For the first time in history, independents — who comprise roughly 35% of the American population — are calling the shots. These folks are just as responsible for sending Scott Brown into office as they were in sending Obama to the White House last year. Which begs the question: Why the rise in independents — and who are they?

Today’s partisanship and rise of independents is a direct result of the 1960s countercultural movement. This was the time when the meaning of the word liberal changed from its actual meaning — the freedom from (government, tyranny, etc.) — to the freedom to (do whatever feels right). Prior to the 1960s Americans subscribed to a universal moral order and felt great patriotism; but the various factions that emerged during the 1960s — the feminist movement, the antiwar movement, the gay rights movement — eradicated all that and instead held up the ideal of being true to oneself. Though a popular idea for some time, millions of Americans have now rejected this philosophy — and we’ve become locked in a battle between the Right — who still believe in right and wrong — and the Left — who remain beholden to individual rights.

But another group has emerged as a result of all this conflict: the pesky middle ground known as independents. These folks aren’t comfortable in the conservative camp because the notion of morality makes them uneasy, and they’re not comfortable in the liberal camp because it has morphed into socialism. Simply put, these folks don’t know what to think anymore. In 2008 Obama looked good to them; today Scott Brown does. They’re not quite sure how much, or what kind of, change is necessary.

Fortunately, independents can depend on conservatives to steer them in the right direction — which I believe is now happening. Conservatives aren’t against change, but they don’t believe in fixing things that aren’t broken. According to Russell Kirk, a conservative “is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling the best with necessary reforms from time to time.”

Bill O’Reilly is correct in saying America is divided into those who like this country and those who don’t. But independents like America very much, and they’re coming to the realization that the Left doesn’t. The kind of change they’ve seen this past year is not the kind of change independents had in mind. For this reason, they have been forced to reconsider the meaning of conservatism.

Hopefully they’ll stick around for the long haul.