by Liberal Arts Dude, An Ordinary Person
There is wide disaffection among Americans about the U.S. political system. More people than ever believe that democracy is broken and needs to be fixed. Many people have a sense that it is no longer a government of the People, by the People, and for the People, but one that is overrun by special interests, lobbyists, corruption and where the voices of ordinary Americans are excluded.
Many people are sensing the limitations of the American two-party system and have decided, in large numbers nationwide, to reject that framework by declaring themselves as Independent or unaffiliated from either major party. About a third of the electorate currently declare themselves as Independent.
However, it is no secret that Independents are not a monolithic mass. Independents run the gamut ideologically from Right to Left to every degree in between in the ideological spectrum. There are conservative Independents who are against immigration and who are supporters of gun rights. There are Left independents who are anti-capitalist in orientation and support Progressive causes. There are Centrists who aim to be the middle in the left-right divide and eschew extremism in solutions to societal problems. It appears that the only thing Independents have in common is their distaste and alienation from the Democratic and Republican parties. If that is the case—if Independents are such a disparate group who cannot realistically agree on a single issue, is an Independent movement even possible? If a movement were to exist, what should its aims be and what goals should it have?
I believe Independents would best be able to position themselves and play to their strengths by adopting a structural, process-based approach to activism rather than an explicitly ideological approach.
Unity08: An Example of a Centrist Ideological Approach to Political Reform
The now-defunct Unity08 is a political reform movement which views the political system as broken and in need of serious fixing. They argued that the main problem with the System is that the political process and relationship between left (Democrat) and right (Republican) have become so polarized to the point that it has become a problem.
Unity08 believes that neither of today’s major parties reflects the aspirations, fears or will of the majority of Americans. Both have polarized and alienated the people. Both are unduly influenced by single-issue groups. Both are excessively dominated by money.
For most of the 20th Century, the contest for the U.S. presidency was waged over those “in the middle.” Recent Presidential elections, however, have not been focused on the middle but on the turnout of each party’s special interest groups — with each party’s “base” representing barely ten percent of the American people.
We believe that, while the leaders of both major parties are well intentioned people, they are trapped in a flawed system — and that the two major parties are today simply neither relevant to the issues and challenges of the 21st Century nor effective in addressing them.
As a result, most Americans have not been enthusiastic about the choices for President in recent elections, the key issues they ran on, or the manner in which the campaigns were conducted.
Therefore Unity08 will act to assure that an alternative ticket is presented to the American voters in 2008.
The problem thus set, Unity08‘s solution is to present an alternative President/Vice President ticket in the 2008 Presidential elections as a way to galvanize voters who are disaffected from the System.
A Structural, Process-based Approach
I believe an approach that analyzes American democracy as a structural process rather than through the lens of ideology is the best approach to Independent activism and what goals they should aim for. To that effect I will cite Towson University professor Omar Ali’s analysis on what is wrong with the political system and Independent activist Michael Drucker’s prescription to fix it.
Omar Ali, in “Those Who Make the Rules, Rule" makes the argument that the problem with American democracy is systemic and rooted in the two major political parties being deeply entrenched in our political system. The major parties set the rules through which all policy is decided—who gets on the ballot in elections, who is included in candidate debates, what issues are addressed, how they get discussed, what laws are enacted, and what policy Americans are ultimately left with. Ali makes the point that the Democratic and Republican parties make those rules to suit their—not the American people's—interests.
To expose this deep entrenchment, Ali asks: Why is it that the Federal Election Commission, created by Congress to oversee elections, is itself structured to be overseen by three Democrats and three Republicans? Shouldn't a body that regulates elections be nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan?
Why is it that independent candidates running for office are often legally required to gather at least tenfold the number of signatures as Democrats or Republicans simply to have their name appear on the ballot? Shouldn't all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, be required to meet the same obligations?
Why is it that the presidential debates - the single-most important venue for the American people to assess who they will choose as their chief executive - are organized through a bipartisan group called the Commission on Presidential Debates headed up by none other than the former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties? Shouldn't debates be a civic rather than a partisan activity?
Why should Congress be structurally organized along partisan lines, and why should the Democratic and Republican Congressional caucuses, along with the majority and minority members of committees, have partisan staff funded by the taxpayers? Aren't political parties supposed to be non-governmental bodies?
Why should state election boards and commissions around the country be comprised of appointees of the Democratic and Republican parties? Remember Florida 2000? Election boards and commissions should be neutral, nonpartisan bodies to facilitate elections for all Americans.
Ali’s questions and historical analysis of how the American political system came to be the way it is today is dead-on in explaining how voices and perspectives outside of the two major parties are shut out from substantive participation in American democracy. Indeed, those who make the rules, rule—and the two major parties have structured the rules of the political playing field to their advantage.
The way out of this trap, according to him, is for those who reject the two-party system to redirect the country towards a participatory, citizen-driven, populist democracy. That means citizens have to change the rules by which politics is played.
New York Independent activist Michael Drucker lays out a comprehensive plan of reforms in this blog post. His list is an excellent example of the types of reforms that can be taken by political outsiders to open up the playing field to a wider variety of groups and perspectives.
Same Day Voter Registration: Voters can register on the same day of an election, helping to increase participation — especially among young voters.
Term Limits: Limit the terms of Senators and Assembly Members to between 6 and 8 years. It brings an end to life-long career politicians, and allows for citizen-run rather than special interest-run legislatures.
Ballot Access: Ballot access laws should be rewritten to facilitate rather than discourage candidates from running. Petitioning periods need to be lengthened to make it easier for insurgent candidates and independents to qualify for a place on the ballot.
Initiative & Referenda: Permit citizens to circumvent their legislatures by circulating a petition (”initiative”) to place a proposed legislation (”referendum”) on the ballot.
Non-Partisan Municipal Elections: Eliminate party primaries to increase both participation of candidates and voters, who are exposed to broader range of choices.
Campaign Finance Reform: Level the playing field between independents and the majors.
Open and Inclusive Debates: The Commission on Presidential Debates should be abolished in its current in favor of a non-partisan body that sets equitable criteria for the inclusion of candidates at the presidential level.
Unity08’s explicitly ideological approach to reform is flawed from the very beginning because:
(a) They do not address the systemic aspects of the problems in the US political system—the structural problems that Omar Ali explicitly addresses.
(b) Unity08 is primarily an appeal to people who consider themselves Democrats and Republicans (albeit disaffected ones). It is not an appeal to independent voters who do not self-identify with either one of those labels. In one stroke, therefore, Unity08 makes a solid third of the electorate irrelevant in their movement.
(c) Untiy08 is not an appeal to those who are already organized into third-party political groups—those segments of the population who have taken the trouble to self-organize into alternatives to the two major parties—and ones most likely to be politically active and participate in any reform movement. Unity08’s explicitly Centrist ideological orientation excludes those who maybe as equally alienated as they are but who do not share the Unity08 Centrist philosophy.
Unity08 ceased operations in January 2008 due to funding problems. They really never got off the ground beyond a few high-profile public relations campaigns and never really developed a wide, grassroots following. It will take a deeper look into Unity08 to explain the exact reasons why they failed but I can’t help but think that much of their problems stem from a, b and c that I cite above.
In contrast to Unity08, the Ali/Drucker approach are a set of highly specific prescriptions designed to open up the political playing field to insurgent candidates, political parties, and outsiders to the two major parties. These prescriptions deal with the nuts and bolts of how political parties participate in elections, how people vote, how campaigns are financed, and how issues and candidates are discussed in the public sphere.
Such an approach can be adopted by groups with quite disparate views. Conservatives, Liberals, Libertarians, Greens and Socialists, for example, can have common cause to work together in opening up the political system so that all outsiders can have a fair shot. Once a foothold is gained in the system, then let democracy and democratic debate take its course. But the important thing is to open up the process so that a wider variety of players can participate.
Why is This Important?
Any movement needs a focal point with which to focus its energies and resources. Given that Independents can range in ideology from hard right to hard left and every point in between they will most likely disagree on very specific issues. What they have in common is their alienation from the two major parties and their status as political outsiders with not much power and representation in the political system. It makes sense, therefore, for them to work together to open up the system so that they can have a fair shot at participating with the major parties.
When people say “Independent” many people actually conflate the term with ”Centrist” and have the image of the political Independent as someone who is trying to get to the middle road between the extremes of Left and Right. I believe Independents, if they are to be effective, cannot afford to be middle of the road. They have to be extremists and radicals—but not in the sense of holding a particular ideology. They have be radical in looking beyond the structural limitations of the two-party system and envision a better way to invigorate democracy. And they have to be radical in the sense they are willing to do the hard work of actually making it happen and to go against the established and entrenched way of doing things.
Activism has to have a goal in mind and a vision it is trying to fulfill. I believe an effective Independent movement should have as its aim a truly participatory, citizen-driven democracy. Which means, at the very beginning, to open up the political system to perspectives and players outside of the two major parties without regard to ideology. Once that door is open, then let democracy take its course.
For comments, please contact Liberal Arts Dude, or The Hankster.