Guest Column: And now, a word from the independents

February 2, 2010

By Jackie Salit

The Republican and Democratic parties have finally found something to agree on. Americans are angry. And what do the parties propose to do about it? The Republicans say they know the answer. Just put them in power. The Democrats say they know the answer. Just keep them in power. But wait! Isn’t it partisan vanity that made Americans so angry in the first place?

Anger is a consuming emotion, as anyone who has been betrayed, insulted or manipulated can tell you. But what’s dangerous, psychologically speaking, is if you’re angry, but you have no productive way to express it. And when the object of your anger—the political establishment that is densely woven around the two parties—is also the only available solution to your anger, the problem is compounded. That is the psychological and political bind that most Americans find themselves in. And, it is also the catalyst for so many millions of Americans—40 percent in some polls—becoming political independents. They are looking for a way out of the maze that only leads back to itself.

This breakout phenomenon has been gathering steam for nearly 20 years. And during that time, an organized independent movement took shape that has operated largely—though not entirely—out of public view. We know from every emerging force in American history—the movement for independence that eventually tore us away from Britain to become a new nation; the anti-slavery movement; the populists; the labor movement and the pro-life lobby—that movements come of age as leaders with diverse, sometimes divergent, visions challenge their movement to follow a particular path.

In retrospect, these formative battles are easy to see. In the 1770s, many in the Continental Congress sought accommodation, not revolution. In the 1840s and 1850s, compromise, not confrontation, over the issue of slavery was hotly contested. And leaders of change movements throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries competed over whether and to what degree these social upheavals could and should be channeled into an alliance with a political party.

The contemporary independent political movement is as, or more, volatile than any of its predecessors, in no small part because it grows from a situation where the current organization of America’s political process is proving inadequate to the current crisis. But in its short life, the movement has acquired a history, it does have identifiable leaders, and it does have a set of controversies that define it. These have, for the most part, been ignored or trivialized by the pundits, surely, but also by the political group that benefitted the most substantially from it: President Barack Obama and his political team.

Here is a four-point crash course for the Obama team on what they need to know about the independent movement and why they must reach out to support its progressive/process wing.

1) Don’t Buy Into the Myth That Independents are Only White Center-Right Males

When the Perot movement exploded into the political scene in 1992, its political profile was the angry, white, right-leaning male. But the progressive wing of the independent movement, which built a small but active base for independent politics in the black, Latino, gay and liberal communities, coalesced with the Perot movement to define its new direction—one that included all Americans, especially Black America. There were many voices in the independent movement that opposed that idea, believing that independent politics not only was, but should be all white, arguing that African-Americans would be more powerful if they
stayed behind

in the Democratic Party. (And besides, these political segregationists thought black people didn’t look good in tri-corner hats!) This battle has taken many twists and turns. The Obama team, which benefitted from the Black and Independent Alliance in 2008, must support those independents who successfully shaped that alliance.

2) It’s the Process, Stupid

Over time, the mainstream of the independent movement resolved to bridge the partisan and ideological divide to bring independents together as a cohesive force. Turning against the notion that independents were best represented by a third party—an experience brought to a head by the implosion of the Reform Party in 1999 and 2000—a process agenda that could unify independents across the spectrum came to take the place of traditional issues. Recognizing that parties and partisanship have driven the country to the brink of dysfunctionality, independents in the
process wing

of the movement believe the political decision-making structure must be substantially reformed as a means of engaging our social crisis. Open primaries, putting independents on the Federal Election Commission, nonpartisan governance and reducing the hegemony of the parties over the people are the first priority. The Obama team must engage with that process agenda, notwithstanding the resistance from the Democratic partisans in Congress and elsewhere. Obama was elected to be a progressive independent reformer. He is failing because he has unnecessarily chosen to govern as a Democrat.

3) The Independent Movement Is Vulnerable to Swinging to the Right

In 2008, Obama won the primaries and the general election with the support of independents. The progressive/process wing of the independent movement made that hook-up happen from the bottom up. Nineteen million Americans voted for Perot in 1992. Nineteen million independents voted for Obama in 2008. But don’t assume those are the same 19 million people. Or that the endorsement is permanent. The right wing lost control of the independent movement after the Ross Perot/Pat Buchanan tryst, when the center-left alliance in the national Reform Party buried the Pat Buchanan presidential candidacy, even though Buchanan was given $18 million (by the FEC) to spend on his campaign. But now the right wants it back. Massachusetts was just the beginning, from their vantage point. The Obama team needs to study that history and learn from their own mistakes. They have a stake in supporting the movement’s progressive/process wing.

4) Independents Elected Obama to be Independent

Since the 2008 election, Obama handed over his independent campaign organization to the DNC and to Rahm Emanuel and gave health care to Nancy Pelosi, re-entering the partisan grid. Obama needs to extricate himself and connect to the progressive/process networks in the independent movement. That means supporting them, it means supporting the process agenda, and it means standing up to his own party and to the party system. Like George Washington, independents don’t like parties. That’s why we’re not building one.

Independents are the swing voters in today’s angry America, and they have a history and a vision that is uniquely their own. What’s the state of the union? It’s in distress, and its people are in a straitjacket. Independents are, first and foremost, looking for a way out.

Jackie Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independent voters founded in 1994. She recently completed work on Mike Bloomberg’s re-election campaign in which the support he received from the Independence Party of New York City (ipnyc.org) provided his margin of victory.

From the Feb. 3-9, 2010 issue.

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