The short answer is that while most centrists are independents, and most independents are in what we call the ‘big tent center (centrists and moderates leaning one way or another on the American political spectrum), those two political labels do not mean the same thing.
Most Centrists are Independents, but Not the Same Thing
Being a centrist means that your views put you in the center area of the political spectrum of the nation you live in. If you’re just talking a left to right depiction of the political spectrum, then typically you’ll see the spectrum broken up into 3 (left, center and right) to maybe upwards of 9 (for example fringe-left, far/progressive-left, mainstream left, center-left, centrist, center-right, mainstream right, hard/far-right, fringe right).
While most centrists and moderates have been pushed out or left, there are still some in the political center that remain as members of one of the two major parties, or among one of the many smaller parties around the country. Some of those parties (click here for the section of this site on centrist parties) are for centrists, like the Independence Party of Minnesota.
Independents Are All Across the Political Spectrum
Being a political independent means that you’re not a member of a party, so although most of us who are in the center are not a member of one, there are plenty of people across the political spectrum that are independent as well. As mentioned above, there are also some (a growing number) of those who aren’t affiliated with either major party that are finding smaller, so-called ‘third parties’, to join – most rather ideologically distant from the center, like Libertarian and Green Parties.
Some mistakenly label those who are merely ‘independent-minded’ as independents, but that’s not correct in this use of the term, although being independent-minded is a laudable trait. Others also mistakenly say that merely because a person sees one party as a lesser evil, and votes for them most of the time, then that makes them less of an independent. Who you vote for doesn’t have any impact on whether you’re an independent or not – what political party you are officially affiliated with – or not – does.
Non-Centrist Independent Examples
Most who are on the left and right are members of a party, but there is a sizeable minority who are not. Generally they are farther from center than the ideological tents of either major party extend, although some also join parties who have formed in those areas of the spectrum (the far-left Green Party, far-right Constitution Party or the Libertarian Party, which doesn’t fit on the one-dimensional, left to right map of the political spectrum).
There are also those who generally fall within the ideological tent of one party or another, but went independent for other reasons. The prototypical example of that of late is conservative independent Evan McMullin, who is as ideologically conservative as your average Republican (posts and articles calling him a centrist are way off base – check his OnTheIssues profile to see his stances), but went independent because the party has become too hyper-partisan, corrupt, zealous, etc.
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Some people use these two term interchangeably, but while there is significant overlap between independent and centrist, it’s not inherent. We encourage cultivating independent-mindedness, but non-membership in a political party is what makes you an independent. That’s not a value statement – it’s just what the word means.
In and of itself, being an independent / non-membership in a political party doesn’t say a whole lot about a person. What matters is what you believe, and what you do about it.