Unaffiliated or independent?

2 minute read

In the course of commenting on voter turnout today, HoCo Rising complained about use of the term unaffiliated to describe voters who don’t register as Republicans or Democrats:

Do you get the feeling that Boards of Election went out of their way to give a more passive word like unaffiliated as opposed to the affirmative stance of independent? Reminds me of an [Orwell essay](http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit)...

I’ll mildly disagree with HCR on this point. I don’t think unaffiliated is that bad an example of bureaucratic language, and it’s certainly not an Orwellian euphemism on the scale of, say, referring to taxes as revenue enhancers. It has the advantage of being precise, and of not claiming more than the evidence warrants: These are simply voters who have chosen not to be affiliated with a political party, no more, no less.

The problem with taking an affirmative stance and calling these people independents is that it claims more than it should. The word independent has positive connotations in the context of U.S. history (the Declaration of Independence and all that), so calling these voters independent causes us to think of them as being somehow special in the context of present-day U.S. politics. Other positive connotations of the word independent (e.g., as in independent thinker) also lead us to believe that these voters act in a way that is qualitatively different and in some sense better than party members, for example, evaluating and voting for the best candidates without much consideration of their parties.

However as I’ve previously written (and will keep repeating until someone provides a convincing argument to the contrary), the available evidence seems to suggest that most independent voters are simply closet Republicans or Democrats who for whatever reason don’t want to declare a formal affiliation with either of these parties. In addition, those people who are truly independent, i.e., have no real party preference, are typically less politically engaged than the leaners and turn out at lower rates. They’re essentially independent because they don’t care all that much about who gets elected.

So the bottom line is that in my opinion use of the word independent in a U.S. political context promotes sloppy thinking, and it’s better to use a word like unaffiliated to help prevent sloppy thinking.

Two more points: First, in my opinion the correct terminology is really unaffiliated and other, since there are in fact other political parties than the Democratic and Republican parties, though the deck is stacked against them given the current structure of the U.S. political system. However the Libertarian Party and Green Party in particular have been able to maintain national and state party structures, field candidates at all levels, and even get them elected in some cases. (At present the Libertarian Party has no elected office-holders in Maryland, while the Green Party has a handful at the local level.)

Finally, it’s an interesting footnote in Maryland political history (which I discovered while researching Maryland turnout statistics and looking at the report for 2008) that in fact there is (or at least was) a Maryland Independent Party that managed to attract a fair number of registered voters who thought they were declaring themselves as independents. It was unceremoniously dispatched to that big voting booth in the sky just a few months ago; for the complete (and quite entertaining) story see the Frederick News-Post article State elections board dissolves Independent Party.