Monday, July 02, 2007

Independents and Independence

Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia 1787

[NOTE: This is a revised version of the original post from 07/04/2007.]

The Washington Post published a front-page article last Sunday entitled "A Political Force With Many Philosophies," which summarized the results of an extensive survey on Independent voters conducted by the Post, Harvard University, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the survey, 29% of voters now identify themselves as Independents, more than Republicans (27%) but still less than Democrats (36%). I've considered myself an Independent for a while now, and I've been thinking lately about what that means, so I found the article and survey interesting.

Here's part of the article:

Strategists and the media variously describe independents as "swing voters," "moderates" or "centrists" who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label.

The Post-Kaiser-Harvard study was designed to probe more deeply into this increasingly influential portion of the electorate: who these voters are, why they remain independent, what they think about major issues and, of particular importance, how they differ from one another.

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

Here's the percentage breakdown of the five categories: Disengaged (24%), Disguised Partisans (24%), Disillusioned (18%), Deliberators (18%) and Dislocated (16%). You can read through their descriptions be clicking on the links for each one.

Not surprisingly, I fall (mostly) into the category of Disillusioned Independent:
These independents are deeply dissatisfied with politics today and antagonistic to both parties and the two-party system itself. Nearly seven in 10 are angry.

Only 14 percent are satisfied with the political system; eight in 10 express little or no confidence in government. Nine in 10 say the two-party system does not work for them, and most think Democrats and Republicans are pretty much the same.

Many say “neither party” better represents their views on key issues, including more than seven in 10 who say so about their positions on Iraq.

Bush and the war are crucial components of the disillusionment.

Three-quarters say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting and just two in 10 think it is still possible to stabilize the country. Fifty-seven percent call Bush the worst modern president.

For 2008, this group leans Democratic, but high levels of disenchantment could keep them home. They would also welcome an independent candidacy.
"Nearly seven in 10 are angry." Buddy, you don't even know the half of it. Bush and the war may have been "components" of my disillusionment, but it's been going on a long time. I will not stay home in 2008, however. And I will not support an Independent candidate this time. I want the Republicans to be severely punished in the next election. I want to see their cowardly, pseudo-macho, chicken-hawk selves on their knees in tears. This administration has wrought hell upon our country, not to mention upon Iraq and other parts of the world. I'll work with the Democratic Party - because I feel like I have no choice.

Some other interesting results from the study:
  • Fifty years ago, independents accounted for about a quarter of all adults. Today, that proportion is between three in 10 and four in 10, depending on the survey. In most states that have party registration, independents or those who decline to state a party preference are the fastest-growing segment of voters, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
  • Independents mirror the population in terms of age, income and education. But they are disproportionately male.
  • Independents also are more secular than the overall electorate. Four in 10 in the new study would like to see religion have less influence on politics and public life than it does now. Almost a fifth say they have no religion.
  • Three-quarters said voting on the issues, not a party line, is a "major reason" they claim the label, while seven in 10 said a prime factor is that they vote for individual candidates, not parties.
  • About half said a major reason for their independence is that they agree with Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others, and that they are not comfortable with either party.
  • Four in 10 said not wanting to put a label on their political views is a principal reason for calling themselves independents.
  • One pig-headed SOB from Texas with an obvious chip on his shoulder, talked nonsensically about a party platform that incoporated the likes of jazz, Yves Montand, Tex-Mex food, a touch of anarchism, Monty Python, John Lennon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Zapatistas, the New York Jets, Tom Waits, and a radical redistribution of wealth, Coltrane CDs and Spanish vino tinto.

Okay, maybe that last part wasn't in the article.

We have 323 kinds of breakfast cereal, 473 kinds of beverages, 500 channels of television, millions of websites . . . and two political parties.

How, I wonder, can over 300 million people from nearly every cultural, ethnic, and religious background in the world be represented in such a dualistic system? I look at the Senate, and I don't see representation of the people of the United State of America. I see rich white men. And while the House is a little better, I still don't think it comes anywhere close to true democratic representation. I don't know if having other parties would change that, but I don't think it's working the way things stand now.

If my spiritual journey, environmentalism, and life in general have taught me anything, it's that all things are interconnected. I am a part of my community and my actions affect all. In that regard, I ask myself why I don't participate more fully in the existing political system in this country by joining a party. On the other hand, I've also come to believe that life doesn't have to be so dualistic. Why should I be forced into an Either/Or situation between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to making decisions that have major consequences on our society and on the world? What about multiplicities? We're creative beings. Is it really impossible to create other alternatives?

Still waiting for a party that represents me

What I really resent is that these two monolithic parties have helped create a system in which there is no other choice. Unless some kind of change occurs, you will never again see the likes of Ross Perot getting 19% of the vote, as he did in 1992. After that experience, the parties have rigged things even more. One example is that they took over the debates from the League of Women Voters after 1992 and changed the rules, so that it's nearly impossible now for an independent candidate to participate. Also, big-money Independents like Perot, and now possibly Bloomberg, don't really care about establishing a viable, long-term alternative. It's an ego thing for them, it seems, more than a real concern about how the system works. They think that they as individuals can run things better than the two parties. And, sadly, Ralph Nader didn't seem to care about establishing a long-term alternative in the end either.

We as a country fought a revolutionary war in order to free ourselves from a corrupt political system that didn't correspond to our genuine needs. It was an inflexible system run by the wealthy mostly for themselves. As long as the Democratic and Republican parties maintain their stranglehold on our political system, I'm not sure how much real independence and fair representation we're going to feel. Disillusioned as I might be, I still yearn idealistically for a party that acts out of true vision and strength, one that shows genuine concern for creating a just society for all. On a grey, dreary Independence Day (what a drag!), I guess I'll have to settle for being an Independent.

Happy Fourth of July.


crystal said...

Have you seen the picture of Jesus that looks like Che?

I've been a democrat always, I think because my grandfather was and I wanted to be like him. I also liked Chavez and the Kennedys and MLK (not Che, though - unless I'm mistaken, he was responcible for the deaths of a lot of people?). I've never wanted anythhing to do with the republicans, and the idependents seem like sulkers who can't commit :-) (teasing you)

It's not too late, Will - turn to the left side.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, once again you're faster at responding to my post than I am at revising it. So you got to read the original, overly personal, and terribly dull account of my political experience/naivete.

I have seen the picture of Jesus that looks like Che.

I have my own mixed feelings about Che. And he was responsible for a number of deaths - maybe 500 - 1,000? He wasn't Ghandi or King. He was a militant revolutionary. On the other hand, that's infintely fewer deaths than our current president is responsible for.

crystal said...

I could be wrong - I haven't read anything about Che for a long time - but I thought I read that many of those killed by him were not shot in a battle to achieve freedom but coldly chosen by him for execution under Castro's regime. He's is so romanticized I think the real guy has been obscured.

Jeff said...

Great post William. As I was telling Crystal, I had a post with the "Che Jesus" on my blog once, although I really wasn't expressing admiration for Che with it. :-o

I've been registered as "unenrolled" for quite some time now, mostly because I like to choose where to be a spoiler in one primary race or another, but I have a hard time putting myself in those categories that were listed. I guess the "Disillusioned" category would be the one that describes me best - I don't feel represented well by either party, which I think you are well aware of by now. As a strong economic populist with strong leanings towards the right on one or two social issues, I tend to be represented by no one in the political sphere at all... Although I do see myself shifting a bit off of the right on some of these social matters. Maybe y'all guys are rubbing off on me a bit. :-)

I'm actually a big believer in the two-party system. I just wish they both weren't in thrall to lobbyists and big money. Corporate interests have been able to co-opt them both, which was a pretty good trick to pull off.

The way I've always seen it, the Independent candidates who've run for President can usually be identified as an angry protest candidate coming out of one of the two main parties or the other. The effect has almost always been to throw the election to the other side. I guess I'm still waiting for an Independent candidate who is independent in a true sense... But, as I've said before, I'd rather see the Democratic Party get its act together. I worry about what would happen in a multi-party system. Would we wind up with coalitions and pluralites which would make everyone unhappy, and fall apart every few months like generations of ineffectual Italian governments have?

cowboyangel said...

Jeff, Thanks for the comments.

I thought of you when reading the "Dislocated" description, because they supposedly identify with aspects of both parties - only they were completely backwards from you: Economically conservative and socially liberal. Which, to be honest, I've always found rather distatsteful. "We want to make a lot of money and have abortions." But I don't know why this group would be called Independents - I thought they were Clintonites. ;-)

I don't know why the socially conservative/economically populist combo would have such a hard time. My feeling is that this is actually where a lot of people are - especially those who left the Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Funny, whenever anyone brings up the problems of a multi-party system, they always mention Italy. But I think Italy's political problems have more to do with the Italians than they do with a multi-party system. No one ever says, "I'm scared a multi-party system will wind up being like England." Or Canada, Germany, Spain, etc. It can and does work in other places. And I think a good argument for having a multi-party system is that it's harder for lobbyists and corporations to buy off 4 or 5 parties than it is for them to buy off two.

One of the interesting aspects in Spain is that it's allowed for the success of regional parties. People transcend some of their ideological differences in order to promote the interests of their region. (Of course, that's also very Spanish - the anarchistic regional thing.) In a country as large as the U.S., this might be interesting. Having lived in the west and the east, I know their problems are very different sometimes.

The real issue, I think, is the "winner-take-all" electoral system we have. Proportional representation would be more democratic. Think about how even the country was split after 2000. Yet Bush got all the spoils.

I recognize that the two-party system has its advantages, and I know a lot of people attribute the longterm stability of the U.S. to it. But I think 4 stable parties wouldn't send us into ruin. Anyway, if the last 8 years are an example, I think one party could accomplish that on its own.

It just seems like we need better representation. More voices in the public dialog. In the decision-making process.

I think you're probably right that Independent candidates come out of protest within one party. That was certainly true of Nader in 2000. He was a reaction to the move of the Democrats into neoliberalism - the co-opting of the party by corporations under the hand of Clinton. And the Democrats never really dealt with that. They put the issue aside in 2004, because of mutual hatred of Bush and the war, and they'll put it aside in 2008 because of the same. But if a Democrat wins, look for a return to the problem in 2012. The situation that caused Nader hasn't changed. It's just been ignored for the time being. But the debate really gets to the heart of who the Democrats are. Edwards may talk a bit more about the economic issues, but I don't think even he would be able to resolve the deeper conflict within the party.