Political heterodoxy is rare, but the brand is extremely popular
Decades of polling are at odds with how we talk about heterodoxy in the media.
Listen to political discourse about partisanship and heterodoxy and you’ll inevitably encounter a few recurring ideas. Partisanship, we are told, is increasingly popular, while heterodoxy is increasingly reviled. Partisans tend to march in lockstep with their party and independents do not. And of course, the premise underlying all of this: that when we talk about partisans and independents, we are talking about two distinct and easily recognized groups.
None of this is true.
Decades of polls and studies show that Americans live in a very different country than the one you hear about in our discourse. Take their findings seriously and what you’ll find is an America where heterodoxy is extremely popular — so popular that most partisans have heterodox views, and a reliable fraction of them won’t even admit that they’re partisan. This is true despite the reality of political polarization, and has profound implications for how we talk about it.
Radicals love to talk about conformity. Why are their politics so unpopular? Because Americans want to fit in. They want to belong. This means throwing their lot in with one of the two major parties, often at the expense of principle and integrity. And it also means throwing under the bus those brave, heroic souls who value their independence and refuse to become one of the sheeple.
There’s a reason this sounds convincing to so many people, but it has nothing to do with the unique courage and conviction of the radicals. Here’s the reality:
Two trends worth paying attention to here. The first is that “independent” is hardly a marginal position in the United States — in fact, since Gallup started polling on this 34 years ago, it has been the most popular political position in our country. Even if we lump Democrats and Republicans together as “partisans” independents are still more than a third of the electorate. And second — support for partisanship is falling while support for independence is soaring.
When we talk about people who position themselves as opposed to and independent from the parties or ordinary left / right categories as understood by most Americans, we are not talking about some tiny faction of beleaguered rebels being crushed by the pressures of conformity. We’re talking about an entirely mainstream and popular politics with its own media, its own politicians, and widespread public approval. No one should be surprised by this — independence, freethinking, and nonconformity have always been central values in American political thought.
And that, of course, is why “heterodox” thinkers in our media spend so much time branding themselves this way. They don’t do it in brave defiance of the public; it’s a way of pandering to a public that has always loved rebels and iconoclasts.
Most voters have heterodox politics
So far we’ve just looked at how Americans self-identify, but if we look at where Americans stand on substantive issues, the point becomes even stronger. Here’s a chart from Pew you’ve probably seen before:
One way to read this chart is to conclude that the median Democrat and median Republican are pretty far apart. But another point to notice is that this is an M chart, not a U chart — the ends go down, not up. And the reason for this is simple: most people are not consistent liberals or consistent conservatives. Most voters have heterodox politics.
This may seem obvious, but again, listen to how our “heterodox” pundits talk about it. On one hand, they routinely frame literally any departure from the party line, for whatever reason, as some kind of rare heroic act that sets one apart from the zombies marching in “lockstep” under the party banner. On the other, there’s the corollary: if you want to prove that you’re a heterodox thinker, rather than an ordinary partisan, all you have to do is point out some issues where you disagree with the party line.
Heterodoxy is a brand
Contrary to what we’ve been told, then, heterodoxy is neither unpopular nor rare. Your average person is extremely unlikely to hold consistent ideological views and is more likely to identify with one of the major parties.
In fact, the heterodoxy brand is so popular that people love to identify as independent even when they aren’t — not in any meaningful sense. Here are some previously unpublished numbers, courtesy of Pew:
Independents may scorn partisan labels, but if you ask them which way they are leaning at the moment, a supermajority of respondents will name one of the parties. And for a very long time now, one of the most consistent findings in political science is that “independent” leaners are just as partisan as everyone else. They take the same positions, they vote the same way, they have the same demographic backgrounds.
To complicate the picture even further: most true independents aren’t even politically active; only around a third of them even bother to vote. So in other words, when you hear someone who is active in politics describe themselves as independent, there’s less than a 10% chance they actually are.
And by the way - as you may have gathered from the trendlines, those odds are only getting worse. The number of true independents has been pretty static over the years: roughly 10% of all voters. The number of pseudo-independents, meanwhile, has been steadily climbing: from 24% in 1994 to 30% today.
The data I’ve laid out here speaks for itself, and undermines, one-by-one, multiple core claims of the “heterodox” narrative. With this in mind I’d like to propose an alternative hypothesis; it engages in some dot connecting, but it’s simple, elegant, and has the additional advantage of being supported by facts.
Pseudo-independents — people who identify as independents, but who are otherwise politically indistinguishable from everyone else — are probably the largest political group in the United States. As of 2018 there were already more of them (30%) than people who call themselves Republicans (26%), and they were on course to surpass Democrats (at 31%).
The growth of this faction almost certainly explains what, at first glance, seems like a paradox: the fact that even as Americans become more polarized, they are also becoming more likely to identify as independent. Polarization is driving more people to call themselves independent, even if substantially they aren’t. One of many implications of this is that pseudo-independents are likely to see their utterly ordinary “dissent” from their preferred party as less common and more radical than it actually is. That’s why rhetoric about sheeple / hiveminds / purity is so widespread among pseudo-independents: not because reflexive partisanship is as big a problem as they make it out to be, but rather because the specter of purity is necessary to make their meager quibbling with the party look like profound dissent in contrast.
Call it heterodox ideology: a constellation of shared beliefs, perspectives, and values that has emerged among people who think they are more independent than they actually are. This group is directly comparable in size to Democrats and Republicans, and their emergence seems directly linked to political polarization in our country. Whether cause or effect, pseudo-independents deserve our attention.