Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sarah Lyons: Seeing New Things, Past and Present

Seeing New Things, Past and Present
By Sarah Lyons

I went to hear Dr. Omar Ali speak at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem the other day.  He was there to present his latest book In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South

In his opening remarks, Dr. Ali told the audience that the book would not have been possible absent his experience working as a political organizer. 

He said being an activist had allowed him to see things differently so that when, as a graduate student, he approached the subject of black political history in America, he saw gaps in the existing scholarship and unattended clues.  He then began a process to uncover and piece together the largely unknown and untold story of black populism in America—the largest independent black political movement prior to the civil rights movement.
When it comes to independent voters and their location in American politics, a lot of people are seeing things in a new way.  
Dr. Ali's book is a success. So much so that Charles Postel, author of The Populist Vision which won the Bancroft Prize—the highest award given for works of historical scholarship—drew upon his work in a reshaping of the history of populism in the late nineteenth century.

When it comes to independent voters and their location in American politics, a lot of people are seeing things in a new way.  That’s because the American people—all of us—are collectively going through the experience of our country becoming more independent, whether we’re affiliated with a party or not, politically active or never voted. One impact of that process is that what was once common, becomes questioned.

Take for example a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “New Law on Ethics May Face Challenge.” It reports on a controversy in New York surrounding who would be allowed to serve on a newly formed ethics body with the power to investigate state officials who run afoul of ethics rules.

The fact that power on the board was divvied up evenly between Republicans and Democrats raised sharp objections from leading First Amendment scholars and constitutional lawyers prompting them to warn that the new ethics body may be destined for legal challenges in federal court if the possibility for independents to serve on it was eliminated.

Where once an equitable power sharing arrangement between Democrats and Republicans would be welcomed and applauded as fair, it has become suspect. That’s the power of a 40-year trend towards political independence making itself felt and allowing things to be seen in new and unexpected ways.

Sarah Lyons is the Director of Communications for, a national association for independents with organization in 40 states. She is based in New York City. She can be reached at 212-962-1824 or

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