The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Independent

In American politics, independent voters are magical creatures. They are invoked, summoned, conjured with. Ritual sacrifices are made in their name. Candidates rub the fictive head of the Independent Voter for good luck. Never so much during primary season that the candidate loses the fidelity of his party constituency, of course. Unless it’s an open primary.

In reality, of course, the Independent Voter isn’t any single thing. There are voters who are unaffiliated out of casual disengagement, and those who adamantly refuse party affiliation as if it were poison. There are conservative independents, liberal independents, radical independents, libertarian independents. There are independents who barely bother to vote and have no real interest in the political system and independents who are as passionate about American politics as the most dedicated ward captain.

The independents whom some of the candidates are courting, though, do strike me as having some roughly similar views about politics, if not specific policy or ideological positions. As an independent myself, I’m conscious that I have some of these root-level, basically emotional, orientations. At least since the mid-1970s, these independents have been more attracted to the personal character, leadership style, and rhetorical mode of a candidate than to a match between the independent’s own specific convictions and the candidate’s declared positions. If a candidate seems fearless, bluntly honest, open-minded, willing to buck the conventional wisdom (particularly party-line ideology), they’re attractive to this kind of independent sensibility.

This explains why independents are easily seduced and abandoned, and stumble from one jilted political relationship to the next. (I very much include myself in this indictment.) Pundits have been using the “wouldya like to have a beer with the candidate?” test to evaluate the general likeability of political figures. For some independents, that’s not the test. Instead, it’s about about looking in the mirror and asking our reflections, “Who is the fairest of them all?”. We flatter ourselves and imagine that we are idiosyncratic in our loyalties, persuadable by rational argument, willing to side with truth wherever we find it, uncorrupted in a world full of corruption. And so we ask of a candidate: are you like that, too? A lot of independents are looking for the latter-day fantasy version of Harry Truman, so different from his historical reality.

Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes scored a direct hit on the “objective” liberal intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, and the manner in which they delivered obsequious compliments to their own judiciousness and lack of ideology. We all have ideology, even the independent, and ideology is not some shameful fetish that one keeps in a locked box in the closet. If you don’t like that word, try philosophy or theory. We all have first principles from which we reason or feel or find our way to specific convictions and outcomes. The person of pure reason who comes to every issue as innocent as a newborn is not just a fiction, it’s a stupid and unattractive fiction.

That said, I do like the idea of being able to change one’s mind, of being open to unexpected evidence, of seeing things from multiple perspectives. I tend to look at politics the same way Jane Jacobs looked at cities, as something that grows organically out of experience and usage. The strong party or movement loyalist looks at politics the way that Le Corbusier looked at cities: as a thing to be built by rigid principles, and damn people if they’re too stupid or recalcitrant to live in the city of tomorrow the way that they’re supposed to.

So I’m an independent, and I want my preferred candidates to exhibit some of the outlook of the independent. If I turn on a candidate I’ve liked, it’ll often first be because they violated some crucial part of my expectation for independent behaviors. Take John McCain. I actually did like him somewhat in 2000, so I didn’t care so much about the fact that his open, declared political convictions were a million miles away from mine, and likely to violate many things that I believe in. But he first lost any hope that I might ever vote for him not because I woke up and paid attention to what he actually might do as President but because he fawned and cringed like a whipped dog at the feet of his master, because he went crawling to people and interests who had treated him so badly. The independent fantasizes that his ideal candidate will stand proud even if that means not winning, at least if the stakes are high enough and the principle important enough. When you get on a stage and give an enthusiastic hug to a man who slandered your family and yourself, not to mention a man who is dragging your country’s reputation down into the mud, you lose the independent voter.

This of course is all stupidly macho as a way to think about politics: it’s some kind of ur-brain thing about honor and loyalty and courage and so on working its way up into precincts that should be making other kinds of judgments. If McCain’s 2000 candidacy had ever gotten past the point of the protective cloud of media hype that burnished these images to a sheen, I think I would have rejected him for other reasons, namely, the things he’d actually do as President. That’s something else that happens to independents: they fall for image, and then when they get a look at reality, they realize that they’re better off with some dull old political hack. Because the person they thought they liked is either an extremist or a screaming lunatic or just a mildly charismatic hack. Or is just a propped-up media darling whose missteps and dirty laundry are being obligingly hidden by reporters who also have the same fetishes as independents.

A strong party-line voter seems to have an easier job of it, at least on the surface. You get out your checklist and you run down in and when you have the best match, you’ve got your candidate. In reality, it doesn’t work out that way. The independent has to work backward from what they perceive to be the personal and ethical qualifications of a candidate to a match on political positions. The party-line voter has to work from a match on positions to whether or not the candidate has the skills, charisma and ethical consistency to carry out the political program. If you’re a progressive at the left end of the spectrum, you might find Kucinich matching you closely on paper, but judge that in the end, he wouldn’t be able to institute any of the positions you value. Maybe for the same reason, you end up backing Clinton even though on paper, she’s not really that progressive on many issues.

I don’t think that my type of independent is wrong to want what we want (in either ourselves or our candidates) even if we overestimate its value and our own personal ability to live up to that expectation. It is important to think past the image. It is important not to fall too deeply into man-on-a-white-horse messianism, to forget that a candidate is going to have to govern within a two-party system, to play small ball as well as throw a few Hail Mary passes. It is important not to forget about the value of commitments to core political values.

But I think it’s worth remaining an independent in sensibility and outlook, too. Not just because the party-line candidate is business as usual in a time where we need something else (don’t we always need something else)? But also because the party-line candidate can’t even be counted on to deliver business as usual as a function of their superior ideological discipline or specificity. How much has a Democratic Congress delivered in the last two years in terms of Democratic positions? (Assuming there is such a thing amid the contradictions of the contemporary Democratic Party.) I keep hearing that building a big tent is a fool’s errand, that persuasion is for chumps, and that all we need is a leader with the correct checklist and the will to fight without compromise or hesitation for it. If that were sufficient, things would already be far different than they are. Independents have one set of illusions, party loyalists and activists another.

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17 Responses to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Independent

  1. paul spencer says:

    You’re a little off on your take of the 60s/70s liberal intellectual in my experience. There were a few who were proudly non-ideological, but most of us simply couldn’t sustain the adrenaline levels to fight the good fight any longer.

    You may be aware that the ideologically-firm liberal of that time was under constant attack. I was personally “at it” for 12 years. When the war ended, Nixon left office, and my kids were 4 and 1, it seemed like a good time to submerge my ideology and “fit in” for awhile. Same with many, many friends and acquaintances.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I should be more specific about relaying the Wills comment. Wills is talking about a kind of Arthur Schlesinger-style liberalism, and about the intellectual posture embedded within it (in the context of the late 1960s), that it was somehow above and beyond ideology. I’ll have to rummage around for my copy, but Wills has a longish quote that I think is very much on target, about how a certain mode of liberalism presented itself in contradistinction to radicalism at that moment. He definitely agrees that it was under constant attack from the left and right, but he argues that to some extent, liberals were walking into the crossfire by setting themselves up as above the fray.

  3. paul spencer says:

    I remember some of Wills’ pieces vaguely, but never paid that much attention. I agree about Schlesinger et al.: “… a certain mode of liberalism presented itself in contradistinction to radicalism at that moment.” No doubt that we radicals identified that difference, too – it was a common observation.

    I guess that I’m just feeling somewhat guilty for backing down in the mid-70s.

    Separate question – is your Africa expertise based on any kind of active research? That is, do you do ‘field work’? I glanced through some of your papers, etc., but I couldn’t tell for sure.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    The manuscript I’m finishing now is based on work done in Zimbabwe in 1997-98; my first book was based on fieldwork in Zimbabwe done in 1990-91. I’m starting a new project in the coming year that should take me to South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania and a few other places over the next few years.

  5. Fats Durston says:


    Dar, Zanzibar, or upcountry stuff?

  6. As a “dedicated ward captain” (I guess?), I can tell you that there’s not all that much that differentiates your attitudes and behaviors from many of us who have adopted a partisan label. It’s possible to be within a party, even within a party machinery, without checking your ability to weigh evidence and think independently.

    But while the independent in your profile seems to spend a lot of time sussing out the qualities of character from speeches and appearances on Meet the Press, I’d say that he or she is ignoring one of the best litmus tests for character–who your friends are.

    * * *

    “How much has a Democratic Congress delivered in the last two years in terms of Democratic positions?” For starters, it’s only been ONE year. If you take into account the number of vetoes, threatened vetoes, and actions blocked by procedural machinations in the Senate… quite a friggin’ lot, actually.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I really don’t feel that way. I think this Congress should have been setting a fire underneath this Administration. I think we should have had a great many hearings, a lot of peering under rocks, aggressive use of oversight powers. Instead we’ve gotten a lot of attempts to back Bush into vetoing SCHIP and such. I feel that the Congressional leadership has been very passive on the whole. Where’s Harry Reid in the FISA issue, for example? They’re playing not to lose, not trying to craft a distinctive image for the party or to take on a distinctive leadership role.

    I don’t put a lot of faith in the Democratic Party per se to deliver much of the agenda I care about. There are individuals I look to, certainly–from the most local level all the way up to the national.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Dar, Fats. Maybe elsewhere if there are particular interviews to be had outside of Dar. That part of the work is probably still far away–I’d mainly be looking to interview some people, and maybe try to get a couple of weeks in the archives; that’ll take getting clearance, which I’m sure is a hassle (though nothing beats Zimbabwe on that score). Probably the first place I’ll be going in South Africa, partly because I have a lot of contacts there and a lot of familiarity. I’ll put something up about the project soon, as it was the subject of my presentation at NITLE.

  9. Fats Durston says:

    Yes, not the hassle of Zimbabwe–one woman in my program gave up on research in Zimbabwe, more for the clearance reason than the political and economic troubles.

    My experience with Dar: 3 months lead-time via email meant nothing. Basically one month of in-country running around and badgering both government and university officials (a couple of professors very helpful) to get the right stamps. Lots of “try back tomorrow” and one instance of circular exclusion that necessitated an intervention by one of the U’s professors (A required to get B; B required to get A).

    Then again, I don’t have Dr. in front of my name yet…

  10. hestal says:

    It is unfortunate that the Framers did not give us a Constitutional mechanism for converting public wishes into public policies. This omission coupled with the malignant, extra-Constitutional development of the two-party system has robbed the People of any say in their government. The Democrats made a strong appeal for control of Congress in 2006 on the basis of ending the war in Iraq. But because the two-party system has had more than two hundred years of unsupervised design of methods for getting and keeping office, the anti-war sentiments of the People translated into a slight, and unworkable, majority for the Democrats. Thus a public wish did not become a public policy.

    Annual polls taken by Gallup on the question of whether the national government should see to it that all citizens have health insurance coverage, have found the People in favor of the proposition by a healthy majority. The average in favor has been 62.2% over that period. So the public wish has been strong and sustained. But this public wish did not become a public policy.

    Instead Congress passed the Medicare Drug act that helped the major drug companies, some insurance companies, and some Medicare recipients, but it did not provide health coverage for any new persons. The passing of Medicare HMO’s legislation helped the HMO’s raid the public treasury, but it did not provide coverage for any new persons. The childish arguments between the White House and Congress over the SCHIP, has resulted in fewer persons being covered, and these are children. So direct action by the national government has been in defiance of a clear public wish.

    The absolutely disgusting performance by both parties in this primary season shows that personality, race, gender, corruption (who is the more corrupt, Obama or Clinton for example) and the like have taken us far away from the pressing issues of our day, issues that are long overdue for real action. And all of this is directly caused by the two-party system, whose ingenious development of earmarks has enabled the party out of office to still demand “contributions” in exchange for a cash bonanza for the giver.

    Most citizens think, I’ll wager, that the two-party system is actually part of the Constitution. Some scholars, Bruce Ackerman, Larry Sabato, Samuel Kernell, Gary C. Jacobson, Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, and even former President Woodrow Wilson assert the essentiality of the two-party system.

    And the quintessential example of two-party system failure is the infamous Compromise of 1877 that resulted in nearly a century of Jim Crow laws spawned by off-the-books agreements between political parties in the name of getting and keeping political power.

    The Framers imagined a United States without political parties. It is still not too late, and it would be easy to make the change. All we have to do is change the way we select our political representatives. We have the proven technology, new since the Constitutional Convention, and we have proven procedures that precede the Constitution.

    In that party-free world, personality, gender, race, corruption, ideology, religion all would disappear as political elements to be replaced by focus on issues of importance and ideas for dealing with them. The native genius of the People would give us an example of speed, forthrightness, and equality not yet seen on this globe. Public wishes would become public policies, and that is all anybody should ever need or want.

  11. hestal says:

    I neglected to say that the Gallup polls I referred to took place from 2000 through 2007.

  12. hektor.bim says:

    A couple of things about this piece.

    (1) The piece really runs off the rails at the end. Your reasons for staying an independent versus joining one of the political parties aren’t convincing.

    “Not just because the party-line candidate is business as usual in a time where we need something else (don’t we always need something else)?” How is this true this year? If anything, the leading contenders in the political races promise in general to be quite different from the current occupant in many ways. The Democratic candidates are further to the left than they were in 2000 or 2004, and the Republican candidates have in many ways gone further to the right of Bush, implicitly considering him a failed conservative and promising a more orthodox and stronger conservative tilt in this race.

    “But also because the party-line candidate can’t even be counted on to deliver business as usual as a function of their superior ideological discipline or specificity. How much has a Democratic Congress delivered in the last two years in terms of Democratic positions? (Assuming there is such a thing amid the contradictions of the contemporary Democratic Party.)”

    First off, it hasn’t been two years since January 2007, and the fact that you can even make this error suggests a problem to me. Secondly, there are two ways to judge the Democratic Congress: in things it has done and in things it has prevented from happening. You’re not making any effort to discuss the second class of things, but the oversight power is potentially very important, especially since the Republicans and the retrograde elements in the Democratic party have decided to support many of the Bush administration’s policies.

    “I keep hearing that building a big tent is a fool’s errand, that persuasion is for chumps, and that all we need is a leader with the correct checklist and the will to fight without compromise or hesitation for it. If that were sufficient, things would already be far different than they are. Independents have one set of illusions, party loyalists and activists another.”

    But this inarguably worked for Bush for six years. He didn’t use persuasion, but he got his tax cuts, his war with Iraq, his Supreme Court justices (after the Harriet Miers debacle), etc. Now it hasn’t worked terrifically, but in terms of being able to ram through an unpopular agenda, it has worked, at least in the short term. And it worked for FDR also.

    Your points just aren’t convincing here.

    (2) What is the value of being an Independent for you? I don’t really understand it – is it to stay above the fray? Is it to allow yourself to consider people as opposed to issues? The fact that you were willing to vote for McCain suggests an emotional response that I can’t figure out how you would justify.

    As far as I can tell, you define being Independent as being apart from and somehow between the Democratic and Republican parties. (I don’t think you are choosing between the Green and the Democratic parties or between the Republican and the Libertarian parties.) So what is attractive to you about the Republican party? Seriously, what policy or approach or emotional pitch do you find more persuasive in their approach?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a fair set of questions, Hektor. I guess one thing I tried to make clear is that I think this is an irrational and emotional attachment on my part. It’s not an attraction to any actually existing Republican (or any other party): more a kind of promise. Should someone appear whom I appreciate for what they are as an elected official, I’m open to supporting them regardless of their party. On another front, it’s a weakness of attachment to the Democratic Party as a party, a distaste for its disarray and incoherence. (Not to say I appreciate the horrific coherence of the Republicans any better.)

    I don’t really think I would ever have actually voted for McCain, for some of the reasons I indicated above. Mostly, I’m just saying that I liked what I thought I saw in him at first in ’99 (as he was a guy I didn’t know much about initially). Sort of the same way that I have some appreciation for Goldwater’s consistency of viewpoint even though the guy was a gazillion miles away from me on most points. I think that’s part of it: I feel able to break bread with someone authentic, even someone very very much unlike myself. That’s part of what I’d identify as my stubborn attachment to being an independent: a belief that a candidate or official who has convictions opposite to my own might nevertheless be someone whose presence in the total system of political power I appreciate if I think they’re heartfelt, consistent, and return my appreciation towards their opponents. That’s the last and key thing that I see as part of what I’d say was authentic, and it’s lacking in almost every major figure of the contemporary Republican Party: a faith in a shared system, a commitment to common trust in institutions, and an appreciation for the value of political diversity. But somehow I want to remain open to the possibility of that appearing in any individual or leader.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Let me ask separately though: what has this Congress actually prevented from happening? We have a new Attorney General, for example, who not only refuses to declare that waterboarding is illegal, but enunciated a novel legal principle just the other day: that the ends justify the means, and that no torture is illegal if the ends are sufficient. Where has oversight been used assertively to roll back executive privilege, impede the President from his overweening assertions, and so on? Oh, don’t tell me: it’s all so secret that the Democrats can’t really tell us? I just don’t see the Congressional leadership as doing any of the things that matter to me at the moment, just as marking time.

  15. hektor.bim says:

    I appreciate that much of this stuff is emotional, even for people who claim that it isn’t. But your admission that authenticity is of great importance to you is fairly disturbing to me. I don’t care whether people are authentic or not, I care what they do. And how authentic people are seems to have no bearing on what they do or how they act in office.

    I’ll also say that a distaste for “disarray and incoherence” suggests to me a worship of power and efficiency that is also distasteful.

    As to what this Congress has done – let’s see: Rumsfeld and Gonzales out, numerous other flunkies at Justice out, people who refuse to protect voting rights out at Justice, numerous other resignations of Bush Administration apparatchiks. Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq under investigation, etc. None of this would have happened if the Democrats had failed to take power.

    And right now, the Democrats are holding up the FISA bill and preventing the telecoms from getting immunity. Now, is this enough? No. But is it better than what we had? Yes.

    I’ll also mention to me how distasteful this is when you proffer emotional attachments to “authentic” people like John McCain who will continue all the current policies you hate and maybe invade Iran in the bargain, while simultaneously complaining about the Democrats. I can’t take you very seriously as someone who is extremely concerned about the state of the country and the policies it is pursuing if you continue to make political decisions based on emotional appeals and authenticity. The fact that you take refuge in such things suggest to me that you aren’t actually that concerned about the state of the country or you would be doing things differently.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you’re misunderstanding me. In this entry, I’m pointing out that these are impulses I have at the beginning of a political cycle, but that when it gets down to it, I’m basically policy-oriented. A strong party activist strikes me as moving in the other direction at times: from a vision of policy towards trying to figure out which person has the leadership qualities to enact policy. In the end, we’re trying to figure out the same thing: who will do the things that we would like to see done?

  17. hektor.bim says:

    Then what’s the point? If it makes no difference in the end, it’s just completely an emotional attachment / atavistic impulse and is impervious to analysis and is intensely personal.

    It almost seems like a loyalty thing with you – remaining independent allows you to criticize more freely in your own mind. But that’s not actually true for partisans either, many of them are highly critical as well.

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