I was talking with Michael Lewis, founder of Independent Kentucky, recently about an author writing a new book about independent politics. "What's her angle?" I asked. Michael replied: "Not sure. But she doesn't know anything about me."
Michael is a very smart guy who earlier this year took on the Kentucky legislature in a fight to win open primaries which would allow independent voters into the first round of balloting. Though the bill passed in the state Senate, he lost due to fierce opposition (in this case) from Democrats who control the Assembly. Michael has a way of putting things that hit the nail on the head. "She doesn't know anything about me" can also be said of all those pundits and political professionals -- male and female -- opining on the 40% of Americans who can't stand the political parties and are now independents.
Let's leave aside the obvious point that many of them don't know very much about unorthodox trends in electoral politics. For example, they think the Tea Party movement is something new and explosive as opposed to being the latest incarnation of repeated social conservative takeover attempts of the Republican Party.
Surely, the Tea Party movement is unnerving to those who think that the "political center" is where America is really at. But who knows where America is "really at?" and who knows if there is a "center" anymore?
Right now, it's very hard for the American people to express themselves. The media has molded politics into a blood sport. And the political system channels everything into a left/center/right, Democratic/Republican paradigm that undermines progress and rewards division. Independents are trying to make a statement about all of that. But even so, we barely register as "real," even though, paradoxically, we now decide many important elections.
When Michael Lewis lobbied the Kentucky legislature for open primaries to allow the state's independents into first round voting, he was told by one state senator (a former governor) that if he didn't like the system the way it is, he should "move to another country." But with independents now the largest bloc of voters in America, we are the country. Trouble is, the current engineering of the political process often locks independent voters out. (Little known fact: Tea Party candidates are winning Republican primaries mainly in closed primary states where independents can't vote). And the partisan system allows the parties to function as quasi-governmental institutions.
In my mind, if we want to shrink the size of government, we can start by shrinking the unchecked power of the political parties. That's why California voters passed Proposition 14 in June and abolished party primaries. They simply didn't want the political parties controlling the show anymore.
Much is made in the press nowadays about declining support for President Obama among independents. And since that decline may result in support for Republicans in the Congressional midterms, there is a generalized conclusion that independents, having backed Obama in record numbers in 2008, are disillusioned with the Democrats and are now embracing the Republicans. My problem with this analysis is that it turns a vote into a political identity and then compounds the problem by defining identity as Democrat or Republican.
Obama expressed a post-partisan vision in his 2008 campaign, which is why so many independents supported him. Need we add that the vote was to put him, not the Democratic Party, in the White House? To the extent that he has fallen into the partisan clutches of a polarized Congress with an unstable Democratic majority, independents are unhappy.
I'd like to think, though, that we're not among the disillusioned. That would mean we had illusions about Obama to begin with. The networks of independents I work with around the country are striving for the opportunity to show Obama a roadmap to regaining the confidence of independents.
That said, the midterms are approaching. The Democrats will lose seats (as the majority party always does), maybe even majority control. No matter the outcome though, the fundamental concerns of independents about the nature of the political process itself remain constant. We need deep and radical structural reform of our elections. And when the powers that be understand that, they will know who we are.
Jackie Salit is president of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independents with organizations in 40 states. She is currently organizing a national conference for independents in New York City February 12, 2011.