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Independents, the media and the duopoly dialogue

by Damon Eris, published

As we approach the 2012 elections, there are sure to be innumerable discussions in the political press about how the Democratic and Republican parties should reach out to and address the concerns of Independent voters, who constitute a large and growing segment of the electorate.  But what if Independents aren’t listening? 

The percentage of registered voters in California who do not follow news about government and public affairs has slowly but steadily increased over the last forty years, according to a Field Poll (.pdf) released late last month.  25% of the survey’s respondents stated that they rarely or hardly ever follow news related to government and politics. 

That is an increase of five percentage points since the 1990’s and almost ten since 1979, when 16% of Californians stated that they rarely if ever followed political news.  41% of respondents to the most recent poll stated that they follow news on government and public affairs most of the time, and 33% said they do so some of the time. 

Compared with Republicans and Democrats, Independents and third party supporters are the least likely to keep tabs on our elected officials.  Just 30% of self-identified “nonpartisans” and political “others” said they follow what’s going on in government and public offices most of the time, while 37% said they follow such news some of the time, and 32% reported that they hardly ever keep up with public affairs. 

Republicans were most likely to be politically engaged, with 50% saying they follow public affairs most of the time and 29% stating that they do so sometimes.  Among Democrats, 41% stated that they follow political developments most of the time, while 34% said they do so some of the time. 

It is not difficult to comprehend why individuals who do not affiliate with either of the major parties would be less politically engaged than self-described Democrats and Republicans.  The refusal to identify with any party whatsoever is, in itself, a rejection of the politics that dominate our government and public affairs.  On the other hand, despite the lip service that is paid to Independents by the representatives of the major parties and several of their mouthpieces in the mainstream media, Independent viewpoints are systematically excluded from our nation’s political dialogue. 

On cable news, Independents are rarely even included in discussions of political Independents!  Instead, the viewer is much more likely to be presented with what passes for a debate between Democratic and Republican party strategists. Much the same can be said of the political press in general.  

If you can reasonably predict the semi-scripted talking points that will be regurgitated by the token representatives of the major parties, and are virtually certain that no other point of view will be included in the discussion, one could easily be forgiven for choosing to spend one’s time in pursuit of other interests. 

There is a very simple reason why Republicans watch Fox News and Democrats favor MSNBC.  Those outlets represent and articulate their viewpoints and concerns.  But where are Independents to turn if they are flipping through the channels looking for someone who effectively speaks for them, who gives voice to their thoughts and ideas?  

Though there are more Americans who refuse to identify with the Democratic or Republican party than there are Democrats or Republicans, as numerous surveys and polls have found, our national discourse is dominated by the factionalists of the major parties.  Is it any wonder Independents are more likely to tune out than tune in?