For a portion of my voting life, I was registered as an independent. (I’m presently registered as a Democrat, having switched my registration in 2007.) I’ve never been a “typical” independent, if you go by what the political analysts say, in that independents normally skew very significantly towards Republican candidates. Even in the case of those typical independents, however, I think pollsters sometimes ignore the interior self-fashioning of the suburban, educated, middle-class men who register or identify as independents simply because that seems to make little difference to their voting behavior, and certainly that self-image makes much less difference in most political outcomes than independents themselves like to fantasize about.
The independent, whatever his political skew, is a prominent presence in American public discourse, however, which might explain why both parties try to appeal to independents. Even when they’re not a major swing constituency, they’re the men who write newspaper editorials, who dominate Beltway think-tanks, who like to believe they hold the trademark on being Serious People. “Independence”, in this sense, is a latter-day mutation of the masculinity of rugged independence, a demesne of folkloric power in the mythology of American identity.
I know better in more ways than one to set up my own homestead squarely in that territory, but I do understand its appeal. Independence is a fantasy about power, but it is also a fantasy about integrity and honor, in fact, about the possible co-existence of the two things. Independent masculinity hates the idea that power is inevitable as a curse, a crime, or a distribution. (Which is why independents recoil so strongly at both the argument that racial or economic power is the consequence of structures that precede agency and that the independent is implicated in as much as everyone else, or the postmodern view of power as circulating, ubiquitous and morally blurred.) The independent wants power to reside in circumstantial challenges followed by monumental choices. The independent imagines the unfolding of history as drama, and self-lovingly casts himself as a lead actor.
“Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny”. But C.S. Lewis’ Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, is an important reminder that the mythological space of independent masculinity is a densely inhabited one, particularly in American cultural history. The independent mentality loves to dwell on failures as much as successes, on men who stumble or choose greed and dishonor when they get the call. Moreover, the independent often likes to believe that he can appreciate or connect with another “choosing independent” even if they don’t like or agree with the other man’s choices, as long as the other actor seems to have honor and integrity, to be genuine and sincere in his conviction. And–I suppose this is obvious–as long as the other man has acted on his own. A man who is just following orders, doing the bidding of another, is a slavish devotee of a group or movement or collective, need not apply. In Nixon Agonistes, Gary Wills captures (and brilliantly skewers) this mindset among the high-minded “liberal” professoriate of the late 1960s-1970s, in their fastidious belief that they were above and beyond ideology.
This is a space that has Atticus Finch and Dr. Thomas Stockmann in it as well as Howard Roark and Charles Foster Kane: it’s not simply a libertarian or megalomaniacal domain. At times, it’s an ethos and affect that many who do not fully drink the Kool-Aid nevertheless admire or find attractive, and it may spill over into the way that many of us imagine ourselves. I feel the romantic pull of this mode of self-presentation most strongly when I look at figures like Robert Hughes, for example.
Which is why understanding the plasticity (and hard outer boundaries) of the independent imaginary is important in relationship to Paul Ryan. I think it’s true that his nomination is a bid for the approval of independents, not just overtly self-identified religious right or Tea Party members, and progressives need to take that gambit seriously. Even if independents of this stripe aren’t numerically significant, their affection can pay off in sycophantic profiles and op-ed columns, with whatever effect those have on actual swing voters. At the same time, independents are a fussy lot and the tides of their sentiments can be fierce and unpredictable. Casting someone as an independent is often the prelude to a fall, particularly when that person is pegged as a follower of a rigid ideology or conversely as someone who changes positions when it is expedient to do so.