TCS Daily


The Emerging Independent Majority

By Uriah Kriegel - August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Big picture strategists in both the Democratic and Republican parties like to speculate on the "emerging [insert favorite party] majority." Yet the only trend in evidence is an emerging independent majority. A 2001 University of Michigan study claims that the number of self-described independents rose in the second half of the 20th century from 28% to 37% of the electorate.

If this figure remained steady, for one of the two big parties to secure 51% it would have to leave the other with at most 12%. This is unimaginable. And the number of self-described independents is only likely to keep rising.

How to explain this trend is not a matter that can be easily settled, but a good starting-point explanation is that a certain kind of political center has consolidated that is economically conservative and socially tolerant, if not liberal.

As the lower-middle class of American society becomes economically literate, and the upper middle class is increasingly savvy, they become more market-friendly. With a better grasp of the mechanisms by which markets generate and then disseminate wealth, the power of economic populism is on the decrease. To be sure, a trend such as this cannot be linear and necessarily experiences periods of ups and downs. But there is an inevitability to it that the far Left cannot acknowledge.

Correlatively, the far Right has its own limitation. As Americans of all walks of life are exposed to more and more variegated ways of doing things, through globalizing media and the expansion of multiculturalism (and multiethnicity), fear of the unknown gives way to readier acceptance of a spectrum of personal moralities. Tolerance and inclusion are on the rise, instinctual inward-looking and -shrinking in decline.

Here too, the trend does not progress linearly but has some wobbliness to it. Yet the trend is undeniable. To give just one example, in 1977, 34% of American thought homosexuality "acceptable"; today, the figure stands at 51%.

Because of the primary system, the emerging independent majority was bound to remain below the radar. But 2008 may be the year of the centrist. This new centrist front is a reaction to the emerging independent majority. Interestingly, it reflects the core of libertarian thought, embracing the Right's economic freedoms with the Left's social freedoms to create a unified platform highlighting individual responsibility and correlative opportunity, and opposing top-down intervention in one's economic affairs as well as the imposition of a particular personal mores by self-appointed moral authorities.

This libertarian platform is different from the official Libertarian party's platform in two ways. The first is foreign policy. The Libertarian party is expressly isolationist. The new centrist front is not. One reason for this may be the thought that individual freedom is a universal virtue, not a merely American one. The second is pragmatism. The Libertarian party has an absolutist and purist aspect to it. As a third party, this makes sense. But for a majority force, realistic policies that are inspired rather than fully determined by libertarian ideals are called for.

If I could propose another tenet for this centrist front, it would be Civility of Discourse. Centrists are well positioned to realize that people on the other side of the divide are rarely mean-spirited or deeply unintelligent, but are more likely misguided. With this realization in mind, one would be less likely to accuse one's sitting president of stupidity and treason, or verbally abuse a grieving mother of a dead American soldier.

The disproportion between the weak showings of the Libertarian party in general elections and the fundamental and pervasive libertarian thinking in our national spirit has been a rather curious fact of the American public life. The emerging independent majority is a way the system organically rectifies this oddity and set it straight.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.

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