Voters who declare themselves independent of partisan affiliation are ascendant in the American electorate.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 34% described themselves as politically independent, outnumbering self-described Democrats (33%) and Republicans (29%).
In California, voters who decline to declare any party affiliation reportedly surpassed registered Republicans this year, becoming the second largest voting bloc, behind Democrats. (Two decades ago, independents were just 12% of the state’s electorate.)
Although there is some debate over how independent these voters truly are, their self-designation suggests an abandonment of partisanship for a different ideal: casting a ballot for the individual who seems best in a given race.
I myself embrace that approach and its upsides.
Unscrupulous politicians find their way into both parties, so blind loyalty to either causes good people to support power-hungry reprobates. Little wonder that voting independent has growing appeal, or that it may prove beneficial in state and local races.
There is a strong case for voting purely by party affiliation in the House races, without any regard for the personal attributes of candidates.
As George Washington warned, excessive attachment to political parties “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another,” and “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption.”
In the 2018 midterm elections, however, my calculus is different.
There is a strong case for voting purely by party affiliation in the House races, without any regard for the personal attributes of candidates, only the tiny (R) or (D) next to their names. The reason is simple: President Trump.
The most consequential matter before voters in 2018 is whether Trump will continue to enjoy the endless support of a Congress controlled by his fellow Republicans, or confront a Democratic House that checks his power.
The stakes are wide-ranging and significant.
There is the matter of whether Robert Mueller will be allowed to finish and make public his investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, and, by extension, the question of whether Americans will be allowed to review his findings.
If Democrats take the House, there is some assurance that the truth will come out, whatever it may be. If Republicans retain their majority, the probe could be ended or its findings could be suppressed.
Corruption is another concern. If Democrats win at least one chamber of Congress, they are likely to investigate the glaring irregularities in Trump’s tax history and the appearance that he is using the presidency to increase his fortune. The GOP, on the other hand, is likely to keep ignoring the red flags.
Trump’s unusual impulsiveness and unpredictability — as when he vacillates between nuclear saber-rattling with North Korea and professions of love for its dictator — makes it especially critical to empower an opposition party.
A member of Trump’s own administration claimed in an anonymous op-ed that members of the Cabinet are working to constrain his worst impulses. But Trump can tell any of those people “You’re fired” at any moment, and fellow Republicans whose career prospects depend on their partisan loyalty might not object.
Republicans and right-leaning independents will be most averse to a Democratic House. But they’d benefit as much as any other American from insurance against the whims of this erratic president. Even if they think more highly of Trump, the United States is always most vulnerable to abuses of presidential power under one-party rule.
For all these reasons and more, I’m setting aside my usual inclination to support individual candidates and relative aversion to the Democratic Party in this year’s midterm elections.
The tumult of 2018 underscores Yeats’ lament that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Divided government is the best hedge against harm by the worst. And at this moment, a Democratic House majority is the only way to secure it.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.