David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
What do independent voters really want?
Independent voters are astonishingly volatile, writes columnist David Brooks. Democrats did poorly in elections on Tuesday partly because liberals think President Barack Obama is moving too slowly, but mostly because of anxious suburban independents who think he is moving too fast.
Liberals and conservatives each have their own intellectual food chains. They have their own think tanks to provide arguments, politicians and pundits to amplify them, and news media outlets to deliver streams of prejudice-affirming stories.
Independents, who are the largest group in the electorate, don't have any of this. They don't have institutional affiliations. They don't look to certain activist lobbies for guidance. There aren't many commentators who come from an independent perspective.
Independents are herds of cats who find out what they think through a meandering process of discovery. Right now, independent voters are astonishingly volatile. Democrats did poorly in elections on Tuesday partly because of disappointed liberals who think that President Barack Obama is moving too slowly, but mostly because of anxious suburban independents who think he is moving too fast. In Pennsylvania, there was an eight-point swing away from the Democrats among independents from a year ago. In New Jersey, there was a 12-point swing. In Virginia, there was a 13-point swing.
The most telling races this year were the suburban rebellions across the country. For example, in Westchester and Nassau counties in New York, Republican candidates came from nowhere to defeat entrenched Democratic county officials. In blue Pennsylvania, the GOP won six out of seven statewide offices.
Middle-class suburban voters who have been trending Democratic for a decade suddenly lurched out of the Democratic camp — and are now in play.
Why? What do these voters want?
The first thing to say is that this recession has hit the new suburbs hardest, exactly where independents are likely to live. According to a survey by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, 76 percent of suburbanites say they or someone they know has lost a job in the past year.
The second thing to say is that in this time of need, these voters are not turning to government for support. Trust in government is at its lowest level in recent memory. Over the past year, there has been a shift to the right on issue after issue. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who believe that there is too much government regulation rose from 38 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2009. The percentage of Americans who want unions to have less influence rose from 32 percent to a record 42 percent.
Americans have moved to the right on abortion, immigration and global warming. Over the past seven months, the number of people who say government is doing too many things better left to business has jumped from 40 percent to 48 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
According to that same survey, only 31 percent of Americans believe that the president and Congress "should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits." Sixty-two percent, twice as many, believe the president and Congress "should worry more about keeping the deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover."
These shifts have not occurred because conservatives and liberals have changed their minds. They haven't. The shift is among independents.
According to Gallup, the share of independents who describe their views as conservative has moved from 29 percent last year to 35 percent today. The share of independents who believe there is too much government regulation of business has jumped from 38 percent to 50 percent. Independents are in the position of a person who is feeling gravely ill at the same time he has lost faith in his doctor.
This does not mean that independents are turning into Republicans. GOP ratings are still in the toilet. But it does mean the Democrats have to fight to regain some of their most crucial supporters.
If I were a politician trying to win back independents, I'd say something like this: When I was a kid, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the U.S. Each state was a piece, and on it there was a drawing showing what people made there. California might have movies; Washington state, apples; New York, fashion or publishing. That puzzle represented an economy that was diverse and deeply rooted.
We've lost that. First Wall Street got disproportionately big, then Washington. It's time to return to fundamentals. No short-term fixes. Government should do what it's supposed to do: schools, roads, basic research. It should not be picking CEOs or setting pay or fizzing up the economy with more debt. It should give people the tools to compete, not rig the competition. Lines of restraint have dissolved, and they need to be restored.
Independents support the party that seems most likely to establish a frame of stability and order, within which they can lead their lives. They can't always articulate what they want, but they withdraw from any party that threatens turmoil and risk. As always, they're looking for a safe pair of hands.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.