categorize, as they span the political spectrum, but their overriding characteristic is they do not want to be identified as part of a group. They refuse to surrender the entirety of their thinking to a party, preferring to identify as an individual.
These voters, in large mass, are giving up on political parties, using their voter registration as an opportunity to reject the tribalism and divisions of partisan politics. This rejection is good news for many Americans who are recovering their sense of agency and preserving the values of America’s Founding Fathers. So, what are some of the psychological and sociopolitical benefits of more voters becoming independent?
The United States is being deeply challenged by the extremes of both political parties. Both political extremes reject American principles based on the rights of the individual. Both radicalized groups are centered on race. The alt-right argues whites are being displaced and the radical left argues “the patriarchy’s lack of understanding is because of white privilege.” Both have a distorted view of power and leadership. They want leadership and power to dominate their perceived oppressors. They are unhappy with the constraints placed on them by a free society that prioritizes the rights of individuals. The alt-right increasingly opposes free elections, and the politically left increasingly wants limits on free speech.
Extremists on the left and right are driven by oppressor-victim ideologies, with each side identifying itself as the victim, while they excuse their own excesses. Thus, in the mind of an extremist, evil is comprised of an external enemy and not an internal conflict. This mindset has allowed for great historical and present-day atrocities.
One of the psychological drivers of oppressor-victim ideologies is the desire to be right. Winning an argument releases dopamine and adrenaline, which provides “an intense feeling of reward.” By repeating the simple constructs and narratives of a given ideology, group members feel knowledgeable, empowered, and as if they are challenging the status quo, which gives rise to growing conspiracy theories and falsified data. The feeling of being morally superior creates a psychological high. When this “reward” sensation is felt, individuals want to repeat it, and thus the addiction forms.
As members of extremist ideologies become more immersed in those ideas and constructs, they often alienate their loved ones. Unfortunately, when one becomes more ideologically obsessed, there are no experts or a set of facts that will dislodge the extreme ideas. In fact, any attempts to do so often leads them to become more violent.
When one registers into a political party, it is more than a statement of beliefs. It is a social identification that also connects one to the excesses of that party. This is part of tribalism. It is human nature that when the extremists of two opposing parties collide, even if they violate the very principles that make us Americans, one feels pulled to defend their party’s own excesses, even if they personally disagree with those excesses. When radical rhetoric is not defensible, moral relativism is then used to suggest that the other party’s outgroup is worse morally. As a result of this process, individuals become more psychologically indoctrinated to the excesses of their own tribe.
Tribalism and divisiveness in politics are on the rise and as Jonathan Haidt describes in his book, The Righteous Mind, the underlying problem is our belief that we are right and thus opposing views are wrong. But this begs a bigger question, why do we defend members of our tribe when they do not represent our personal values?
The psychological mechanism of cognitive dissonance occurs when a person’s beliefs and behaviors may contradict one another, which causes discomfort and tension. To reduce this inconsistency, people can convince themselves that they believe in something when they really don’t. The motivation to reduce this tension can have some deleterious consequences, because of the desire to maintain the ego, self-image, and social desirability. Thus, the non-extreme members of the party are willing to give up on certain values in exchange for the comfort that belonging to a social group offers. Personal values then adjust, and the sense of individual responsibility is lost, with responsibility instead being transferred to the group at large.
Terrifying the political base has become a very profitable model. Social media platforms utilize it to keep users online longer. The nightly news has now picked sides, which they use to build loyalty. If they can terrify you, they engage your amygdala. This hijacks the neo-cortex to stop your ability to be rational, creative, or optimistic. Once engaged, it has a severe impact on a person’s ability to maintain agency. It creates stress, anxiety, and sometimes even trauma. Registering as an Independent or unaffiliated voter helps us avoid this partisan amygdala hijack.
As Independent voters grow in numbers, they will demand reforms. Today, the existing parties have created rules that discriminate against these voters and candidates. They exclude unaffiliated voters in primaries and create unreasonable signature requirements to keep them off the ballot. Thanks to gerrymandering, over 70% of the 500,000 elected offices are decided in the primary, making it so that Independent voters have no say. The result of this has been to further empower the extremists of each party.
Individuals untethered to a party, have a greater potential to be less tribal. This can help heal the divisions of our country and empower the individual. One can be more curious, more creative, more open, and humbler. It allows people to want to learn more and leads to a recognition that a person’s identity is not tied to their ideas. It can help foster friendships, partnerships, and relationships. The increasing identification by Americans as unaffiliated voters is a big step towards healing, which is something worth fighting for.