Voices & Choices

Book Review: 'Independent Politics' by Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov

Book Review: 'Independent Politics' by Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov

In “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction,” Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov do the impossible - taking a survey-driven approach to studying the political psychology of American independent voters.

Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction. Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov. Cambridge University Press. 2016.

Attempting to understand American voters – their politics, their preferences, and their beliefs – is a nigh-impossible endeavor, but Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov do the impossible in “Independent Politics.” Taking a survey-driven approach to studying the political psychology of independents, Klar and Krupnikov teach the reader the thought processes of this chronically misunderstood segment of the American electorate. Even the characterization that voters not affiliated with a party are a monolithic segment of the American electorate is proven to be deficient at best and misinformation at worst.

Let’s start with the basics, as the authors do in chapters one and two. As of a March 2019 Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans are affiliated with one of the two major parties: Democratic or Republican. Another 38 percent of voters are independent. The final five percent are third party voters or made no selection in the survey. In what is apparently common knowledge among political scientists, around 70 to 80 percent of independents regularly vote along party lines for Democratic or Republican candidates.

Klar and Krupnikov focus on that 70 to 80 percent of independent voters allied with a party, who they deem “undercover partisans.” Undercover partisans support one party in elections, but fail to rally behind that party when it needs more than just support at the polling place. Klar and Krupnikov find, in chapters three, four and seven, that undercover partisans disdain cross-party disagreement, but expect their preferred party to never compromise on the issues those voters deem most important.

This book begs to be read by anyone wishing to understand the currents of American politics. While the media and some political candidates treat the opinions of the independent voter as the voice of the true American electorate, Klar and Krupnikov show in chapters five and six that undercover partisans are as ideological as the parties themselves. They just choose not to show it through party affiliation or other outward-facing political action, which leaves parties without much leverage when it comes time to exercise the power given to them in elections.

Political persuasion is an intensely personal and private thing for most Americans. In a country where individualism and self-sufficiency are idealized, your identity is supposed to be shaped only by you. Political parties, on the other hand, rely on collective action and adherence to a shared set of beliefs for success. The tension between these created by this political reality forms the basis for the fascinating research Klar and Krupnikov undertake in “Independent Politics.” What happens when individualistic Americans who want to support political parties see Members of Congress from their party in heated, public debates in which those representatives, and the party itself, look combative or aggressive? Chapter three shows that many Americans choose individualism over party: they hide their true partisan preferences in order to maintain appearances, and weaken their party as a result.

For all that Klar and Krupnikov show in this book, they uncover even more to investigate. Pure independent voters, people who do not vote along party lines at all and range from 6 to 15 percent of the American voting public, still seem like a mystery. Some surveys covered in chapter eight hint that pure independents are a set of voters who do desire compromise above ideology. What would compromise look like to them? Does this set of voters hold a consistent set of views on politics and policy?  Or are they, too, fractured into different sets of ideas, splintered along the many fault lines of American politics? For now, those questions remain unresolved. Until that research is done, we’ll have to content ourselves with the groundbreaking, comprehensive, and sometimes confounding results of Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov’s research in to the political psychology of undercover partisans.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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