Understanding political parties by looking beyond them: Independents in Congress

Since I began working on my research, the focus of my project has shifted substantially. Initially, I proposed a project that would contrast the social and fiscal policies of the two major political parties to highlight issues of ideological consistency within each: in conversations with friends and professors, I realized that despite my education and interest in American politics, there were still aspects of both parties that I didn’t quite understand, mostly connected to their internal cohesiveness as bodies uniting diverse groups of people around common beliefs. The scope of such a project was extremely daunting and unrealistic to complete in fulfillment of the Presidential fellowship. The Fall Leadership Conference proved instrumental in the process of refining my research focus as I worked to clearly explain my perspective and research interests to other fellows. The feedback I received was thoughtful and constructive, and it proved crucial in helping me to move forward.

Dealing with the scope of my project has been one of my greatest challenges. At first, I worked to narrow the focus of my project so significantly that it would be manageable within the time and page constraints of the fellowship project. In this spirit, I sought an indirect but nevertheless significant way of researching the ideological bases of the political parties. I want this project to help me understand how the parties are similar ideologically, whether their ideological differences set apart the two organizations distinctly, and how an improved understanding of both organizations—independently and as components of a greater system of partisanship—can impact future political decisions for elected officials and voters alike. To do this, I decided to focus my research on members of Congress who moved away from their political parties to become partisan independents. Together, these criteria yielded four members of Congress: Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia (1965-1983), Representative Virgil Goode of Virginia (1997-2008), Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont (1989-2007), and Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (1989-2003). Within the first draft of my paper, I only included Byrd and Jeffords because of the project constraints, but I plan to expand the project to include at least one if not both of the other examples. Both Goode’s and Lieberman’s cases would complicate the project in distinct ways. Lieberman’s party switched occurred in the midst of a reelection campaign and provided a means to run for reelection despite losing the Democratic primary election for his Senate seat. This marks an important distinction from Byrd’s and Jeffords’s party shifts, neither of which occurred in the immediate context of a reelection campaign. Nonetheless, electoral pressures are ever-present for members of Congress, and so this point perhaps isn’t too distinctive. Goode’s case presents a unique caveat in that he was elected a Representative rather than Senator. Politics across the two legislative chambers differ substantially, and so I’m slightly hesitant about the additional considerations required by such a comparative project across cases. Given the constraints of the Presidential Fellowship project, does it make sense to incorporate all four distinct cases despite their differences? Would it restrict the applicability of my project to only center my research on three cases?

In moving forward with my project, I’m also concerned about the applicability of my project given its now very narrow scope. Through my research, I want to be able to say something substantial about partisanship in general, and I’m worried about being able to make broader claims about American partisanship using these four very particular cases. To me, they seem like very valuable examples, despite how particular they are, but I would love to hear others’ perspectives, too.

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