The Independent Way

July 5, 2008 on 4:51 pm

The time of the Independent is at hand. For good or ill, the parties are about to offer their wares and it now falls on us, the nation’s Independents, to determine who’s to be the next President of the United States of America.

And who, exactly, are we? Though at least 10 million strong, and arguably three times that number, the first and best answer to that question is that we are not one. While each of our single votes will help determine the next President, the unum, if you will, we remain as the pluribus, the many. We are not a political unity or entity. Though many of us are politically active, we participate without benefit or burden of party affiliation.

So, in this Perfect Storm of an election, we need an anchor, a fixing from which we can take our bearings. With “Democrat” and “Republican” having become so partisan as to be useless to us, our default option would appear to be the conservative/moderate/liberal continuum. But even here, where to start? Enter Mickey Edwards, a Goldwater Republican and retired eight-term Congressman from Oklahoma, with his recently published Reclaiming Conservatism in which he attempts to delineate the conservative pole of the political spectrum.

And what is conservatism to Rep. Edwards? Love of freedom and opportunity, and the dignity of every individual. He cites European Liberalism, born of the Enlightenment, as the wellspring of American Conservatism, holding that European Conservatism was autocracy, plain and simple. Fixing on the U. S. Constitution as autocracy’s antidote, he drives home the conservative mantra that the first purpose of the Constitution was to limit the authority of the state.

Moreover, in Rep. Edwards’ conservatism, there is no place for a strong Executive Branch. Nor does his Constitution-centered conservatism include the Religious Right and its intolerance of those outside its belief system. Lamenting the “change wrought by the movement of the religiously conservative in the world of politics,” he notes its effect even on the Heritage Foundation,  the prototype conservative think tank of the early 1980s whose Mandate for Change was the first Reagan administration’s bible and handbook. Founded on four central principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and a strong national defense, by the early 1990s it had added a fifth – traditional American values.

Indeed, where Goldwater’s conservatism spoke of rights, many of today’s conservatives speak of values. And where does this take us? Adverbs. Republican, the noun, as modified by conservative the adjective is no longer enough. Now the adjective has to be modified by adverbs, e.g., politically (Constitution-oriented) or socially (Religious Right) conservative. Strikingly, though, when the politically conservative Republican is stood next to the socially conservative Republican, you have two wholly incompatible animals. The former sees the political process as something that should ensure and promote his/her personal liberty, i.e., rights, whereas the latter sees the political process as an opportunity and venue to compel behavior consistent with the values of the group or the majority.

The liberal portion of the continuum is equally problematic. For a time frame, we will take FDR’s first term as the origin of contemporary liberalism in this country. Prior to that time, neither national party favored a role for government in the economy. Indeed, in the 1932 election that put FDR in office, both Republican and Democratic candidates had run on a balanced budget platform. Moreover, there was a fundamental resistance at all levels of life to government intrusion, economic and otherwise, especially at the federal level. Market forces had been linked at the hip with personal liberty for as long as anyone could remember and there was little interest in changing this.

What people wanted in 1933, though, was work, jobs, and FDR’s New Deal set about creating them, as well as fundamentally redefining the federal government’s role in the economy. And as the Depression wore on for eight years more, to be followed by four years of world war, a majority of the population came to accept this role such that, by Truman’s Fair Deal of the late 1940’s, liberalism had expanded from jobs to include education, with healthcare next on the agenda. Though resisted by conservatives as creeping socialism, the ultimate thrust of the liberal agenda remained opportunity.

In the 1960s, however, this was all to change. John Kennedy’s New Frontier was transformed into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, incorporating an all encompassing civil rights agenda with jobs, education and healthcare. The result was a liberal mantra that morphed from opportunity to entitlement. The classical liberal agenda grounded on individual rights and personal liberty (i.e., out of the Enlightenment), had now expanded such that rights were to be linked with results, i.e., the economic well-being of each individual. The process was to find expression in official mind-sets and entitlement programs that put process and structure above all else, expanding government programs exponentially and marginalizing initiative and personal responsibility.

As political terms, liberal and liberalism had in fact come to encompass individual rights and large social programs through which the government extended its impact at every level of society in every state of the union. This was a far cry from the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers whose crowning achievement was a Constitution designed to limit the authority of the state. Whereas the political and governmental venue is the first option for the contemporary liberal, for the liberal of yore it was the last. They did not seek to be politicians nearly as much as they sought to be free of them, and largely of government, as well. So, what in all this is liberal? What, exactly, in all this, does liberalism mean?

For the Independent, then, the conservative/moderate/liberal continuum appears to be of little use. In today’s politics, conservatism and liberalism both lack the precision and commonality of use needed to facilitate and inform political discourse. But we still need something, a schema, an underlying organizational pattern or structure, a conceptual framework, a context for thinking politically, if we are to participate meaningfully in Election 08. So here’s what we are going to do. We are going to keep the words of the continuum but develop a different context in which to employ them. To do this, we will go back to basic concepts, of which we will focus on four: truth, principles, rights, and values.

Webster’s has truth as ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience. By its own measure, then, truth, as timeless, is ultimately beyond us. However, we each do have within us a sense of truth and it is from this we deduce principles. For example, we as a nation hold equality at birth as a principle that is accepted as self-evident.

Rights come next. These we will cite as agreed upon specifications of the application of a principle. For example, accepting the principle of equality at birth, a right would specify that we are all equally eligible to stand for public office. Another right might specify participation in decisions regarding changes in the rules under which we have organized ourselves.

Next, and finally, we come to values. Where a right can be seen as a linear extension of a principle, a value is a more subjective thing. It presumes alternatives and finds expression in different perspectives on a given phenomenon or idea or concept. Where truth-to-principle-to-right engage primarily the mind, values far more engage the heart, the emotions. And as a right is grounded on a principle, a value is grounded on a convention, a mutally accepted commonality of perspective, interest and purpose.

Interestingly, where truth, principal and right can lead us to common ground, values often lead to confrontation, or worse. Furthermore, as being built on experience, instinct, psychological need and personal expression, values can adjust and change over the course of a life, and certainly over time. The question for us as a nation, though, is do we have a center of gravity, a core national convention, that does not change? The answer, certainly for a country grounded on a principal rather than ethnic or geographic association, must be yes. The following, then, are offered as this nation’s core values:

Each human being is of worth, in and of himself or herself, without the need of validation from any state, or religion, or sect, or other person.

Each person is responsible for his or her actions, for the state of their lives, for their individual, separate tracking across time and place.

These are the values, the driving social forces, of our nation. As compatible, they are, at the same time, both distinct and interdependent. If either is taken away, the nation, America, disappears, evaporates. Taken together, though, they form our social foundation, incorporating the reality and necessity of what it is to be social: the I and we. As there can be no society without a multiplicity of Is, i.e., people, there can be no Is without a multiplicity of people – at least two.

The context of individual worth is essentially that of community; i.e., as a person is of worth with certain unalienable rights, it is on the community, the group, to protect and ensure these rights for each citizen. The context of the second is of the individual. It holds that it is 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.

With this, then, we appear to have the parts and pieces and commonality of interest we need to develop a schema, a context for thinking politically. Our purpose, remember, is to help you to find a place or perspective from which you can regard and evaluate others and participate meaningfully. And, as above, we are going to use conservative, moderate and liberal, but in a way that is structurally apart from their conventional association with political parties and the complexity of their current usage. To do this, we’re going to use the three realms of our daily existence: political, cultural and economic.

The political realm has to do with rights, the relationship between citizen and state, and between and among the citizens, and as these lead to the governmental structures that provide, protect and alter them. In a democracy, its ultimate mechanism is reason. The cultural realm has to do with values; religious, tribal, community, family, others. Its mechanisms are largely associative and emotional. More broth than portions, it incorporates the future as affected and driven by the past and present. The economic realm is next. It starts with physical need and necessity and builds, in our era, to enabling personal liberty. It incorporates property, but as a mechanism rather than a principle.

And what do these realms in which we live our daily lives have to do with Independents in Election 08? Very simple. It’s a matter of identity. Remember, only one American in thirty is actually an on-the-rolls, dues-paying member of a political party. Every one else “self-identifies” as a Republican or Democrat or “other.” For the vast majority of us, then, Republican or Democrat is not a membership thing, it’s a perspective thing.

So, go back to the realms. Think about them. From how they have been described above, is there one with which you identify more than the others? Does your perspective on the election, or politics in general, seem better housed in one of the realms over the others? Thinking about it? Got one? You ready? Okay, here goes. If you picked the political realm, your perspective would be liberal, if the cultural realm, conservative, and if the economic realm, moderate.

Remember, now, while the actual realms exist in our daily lives as physical, legal, and experiential realities, we are using them as metaphors. We want to use the realms as perspectives from and through which to view and appreciate the national political process as it plays out during this election year. So, let’s explore what liberal, conservative, moderate might entail as associated metaphorically with their respective realms.  

As the word implies, the liberal seeks to liberate, to empower. Liberals are concerned first with rights (civil, voting, patient, gay, etc.) and how the political process works to advance them, along with the political process in general. Accordingly, the liberal sees the political realm as the best context and venue for addressing the nation’s issues and pursuing its opportunities. Ideologically inclined, he/she sees change as good in and of itself and has a healthy instinct for challenging social traditions and order. Conceptually-oriented, the liberal’s time-anchor is the future in which great faith is placed and nourished. And with such faith in the future, there is little reluctance to borrow against it. Typically, the liberal’s focus is more on goals and ideals and less on consequences.

Conservatives, first and foremost, resist change. As the word implies, they are inclined to conserve what exists. With an abiding faith in an existing order, the conservative puts the burden on others to demonstrate the need for change. Tradition and institutions weigh heavily with society seen as an extension of the nuclear family. Typically religious in orientation, they routinely see themselves as tasked with sharing and enforcing their values with, and on, others. Distrusting ambition and individualism, and wary of opportunity, the conservative’s time-anchor is in the past and he/she views the future with apprehension, strongly disinclining him/her to borrow against it. The conservative’s focus tends more toward consequences than goals, with ideologies viewed as counter-cultural distractions at best, and dangerous at worst.

The moderate is less interested in politics as a process and is apprehensive about political solutions to social problems. Though respectful of culture, they readily admit to change, but resist it for its own sake. To the moderate, rights are important as a social foundation, though subject to contemporary application and interpretation. Technology is not only welcomed, it is viewed as the driving force for change. Ideology tends to be both distrusted and ignored at the same time. They are more curious than concerned about values that differ from their own, so long as these differences do not unduly challenge the lives they are building. Of the three, they are the least emotional and their time clock is anchored primarily in a practical present. They think in terms of goals more than ideals and welcome opportunities to explore consequences.

In the course of a life, a person’s identification with a particular perspective is subject to change. The young tend to be liberal. Less burdened with the complexities of personal experience, they are attracted to the simplicity of rights and ideas. They are less invested in the cultures about them which can be seen as unnecessarily restrictive, especially in light of their more conceptual perspective on reality. The seniors amongst us tend to be conservative. Certainly today’s seniors have seen a sufficiency of change in their life journeys and that they would now welcome stability should only be expected. These and other considerations incline us to move about and among the realms as the circumstances of our lives emerge and change.

And as with individuals, so with groups. A labor union, for example, having started of necessity in the economic realm, might migrate to the political realm in seeking the right to organize, and, once established, move to the cultural realm to protect the wages, benefits and privileges it has won for its rank and file. Government agencies seem particularly inclined to migrate; i.e., from the political realm, where rights (political or economic) are defined and writ, to the cultural realm, there functioning as bureaucracies, tasked with protecting their programs and existence, increasingly resistant to change.

Business organizations, as well. While routinely starting in the economic realm with an open market outlook, once established, corporations frequently slip into the cultural realm where the perspective shifts from finding new markets to protecting existing ones. Indeed, what would be more treasured by the successful executive than an iconic brand name? Have a Coke! Even our national political parties are not immune. Having become primarily structures, they tend to resist change forced upon them by the very candidates who seek their endorsement and nomination. Having begun life in the political realm, they find themselves today full square in the cultural.

And exactly how does all this help the Independent? The idea is to determine with which of the realm-oriented perspectives are you most comfortable politically. Remember, we are trying to separate conservative, moderate and liberal from party association, as well as from the complexities associated with the use of these words by factions claiming their ownership. Our focus is on your finding and developing a perspective with and from which to participate in the electoral process. Coming to a sense of which of the realms offers you the greatest compatibility should facilitate choosing the candidate that best serves the needs of the nation as you understand and perceive them, i.e., from your perspective.

Nothing is forever, but November 4 is for real. You want to walk out of the polling place satisfied that you have cast your vote well and with purpose. It is our hope that the above will help you to get this done. Your comments would be most welcome.