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.