inform | empower | engage
Congratulations to the editor. While I am a registered D , I vote across party lines and my political views cross over the camps as well. Best of luck with the Digest—you may not create a third party, but you will help make the R’s and D’s more attentive to our needs and views.
Thanks Tony. Your the type of reader we’re looking for. We’re not trying to start a third party, just to help Independents (and Ds and Rs) learn the issues, understand the process and where they are in it, and then to make decisions that are right for them.
Welcome to IDn. Let me take a minute to tell why we started it and how it works. I can do the first in one word: Need. While by far the fastest growing portion of the American voting public over the last 25 years, Independents have no place go call home. Pundits and professors all talk about the Independent, the swing voter, but they would be hard pressed to name one, point one out in a crowd. There are few celebrity Independents.
But we are everywhere, literally and in fact. National Election Study surveys indicate there are more than 40 million of us. But few of us know one another, can even name someone else they know to be an Independent. More troubling, we generally know less about the political system than those who self-identify as partisan; i.e., Democrat or Republican or something else. And this is where the need begins: This largest portion of the voting public is less informed than the people who select the nominees and create the party platforms. IDn was created to help meet this need.
IDn’s tagline is inform empower engage, and that is exactly how the site was developed. The inform function is filled largely by IDn Digest, to your immediate right. It contains access to the top political publications, columnists, blogs, news shows, personalities and related. It also provides access to the top polls and a political almanac to give you ready access to information on past elections and conventions.
The empower part is to your immediate left, Being an Independent. It will provide you with a brief history of our political party/process (The American Independent) and Elector articles that will help you think about what it means to be an Independent, and how to be a better informed and more effective voter. Above, in the page line, your will see You know you’re an Independent if… If you take a minute with this, you’ll have a good idea whether or not you’re an Independent. We will also be building a Body of Knowledge on Independents; articles by Independents, academicians, pundits, surveys. Incredibly, there is not one now, certainly not one that we could find. Most appropriately, this will be created and built by Independents – you and us. That’s the plan.
And now for engage, and that’s where you are now, the blog. It will be updated daily. It is where the Elector articles will first be seen before they are moved over the Being an Independent space. Articles by you and others will be posted here and the best of these moved to the Blogkeep. We will even be cataloguing the better quick thoughts under Bullets, again to your left. These and other materials will be catalogued in the Body of Knowledge.
The idea is to get Independents in the game, not as a group, but as independent Independents, as voters who want make the best possible choice given their individual views, beliefs and interests. We don’t want your vote, we want to help you vote better and smarter. We’re a media company. You’re a citizen. Our success as a company is first measured by your success as a more engaged, better informed citizen — more empowered. IDn will not speak for Independents; through it, Independents will speak for themselves, and be heard.
IndependentDigest.net was designed to help you think and express yourself politically to others, to have an impact on how they think, and learn better what they think. And we want your ideas on how IDn can do this better. We want you to help us build and maintain it. And to give you an idea of what is to come, the first Elector article follows: Coming Out.
Apart from an office holder or political party employee, there’s not a more partisan line of work than lobbyist. It is through party affiliation and support that clients are attracted and engaged, and it is through fund raising for office holders and candidates that the lobbyist gains access to the policy making process.
Now, living in Washington, DC, I find myself in the good company of lobbyists on a regular basis. On one such occasion, I took the opportunity to note a recent newspaper article cataloguing the policies of the then conservative administration and noting they were more of what might be expected of a liberal administration. Of the two lobbyists at the table, one was of a more affable nature, the other more strident, they both being seriously conservative. The former, having seen the article, nodded knowingly, smiling, pleasuring perhaps in the thought that his boys were scoring runs with the other guy’s bat. (I like that in a person, a sense of humor and an appreciation of irony.)
The more strident of the two, however, barely acknowledged my remark, seeming to look for a place at the bar where his time could be better spent. Now you should understand that there is something about me that strikes conservatives as liberal, and liberals as conservative. Whether by nature or nurture, I appear to give off the scent of a contrarian. Sensing that I had been taken for a liberal, and thus hostile, I noted that I was registered as a political Independent, that I was just curious as to their reaction to the article. This changed everything. “An Independent,” he said, sitting forward. “What do you mean?”
I couldn’t tell whether he thought me a fool or a liar, perhaps both. Certainly, though, I had the man’s attention. Looking him square in the eye, I replied, “I mean that I am registered in the state of Maryland as Non-Aligned, no party affiliation.”
There came instantly to his face a look of incomprehension. To the lobbyist, the two party system is the foundation on which the Republic maintains, a learned and beloved tradition, not to mention meal ticket. His face soon relaxed, though, a curiosity coming to his eyes. On this, a good discussion followed, about the article and politics in general, what might happen in an upcoming election. He wanted to know where I was leaning and on what issues I placed most importance, and why. We parted with a better understanding of one another and each other’s views, and have been more friendly since.
The point is this: In most cases, unless you tell others that you’re an Independent, it will be assumed by them that you are a Democrat or a Republican and everything you say will be heard accordingly. In effect, they will hear nothing that they don’t already assume. So, make clear that you are an Independent. Come out. You’ll learn more about what others are saying and thinking, and you’ll understand it better. As important, you’ll have a greater impact on what they think about the issues that matter most to you.
A Call to Engagement
Table of Content
- THE PARTIES
- CHICAGO 1968
- THE NEW LAND
- THE 1970s
- THE REAGAN REVOLUTION
- THE THIRD WAY
- THE PRESENT
There is a certain redundancy to American Independent, even more perhaps to Independent American. And there are other words nearby. How far is independent from free, in what ways distinct? And then free from freedom, and it from liberty? And how far is any one of these in our mind from American? As a word, then, Independent seems a very American thing.
And in contemporary American politics, to be politically Independent is to be among what the National Election Study reports to be the largest segment of respondents in their survey. Asked whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent, the respondents in 2004 replied: Independent (39%), Democrat (33%) and Republican (28%).*
Independent, though, is a dependent word. It presumes a context, as in “Independent of what, from what?” To be among the self-identified Independents in the NES survey, respondents separated themselves from the first two choices, Republican and Democrat, and chose Independent. Politically, the question has little meaning without the context of political parties in general, and Democrats and Republicans in particular.
We’re going to be hearing a lot about political Independents in the coming months, i.e., the “swing votes.” And for years to come, really. There will always be Independents. Lock a hundred Republicans (or Democrats) in a high school gym on any Friday night, leave them with food and drink and tables at which to talk, and I guarantee you by Monday morning there will be a handful of Independents, maybe more, and likely as not a few Democrats (or Republicans) in the bargain. Politically, we tend to be what we are by who we are, by who raised us, by those about us, and by the times in which we live. For my part, I am an Independent, which is to say I am registered in the State of Maryland as Non-Aligned.
The purpose of this paper is to help others to consider whether they are Independent and, if so, to embrace it. With nearly two in five responding “Independent,” it is important that they be this with a purpose. To be sure, with national elections being determined by state margins of less than 1,000 votes, no responsible American can afford not to vote. Democracy, after all, is where most of those who vote get what they want, and all those who don’t get what they deserve.
Now I am going to ask you to read this whole thing. It’s a little long for a website. We’re going to go back to the beginning. But as I hope you will soon appreciate, the days when the politically Independent could step down from his or her private Olympus to select a clearly defined Republican or Democratic candidate running on an easily accessible and understood national party platform are gone. To vote intelligently, and with purpose, today’s Independent is going to have to work at it.
The beginning, of course, was writ in Philadelphia, the key words being We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. And as we would be independent as colonies, so would we be independent as individuals. And here again there is the matter of context. Just as certainly as we Americans want to be independent, to be free, few of us want to be alone. Being alone is not only biologically terminal, it is the antipathy of humanness. For the overwhelming majority of us, meaning is found, even defined it, in the context of our relations with others, person to person, group to group, but most assuredly within society. People don’t want to be apart from society, just free within it. That was the whole idea.
The idea, though, is never enough. As much as it had taken the Founding Fathers to get to July 4th, July 5th was when the real work of nation building began, of achieving independence and creating a government that derived its just powers from the consent of the governed. In winning their independence, however, the original thirteen states were soon to discover that the Articles of Confederation by which they were united were unworkable.
Accordingly, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to “form a more perfect union,” the completed work being ratified in 1789 as the Constitution of the United States of America. Those assembled to draft this Constitution were of differing perspectives and preferences. Those living in the northern states were more given to manufacturing and commerce, as well as being inclined to a high degree of personal mobility. Those in the southern states, on the other hand, were more firmly grounded in agriculture and of a more structured, hierarchical social tradition. It was not long before these economic and social differences were to harden into factions among those who led the country.
Those favoring a stronger role for the federal government came to be known as the Federalists – the notables here being Washington and Hamilton. Mostly from the north, they favored a central national bank and a manufacturing/commercial base for the new nation. Those averse to a strong federal government looked to Jefferson for leadership and his vision of a national economy built primarily on self-reliant farmers living lives largely untouched by a central government. Initially forming themselves into the Republican Party, this was later to become the Democratic-Republican Party and, during the 1830s, its principal elements became the Democratic Party that continues to this day.
Today’s Republican Party was formed in the mid-1850s. It was composed of anti-slavery Democrats and members of the Whig Party. The Whigs had emerged in the 1830s, largely to counter Andrew Jackson and his efforts to close the federally chartered Second Bank of the United States. With its northern base, the Republicans attracted business interests as the industrialization of the country shifted into high gear in the closing third of the 19th century. Heavily Protestant and wary of waves of European immigrants marking that era, the party was committed to an ever expanding national economy and a similarly disposed federal government.
Whether Federalist or Whig, Democrat or Republican, though, it was during the first half of the 19th century that the political parties solidified their roles as the organizing structures of the American political process. While unwelcomed by Founding Fathers Adams and Madison, the different parties were essential in weaving the political fabric of our democracy, as well as in protecting and advancing the interests of the disenfranchised and under represented living in it. Serving as an interface between our private lives and the function and authority of government, it was largely through one political party or another that those not in government – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – came to affect the nation’s direction and have an impact on the selection of who would lead it. It is impossible to imagine the American political system without political parties. In large measure, they are the political system.
While today’s Democratic and Republican parties have dominated this system for more than 150 years, they have in this time undergone substantive change. For the 64 years extending from the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in March of 1933, Republicans held the White House for 48 years and the Democrats only 16. And even with that, for eight of the 16 years (1913-1921) the White House was held by Woodrow Wilson, who owed his election to a split in the Republican Party between former President Theodore Roosevelt (who ran on the Progressive ticket) and the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft. So dominant, in fact, were the Republicans over these 64 years that Republican Warren Harding’s inauguration in 1921 was commonly referred to as a return to normalcy.
The stock market crash of October 1929, however, closed the Roaring Twenties and with them any sense of Republican normalcy. The Great Depression was upon us – one in four out of work, businesses and farms failing by the tens of thousands, the banking system all but collapsed with hunger and privation commonplace in every state of the Union. The systems and structures that had taken the country from its colonial beginnings through to the 1920s were breaking down, and on a massive scale. Nothing in the nation’s history had even approached the depth and pervasiveness of the economic calamity facing the country as Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office in 1933.
Abandoning his party’s anti-big government tradition, FDR seized the initiative and set about changing how the country worked. Until this time, the government’s responsibility was to ensure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. Under the new president, it was to take responsibility for the economic security of the population, “a chicken in every pot.” Politically, FDR’s courage and boldness occasioned a realignment not seen before or since. In the 64 years between Grant’s and FDR’s inaugurals, the Republicans held the Senate for 54 years to the Democrats’ 10. In the House, the numbers were 40 to 24, respectively. In the 48 years following FDR’s swearing in, the Democrats held the House and Senate for 44 years to the Republicans 4. For the 75th Congress (1937-39), the Republicans held only 17 seats in the Senate, with a barely comparable share in the House.
The assumption of a major economic role by the federal government was welcomed by Democrats of all stripes and attracted additional millions to the party’s ranks. It was a Democratic White House and Congress that had stepped up to the plate for the common man and his family and in 1936 they had returned FDR to office in a landslide. With his New Deal, Roosevelt created Social Security and unemployment insurance. Massive public works projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were undertaken, not to mention farm programs that stabilized prices and banking regulations and programs that insured depositors and restored faith in the system. The nation had stepped back from the brink and any doubts among Democrats that the federal government had a role and responsibility in the economic realm were gone.
As a political party, of course, the Republicans had no choice but stand against the New Deal. Even apart from the politics of the thing, though, they had serious concerns about its impact on markets. More ominous, they saw the New Deal as threatening to individual initiative and personal freedom and believed strongly that its huge deficits were flat out irresponsible. Any near term hope they may have had of reversing it, however, ended on December 7, 1941. America’s entry into World War II not only solidified the Democrats ascendancy, it gave FDR a chance to show the whole world what he could do, rallying the nation to the cause as he reached out to allies overseas, bracing and leading all who would follow. He was, by consensus, a man of extraordinary will and impact.
By his death in April 1945, FDR was the only president of practical memory. His legacy was a country transformed in structure, scope and spirit. The New Deal had redefined the federal government’s role at home and FDR’s war time leadership had given the country a new place in the world and an entirely different perspective on it. At home, millions of jobs had been created with more than 36 percent of the work force unionized at war’s end, triple that of 1929. Though President Harry S. Truman was to have his battles with Big Labor following the war, the rank and file were solidly Democrat and looked to their party to continue to protect and improve their prospects.
A new type of political patronage had come to pass, one at the national level, and on a national scale. As the largest consumer in the country, even after the war, the federal government made all the rules and spurred demand across the economy, making jobs plentiful and business prosperous. Even under Republican Dwight David Eisenhower (1953-1961), the good times just kept on rolling. His massive interstate highway program poured billions into the construction industry – including its suppliers and its trade unions. Moreover, the built-out highway system significantly increased the demand for automobiles which GM, Ford and Chrysler were happy to meet, with Big Oil just as happy to pump the gas. JFK was to follow with his New Frontier, which only foreshadowed LBJ’s Great Society with government programs and dollars for every want and need, and the discovery of still new ones.
In all this, the Democratic Party had become the party of the fair, the party with a social conscious and a commitment to the common man. In fact, it’s what they called it. In his 1949 inaugural address, Truman rolled up previously proposed and new initiatives on education, housing, jobs, healthcare, and civil rights into his Fair Deal. Though most of its proposals were not enacted, it confirmed a momentum of direction and purpose for the decades ahead. The New Deal had become the Fair Deal and, by the 1960s, it was just The Deal, i.e., how things worked, and the Democrats pretty much owned it.
Primarily economic in scope and structure, the New Deal benefited mostly working and middle class Americans, and largely the white amongst them. Having shouldered through economic depression and won history’s most destructive war, though, there came a confidence to many that nothing was impossible, that there was no wrong that could not be righted. America was the “can do kid,” young again and ready to go. What the 1930s was for the economy, the 1960s and the years just previous would be for civil rights and individual opportunity, and Lyndon Baines Johnson was just the man to get it done.
Taking his oath of office in the calamitous hours following JFK’s assassination, LBJ rallied the country to the goals and spirit of the slain president’s New Frontier. A politician of unsurpassed skill and ambition, he called on the country to “move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but toward the Great Society that demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.” Between 1964 and 1968, more than 400 separate pieces of Great Society legislation passed, Medicare and Medicaid most notable among them. Also passed were federal funds for elementary and secondary education, work incentive programs, equal employment and economic opportunity guarantees and voting rights. Head Start, school busing, set asides for minority contractors and suppliers, and others too numerous to mention, all sprang from the Great Society.
However, despite the general popularity of his domestic programs, LBJ was to be undone by events in a distant land and a foreign field. By 1968, more than 1,000 Americans were dying every month in Vietnam with dissent widespread and mounting daily, much of it from his own party. Stunning the nation in a March 31 nationally televised speech, LBJ withdrew from that year’s presidential contest. It was an extraordinary act in an extraordinary time. John Lindsey, Mayor of New York City and Republican presidential hopeful that year, suggested the country was going through a nervous breakdown. And to those attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, a nervous breakdown would have seemed a day at the beach.
To that one city at that one time came Democrats from across the country with a century’s worth of conflicted views and voices all yearning to speak free. And if there was one man in the country who could ensure that the nation’s highly charged emotions on the war in Vietnam, civil rights and other issues got a full and public vetting, it was His Honor Richard J. Daly, Mayor of Chicago. Heading the last of the big city political machines, his heavy fisted handling of anti-war street protesters resulted in what was to be called a police riot. Democratic notables inside the Convention who spoke against the police tactics were treated to public heckling from the floor, much of it by Daly himself.
So fractured was the party coming out of Chicago that there was a 25 percent decline in the number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate in that year’s election. Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 Democratic nominee, received 32.3 million votes in contrast to the 43.1 million votes won by LBJ in 1964, down by almost 11 million. Even with Democrats staying away in droves, Richard Nixon won the election by barely 500,000 votes. In refusing to vote for Humphrey, a Minnesotan cut of Populist cloth and a life-long liberal, disaffected Democrats handed the White House to Richard Milhous Nixon, putting in power perhaps the one man in the country most despised by those in the mean streets of Chicago. (Of course, Nixon was to return the favor. So badly was he to manage the Watergate affair that he found it necessary to resign the office of the presidency in August 1974.)
While still constituting the political process, the two national parties had at the time each come to a weakened, even depressed, state. Attesting to the disarray of the Democratic Party, in 1976 it managed to beat Gerald Ford, the hand-picked vice president of a disgraced and pardoned president, by less then two percent of the votes cast. More telling was that its candidate that year, James Earl Carter of Georgia, ran against Washington, in effect, against a Congress that his own party controlled. He had come from nowhere to win the most powerful job in the world and done it without the backing of a national party’s leadership.
How could this happen? In part, it played back to Chicago in whose wake the Democratic National Committee had changed the rules of nomination. From 1972 forward, Democratic National Convention delegates would, for states that held primaries, be obligated to cast their ballots largely according to the party primary results. This opened the door for conventions that, for the purpose of nominating a presidential candidate, could well be over before they opened. Any candidate arriving with a majority of the delegates needed to win, had already won. A similar rule was adopted by the Republicans prior to their convention in 1976. The idea was to open up the process, to rid presidential politics of backroom deals that for years had dominated the nomination process.
Ironically, these changes came just as the American public’s structural participation in the political process was giving evidence of a long term decline. From 1967 through 1987, the percent of the adult population belonging to a political club dropped from 8 percent to 4 percent. Similarly, the percent of adults attending a political rally or speech fell from over 12 percent in the early 1970s to less than 6 percent by 1992. Over the same period, those working for a political party dropped from 6percent to less than 3 percent.
In effect, the nominating process was increasingly in the hands of the candidates themselves, along with their spin doctors and pollsters, each fighting tooth and nail for media time and attention. And all this just as the media itself was fractioning among network and cable, with radio shock jocks writing new rules of behavior which, of course, meant no rules at all. The Freak Show, as it was later to be dubbed, was soon upon candidate and public alike, and open to anyone with a website, a laptop and an opinion.
Adding to the complexity of the time was the emergence of hundreds, even thousands, of “public interest” or “special interest” organizations targeting a specific issue or grievance. These created a new venue for the butcher, baker and candlestick maker (and teachers and environmentalists and real estate developers) to petition government and affect policy. The two national parties, once the lead players in a two character, one act play, were to find themselves fighting for lines with the supporting cast, at times even the audience. At the national level, the parties were becoming less the dual centers of gravity of the political process and more the trophies of the primaries. While the parties would remain the organizing structure of the political process, their function would shift from soul, agenda and infrastructure, more to operations, management and fund raising.
Moreover, these developments dovetailed with the decline in party affiliation that had begun in the early 1960s. In 1952, the first National Election Study reported an American electorate composed of 45 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican and 23 percent Independent, 10 percent of whom leaned Democratic and 7 percent Republican. Remaining at roughly those numbers through the end of that decade, by the 1972 election the Democrats had slipped to 41 percent, with the Republicans holding at 23 percent and Independents growing to 34 percent, up by a full half. Since that time there has been a gradual increase in the percentage self-identifying as Independent. By the 1992 election, the Independents were at 38 percent and held in the upper thirties through to 2004. In that year, 39 percent responded “Independent” in the survey, with 33 percent claiming the Democrats and 28 percent the Republicans.
But we haven’t done with the 1970s yet, not even close. The Republicans, euphoric with Nixon’s landslide win in 1972, were soon to find themselves shackled to him, first through to his resignation in August 1974, and then through the wreckage of Watergate. For their part, the Democrats struggled with the nightmare of 1968 and its impact on their 1972 convention which presaged George McGovern’s crushing loss to Nixon that fall. And as these events played out domestically, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) shook the world economy to its foundation by tripling the price of crude oil, raising the specter of world-wide shortages. At mid-decade, Saigon fell, just as the nation slipped into economic recession, with a cacophony of doomsayers keeping time and, of course, doing their level best to keep everyone calm. It was from this time and place that the politics we have today took form.
No less than nature, politics, especially national politics, abhors a vacuum. The 1976 election was to bring new players to the stage, each challenging their party’s leadership. Ronald Wilson Reagan, former actor and governor of California, took on Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and almost won. Quite apart from nearly unseating an incumbent president, Reagan’s achievement that year was the introduction of a credible ideological challenge to the status quo. Calling the party to what he saw as its conservative tradition, Reagan wanted to rebuild a Vietnam-dispirited military, see big government gone, restore the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit, and lower taxes. Though unsuccessful in 1976, Reagan had put his party on notice that change was needed and he’d be back to see it done.
The winner that November, of course, was Jimmy Carter whose inauguration might have been expected to bring some sense of normalcy to government. Here we had a Democrat in the White House with his party holding commanding majorities in both houses, 61 to 38 in the Senate and 292 to 143 in the House. How could this not work? Simple: Jimmy Carter was an outsider who remained an outlier. He had not only run against Washington and establishment politics, he didn’t like or trust either. Perhaps most telling was his inability to get along with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, as likable a political leader as you will find. In fact, among the Carter Administration’s most notable achievements was its being held in equal distain, even to contempt, by the Congressional leadership of both parties.
Of the two new players, Carter and Reagan, Reagan’s impact was by far the more historically significant. Indeed, 1980, Carter’s last full year in office, was to belong to Reagan, a man dismissed by many as a not too bright, not too great actor, with weird ideas and strange friends from the mountain states and those west. As Governor of California, though, he had for eight year successfully overseen the world’s seventh largest economy. A Roosevelt Democrat turned Republican, he had honed his conservative views into a personal belief system that he was able to communicate to others with increasing effectiveness and impact. He came to stand for something in peoples’ minds that didn’t fit with the accepted wisdom of the day.
To wit, Democrats were liberals, everyone knew that. Right? Well, in the north, they were also largely Catholic, which just about everyone seemed to have forgotten. While the Chicago disaster of 1968 might be excused by distemper due to war, the Convention of 1972 was another matter. The party rank and file were by and large first and second generation Roosevelt New Dealers and they had little knowledge of, and absolutely no interest in, Spotted Owls and endangered ferns, not even to mention gay rights. They were worried about factories closing and unions shrinking, about their pensions and healthcare.
To this group, their party – their interface with government – had been overtaken by fringe elements which were pushing politics beyond the complex to the utterly incomprehensible. Exactly which life was Shirley McLane now living? Exactly which part of the universe did Jerry Brown, California’s Governor Moonbeam, first plan to explore? To many in Democratic strongholds of the urban north, their party, that of the New Deal and Fair Deal, was fractured beyond recognition. And as for the historically solid Democratic South, Nixon had already cracked that tradition. By the time Reagan was done, it had been dismantled, gone with the wind.
Reagan’s first impact, though, was on the Republicans. To him, the Republican Party had lost its bearings. Not only had its last president resigned in disgrace, he had signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, two of the most bureaucratically burdensome agencies of government. And, sin of sins, in 1971 Nixon had instituted national price controls and suspended the convertibility of gold. To Reagan, if the Republicans stood for anything it’s a free market and here was their standard bearer violating it, desecrating its most hallowed tenets. Nixon had, in effect, brought big government under the Republican tent.
Despite national surveys showing Democrats outnumbering Republicans 41 percent to 23 percent in 1980, Reagan ventured forth, confident that the nation wanted to move ahead, to reclaim its destiny. He was to thump Carter with Reagan Democrats voting for him in the millions. Indeed, with the first Republican Senate in 26 years coming in on his coat tails, the Reagan Revolution was on. Though not on the magnitude of the realignment following Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, it was a realignment nonetheless. It was now the Republicans who had an idea, a distinct philosophy, that people could understand, and a lot of them agreed with.
The Democrats’ ideas – the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society — were already done, with thanks given, what worked (and didn’t work) of them now part of the national tradition and political landscape. In the “What have you done for me lately?” world of politics, Democratic leaders found themselves sorting among splinter groups and mini-issues, much of which their rank and file didn’t care about, or flat out opposed. For many second and third generation Democrats, their party’s political compass was broken, even spinning. By the time Reagan had left office in 1989, the NES survey showed Democrats at 35 percent, Republicans at 28 percent and Independents at 36 percent. The 18 percent differential between Republicans and Democrats of 1980 had been cut to 7 percent.
George Bush the senior, Reagan’s Vice President, was to succeed him in January 1989, having defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis by seven million votes the previous November. It fell to Bush to shepherd the country, and the West, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the close of the Cold War, not to mention forming and leading the international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Not too shabby, really. On the domestic side, though, the fates were aligning against him.
Struggling with having broken his “read my lips” promise of no new taxes, Bush was also to fall victim to a not too deep recession and the rising of one H. Ross Perot. A computer services billionaire and third party candidate, Perot is believed by many to have drawn far more votes from the Republicans than the Democrats in 1992, giving the election to the latter. Bush’s worst luck that year, though, was the arrival of William Jefferson Clinton, the “come back kid” himself. Clinton had bounced from one stumble and pothole to the next, winning the Democratic nomination and later proving himself to many to be the most gifted politician of his generation.
We will leave to others the effectiveness of Clinton’s two administrations. What matters most to us is the fact that Clinton had “won from the center.” Both leader and product of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats and businesspeople working to influence national policy, he brought the Democratic Party back to its bread and butter agenda of jobs, healthcare and education, i.e., opportunity and fairness.
It was to be a Third Way, a place between the conservativism of Reagan and the liberalism of the Great Society. Indeed, once settled in office, he was to borrow heavily from the Republican playbook – eliminating the deficit, achieving genuine welfare reform, and putting an additional 100,000 law enforcement officers on the country’s streets. It is certainly arguable that had Clinton avoided personal scandal and impeachment, he might have attained the pinnacle of American politics, i.e., the popular naming of a party after him. As there were Roosevelt Democrats and Reagan Republicans, there may well have been Clinton Democrats…
But that was not to be, and the consequences were historic. Despite a major stock market correction in 2000, the Clinton years were marked by a historically long and robust economic expansion. Internationally, Europe was adjusting well to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the strengthening and expansion of the European Union. There were skirmishes and disputes, Bosnia, et al, but the world was in a pretty good place. With a politically unstained Clinton at his side, it is hard to see how his Vice President, Al Gore, could have failed to succeed him in 2001.
Bill Clinton, though, was not unstained…at all. As such, he was not welcomed in the Gore Campaign, costing it the advice, support and popular draw of a consensus political all-star. In the end, the 2000 election was a dead heat between largely undifferentiated parties and two lackluster, second generation politicians. It was a contest of branded candidates in non-threatening colors harping on the mini-issue of the day, each hoping to work and weave his way through polls and special interest groups to win nomination without having said something that might cost him the general election. And this is the political world in which we now live, 9/11 and the War in Iraq notwithstanding, though more politically polarized than in, perhaps, decades.
With Old Media and New Media competing for attention and influence and a special interest group for every itch and inkling, the parties now play a diminished role in the political process at the national level. They run primaries whose winners, in the end, take them as prize. The candidates have, in effect, taken over, each with his or her own nationally staffed campaign and agenda driven mostly by what their individual consultants and pollsters advise as to what we think and want. For the Independent voter, the functions of value anchor and policy driver once provided by the national parties are greatly diminished.
Change of such a magnitude does not happen in a vacuum. In 1960, only 41 percent of those over 25 years of age nationwide had a high school degree; i.e., three in five had not graduated from high school. That number is now well over 80 percent with a full quarter of those 25 years or older holding bachelor degrees. More telling, in the late 1940s, more than 36 percent of the private sector work force was unionized. That number is now below 8 percent. The internet and related technical advances have radically changed how and where we work, as well as our dependence on large corporate structures for income and place.
Indeed, we are now well into the knowledge economy and it means just that: You are of value, and earn, as you know and can do. As education became more available, people became more able to affect their ability to lead their own lives, to earn and move up, or sideways, or anyway they wanted. The mega structures that provided jobs and security were in decline. For a great many of us, the links among family, union, church, and social and business clubs — the tie-ins and loyalties that in the past had gotten so many their piece of the pie — had lost their hold and effect.
And so, it seems, in politics. A person’s parents and where he or she grew up were no longer to play so dominant a role in their political identification or party affiliation. With something of an accepted baseline on the role of government in the economy and civil rights, party differentiation has tended to rest on a wide range of specific issues as championed and defined by the individual candidates.
Beneath the jousting and posturing, though, there remains of the parties inference and nuance, traditions that run deeper than the issue of the day. The Democrats remain associated with large solutions and programs, an inclination for the group, usually the government, to assume a direct measure of responsibility for the wellbeing of the citizenry. Call it nurturing or controlling, the instinct is that group is the solution. The Republicans, at core, are perceived as disinclined to this approach, even to denial. They are seen as preferring instead to leave most of the wellbeing of the citizenry in the hands of the citizenry itself. Interestingly, these perspectives that now seem so instinctive to our political parties reflect, by and large, the core values of the nation:
The context of the first is essentially that of community; i.e., as a person is of value with certain inalienable rights, it is on the community, the group, to protect and ensure these rights for each citizen, taking what actions are available to promote their wellbeing. The context of the second is of the individual. It calls on each person to live a responsible life according to his or her ability, to deserve and claim by their actions the rights and the respect they would call upon the group to ensure and protect. As the core elements of our value system, they are concrete: they cannot be divided nor be further reduced. They are, in fact, different perspectives on what together constitutes this nation’s political truth.
As a political Independent, a person is no less responsible for the protection and advancement of these values, this truth, than an active Republican or Democrat. Indeed, for the political Independent, these responsibilities will require more effort because he or she does not have a party system or a political infrastructure on which to lean or to consult. More critically, it will require more effort to care because the typical Independent is generally less inclined to the political realm.
But we must care, we must engage. To not engage, to say by our actions that we do not care, is to abrogate our responsibility, to put our freedom, our independence, in the hands of others, those who do engage politically. It is in, and on, each of us to be the living embodiment of the political truth on which this nation was founded. And it is only in embracing engagement that we each can play our part in ensuring its expression and enhancement.
IndependentDigest was founded to facilitate political engagement by those who identify politically as Independent. It is not a membership organization, nor a political club, not even to suggest a political party. It is a privately funded website professionally operated and maintained for the informational and interactive benefit of its readers.
The design impact of Independent Digest is the facilitation of political self-identification by Independents and their active engagement in the political process. There will be daily news updates and weekly content on what it means to be an Independent, on how Independents are reacting to events, on what people are saying about them. It will link to major national media and political websites, as well as political research and polling resources. There will be a blog and other venues to link up with other Independents, nearby or across the country. Also, it will provide access to how-to information on voting and registration by state. In short, it will have everything a responsible citizen would need to be a fully engaged participant in the 2008 election, and those that follow.
The only thing you have to do is log on and play. You know, engage.
*As a category, Independent is something of a “none of the above” in the NES survey, with the respondent first given the option of being a Republican or a Democrat. The actual survey question is: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what?” A follow up question results in the respondent being placed in one of seven categories: Strong Democrat, Weak Democrat, Independent Democrat, Pure Independent, Independent Republican, Weak Republican, Strong Republican. The Independent Republican and Independent Democrat categories are derived from responses to the question “Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican or the Democratic party?”