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% 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 which define it. These have, for the most part, been ignored or trivialized by the pundits, surely, but also by the political group which benefited 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.
- 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 which 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 benefited from the Black and Independent Alliance in 2008, must support those independents who successfully shaped that alliance.
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.