What "Independent" Means To The Far Right

I recently moved from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area. After a few weeks here, working in San Francisco and living in Alameda, I am convinced that this move was a no-brainer and that I should have made it years ago. But I digress.

My move involved me driving in excess of 2,500 miles, including a little more than 40 hours of actual road time. Fortunately, I did not have to do this all in one shot, i.e., driving 14 hours a day for three days. I had some friends along the way who I met, which broke up the monotony considerably.

One of my stops was a side trip to Kansas City, where I met a good friend and former colleague of mine, as well as her husband and their new baby. My friend is a moderate Republican, and her husband is very conservative. We managed to find a way to discuss politics without any weapons being drawn, which was fortunate for me, because they have a lot of guns, and I do not. Go figure.

During my conversation with my friend’s husband, I finally came to understand something that has perplexed me for years. Although he is an uber-conservative who believes that everything Rush Limbaugh says is fact, he described himself as an “independent.”

As I mentioned, this is a phenomenon that has perplexed me since the onset of the Tea Party disease in 2009. As anyone who closely follows politics can attest, there is a large number of Tea Party adherents who describe themselves as “independents,” although it is clear that when they vote, they vote almost exclusively for Republicans and against Democrats.

The reason this confused me, at least until my conversation with my friend’s husband, is because my working definition of a political independent has always been someone who will vote for politicians of either major party, depending on which person appears, to the independent voter, to be the better candidate. An independent, by my definition, may vote more predominantly for one party or the other, but does at least on some regular occasion cross party lines. Up until the late 1990s, when it dawned on me that there weren’t very many Republicans who cared about anything beyond the preservation of wealth and privilege for a handful of Americans, I considered myself an independent and almost always found a Republican or two to vote for in every election—usually in some relatively modest office such as city council member, in which political ideology tended to take a back seat; there’s no liberal or conservative way to fix a broken street light.

And yet, there has been this explosion of Tea Party supporters who clearly would sooner be boiled alive and flayed than vote for a Democrat, but steadfastly refer to themselves as independents.

Well, I’m pleased to report, after my discussion in Kansas City, that I get it. Because what my friend’s husband made plain to me was that, to him, political independence means that he is independent of the Republican Party and its fortunes.

To explain: he’s never going to go out and vote for a Democrat, but he doesn’t give a flying crap about the Republican Party, either. While he is going to vote for Republican candidates pretty close to 100 percent of the time (except, perhaps, for the occasional Libertarian or Constitution party candidate that tickles his fancy), he isn’t particularly interested in whether the Republican Party sinks or swims. He isn’t interested in the party making compromises or moderating its principles for the purpose of winning elections. He’s going to adhere to principle, period. How the Republicans are going to win elections by spouting a grocery list of unpopular positions is their problem, not his.

All right. This makes absolutely no sense to me at all, but at least I get it now. To the Tea Party “independent,” it isn’t about splitting your ticket and voting for a few Democrats. It’s about only supporting those Republicans who are conservative enough for you. If this means Republicans lose the election well, gee, we didn’t really think about that, and that’s not our responsibility. (A Republican strategist, Myra Adams, recently wrote an excellent piece that addressed this issue. It’s good reading; very illuminating.)

So the next time some poll shows that “independents” favor a Republican candidate over a Democrat, keep in mind that a lot of these people calling themselves “independent” are not moderates, and if they don’t especially like the Republican candidate, hell, they might not even vote at all. Self-described “independents” supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Self-described moderates voted for Obama. We all know how that turned out.

The lesson here: the opinions of people who call themselves moderates are likelier to be closer to the actual results than the opinions of self-described independents. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t matter how many times someone calls it a unicorn; it’s a duck.