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Confessions Of An Independent Partisan

I've been a registered independent ever since I was old enough to vote. But in every election I've voted in (2000, 2004, 2005, 2006), I've voted for Democrats in every state or federal level race.

To some people, this makes me somehow dishonest or not a real independent. If the Democrats and the Republicans represent the only two choices, "independent" is conflated with "swing voter," someone who has not settled on one side or the other because their views are nebulous, hybrid, or centrist. A "real" independent is therefore someone who is in some way between the two parties. This shared betweenness makes it possible to talk about "independents" as a homogeneous group equivalent in some way to "Democrats" or "Republicans." Commenting on a recent Washington Post story about what independents think, Matt Yglesias declares that "Many independents are actually partisans." But I don't think it's inconsistent to be both.

To understand why, it's important to distinguish two forms of partisanship: ideological and institutional. Ideological partisanship means that your political views are consistently either liberal or consistently conservative. Institutional partisanship means loyalty to a political organization or party. The conventional analysis of independents conflates the two, assuming that if you're ideologically partisan, you should be institutionally partisan, since after all the parties exist to promote their respective ideologies, and when you go in the voting booth you have to advance your ideology by picking between parties. This tends to breed a sense of entitlement on the part of people who are partisan in both senses (visible most clearly in the incoherent rage directed against Ralph Nader and his supporters, and which is now brewing against Mike Bloomberg*).

But ideological and institutional partisanship are different things, because there's a lot more to politics than voting in elections and expressing ideological positions. It's been darkly hilarious to read blogs like Daily Kos this year, watching their former paeans to the virtues of the filibuster evaporate now that the Dems are on the recieving end**.

Being a registered independent is strictly an institutional matter. It allows me to maintain a pragmatic support for the Democratic Party at the ballot box while refusing to commit myself to any institutional loyalty to the party's goings-on. Since I'm not inclined to get involved in electoral campaign organizing, and I live in a state with a partially open primary, I gain nothing from joining a party.

*Lest I be misinterpreted, let me be clear that I never considered voting for Nader or Bloomberg.

**Yes, I'm sure they can surely come up with all kinds of rationalizations as to why the details of the two situations make them somehow totally different.


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