It's a truism that national elections are about two things: turnout of the base, and persuading the middle 20% of the electorate that vacillates back and forth between the parties.
It's this middle 20% of independents I find the most frustrating.
The hardcore 22% Republicans (I use that figure because that was the bottom favorability rating for Dick Cheney, and if you're going to approve of Dick Cheney and his subordinate GWB, you're never going to learn) I sort of understand. They're deluded and fearful and there's no helping them except by improving the schools their children go to, reducing the number of toxins they ingest and breathe in the hopes their neurons will fire faster, or providing them with better opportunities at life experience so the chance that their damaged amygdalas will get repaired.
Our own Democratic party is diverse, and I won't address herein the issues about winning elections that seem sadly idiosyncratic to our own species of pointless divisions. Suffice it to say I still love our party and our peeps, despite our many warts and defects.
But that middle group that call themselves independents -- apparently proudly so -- seem to have the inexplicable ability to completely forget what was going on 20, 10, even two years ago when they voted the "opposite" way.
For a generation, the Democratic Party has produced remarkably ideologically consistent, technocratic nominees. They've had varying levels of vision and ability to inspire, but Obama, Kerry, Gore, Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale, and Carter -- they've all been very centrist-oriented, pragmatic moderates whose major political vice has been being fleetingly honest about what needs to be done. You might argue there's been a drift toward the center here (belying the "socialist" bellyaching from the right, who wouldn't know a socialist if they came up and actually did pick their pockets while giving them a gay-smooch), but having been involved in Presidential politics since I was forced to stuff envelopes for Shirley Chisolm in second grade (which I now consider a badge of honor), I just don't see a lot of variation in positions and issues beyond some slight historical evolution. Examples: going from Jimmy Carter confessing Lust in His Heart to Barack Obama playing catch-up on Gay Marriage; Carter deploying the MX missile and being accused of selling out our national defense, Obama whacking Osama and Qaddafi and being accused of selling out our national defense; Carter providing overly cautious fiscal restraint in the face of an economic situation that clearly required government reinvestment, Obama providing slightly less fiscal restraint in the face of a more severe economic situation that required even greater government reinvestment.
The same cannot be said at all of Republican candidates. Since ditching the moderate and liberal wings of their party starting in the 1964 election, and inventing the lamentable but temporarily effective "Southern Strategy" starting in 1968, it's clearly drifted into an increasingly bizarrely inconsistent world of conflicting urges stemming from a combination of appetites located deeply within its collective id.
So why is it that independents flock back and forth between the parties? The conventional explanation is that the country has been moving center-right from a liberal base. I find this hard to accept for several reasons, not the least of which is if you poll the public on issue after issue, the Democratic nominees have been to the right of what the public says it wants. Particularly independents.
There's a facile answer, of course, which is that independents are not ideologically committed, and therefore tend to vote for "same" if they're personally happy, or "different" if they're personally unhappy. It may be as simple as this.
But this really argues people have a far shorter-term outlook, and memory, than they ought. After all, independents tend to also be middle-aged or older, and these demographics are not as subject as younger voters to the manipulations of history we get in the media. In fact, the less ideologically committed you are as a youth, the older you get, the less likely you will become ideologically committed to either party.
Of course, the GOP's ever-increasing reliance on confusion and outright lying and media manipulation can be blamed here. It's an effective tactic to persuade the otherwise disengaged-from-politics, because it's like throwing a squirrel in front of the dog from "Up". It distracts them just long enough to act impetuously (I believe the 2004 election is a classic case, where Kerry tanked in the polls in a mere month thanks to the leaked Osama tape/manipulation and the Swiftboating.) But I still give most people more credit than this.
Many of these folks might have been more lightly committed to a party in a previous age. For example, so-called "Reagan Democrats" whose parents might have had a good union job back in the day and thus some allegiance to the Democrats, but whose kids work part-time at Starbucks while they worry about their 401(k)s. Or Liberal Republicans who can't quite fathom the old Republican party's descent into the moral nihilism (yes, an oxymoron I know but I'm standing by it) of social conservatism but are not comfortable with the concept of interventionist national government. It seems impossible to give these kinds of folks a really good reason to start telling themselves "I'm a Democrat" without the level of street-level civic identification with parties we formerly had in this country.
I sense, at least in conversations with friends and acquaintances who are in this category, that there's a deep division between belief in the long-term virtues of this country and short-term anxieties about their own place in it. They're often too busy coping with life to be able to engage in activism of any sort, much less political activism.
And, not to belittle the group - far from it - this is what I think it comes down to: attention span. Being busy, occupied with screen-based devices, having many obligations, and being media-bathed, the "independents" describes the segment of our population that is distractable, more reactive, more sensitive to sensibilities than facts when stressed but which will reasonably consider common sense when presented with the time and opportunity to do so, and in general torn between those long-term and short-term horizons on a daily basis, they remain "independent" in part due to their planning scale.
If you're poor and subject to these same conditions of life, you'll still vote Democratic -- if you're allowed to by restrictive voting requirements -- because no matter how distracted you get the facts of your life are in front of you and the choice is stark. If you're ideologically committed to progressivism, you might make the occasional Freaky Friday flip to Republicanism (I've known a few well-off, well-educated folks who've flipped in both directions after having been an activist on one side or another) but it's unlikely you'll pass through the middle tier.
I suppose the thesis I have, with my own political bias on display, is that I believe independents when they vote Republican have tended to vote against their own interests (a variation on the "What's the Matter with Kansas?" theme) and that they're really coming home when they vote for Democrats, at least for the National office. But I remain perplexed and pondering as to how to get independents to make that shift outside of engaging in a fire-with-fire media/classic campaign approach.
The other until now unspoken theme I've got going here is that the campaigns in the fall seem invariably pointed at the "Squirrel!" issues that are most likely to catch the middle 20%'s interest. Being able to set the "Squirrel!" issues agenda seems critical for the short term -- and obviously in this cycle the Republicans are doing the Democratic Party a great favor by making their "Squirrel!" issues ones that cater to their base but which will fill independents with great loathing if they linger into the fall. But I'd like to find ways in the long term of moving away from having our quadrennial national conversation so utterly focussed on such generally peripheral issues.
Converting the conversation to me seems the key to rebuilding a permanent majority, one that has more of an opportunity for progressive voices to be heard in proportion to the issues-orientation of the public. On that point, I remain searching.