Monday, May 11, 2009

The Political Outsiders: A Series on the Possible Future of American Politics

I have always been fascinated by the question of how political outsiders—those who are not the elite or influential members of the major political parties—can become influential and affect the political process. I operate from the assumption that America is a democratic system and all citizens and residents should have a voice. The system, if it is working, therefore, should accommodate political outsiders. When ordinary people feel they do not have a voice or a stake in the system, then the system of American democracy has failed.

I am going to attempt a rather ambitious series of blog posts which will present and analyze various ongoing efforts to enact political reform and wider participation in the American political system.

• The Fusion Strategy as touted by the Committee for a Unified Independent Party (CUIP)
• A takeover of the Democratic Party by Progressive, grassroots activists as described and exemplified by the books Crashing the Gate and Taking on the System
• Structural political reforms championed by the organization FairVote such as Instant Runoff Voting and the National Popular Vote

I chose to focus on these three because I have been observing these efforts for a long time—for a number of years. I have been observing the efforts by the CUIP to organize political independents since I first heard about them in the early 2000s. I have been consistently amazed observing FairVote’s incremental success in enacting IRV and NPV city by city and state by state year after year seemingly under the radar of mainstream political media coverage and public consciousness.

Being a political junkie I am a voracious reader of political books. Two books in particular—Crashing the Gate and Taking on the System—made a deep impression on me. These books led me to start researching and observing the efforts of Progressive, grassroots activists who have used the power of Internet technology and social media to challenge entrenched powers in the Democratic Party to create a powerful and influential niche for themselves in recent years.

Part I: Independents and Fusion

In a recent article at my other blog, An Ordinary Person, I examined a political strategy that is being touted by Independent activists for people who do not belong to or believe in the traditional political parties. This strategy is called Fusion. I contrasted the Fusion approach with the approach of third and minor parties of running candidates in electoral politics:

The third party strategy has failed to bring power back to the people in the American political system. Third party candidates who run in local and national elections, except for some anomalies, routinely post miniscule results. This is primarily the result of structural factors and the lopsided rules by which electoral politics in the US is conducted.

The CUIP asserts that there is absolutely no need to wait for these crucial reforms to happen before independents can start participating as players in American politics. Independents have to find ways to participate in politics and affect the political process now. Independents have to be willing to join in the fray of mainstream politics and be ready to throw its support behind any candidate from any party, major or minor, which represents and speaks out for independents. Salit calls this the fusion strategy.

For political outsiders who view issues and politics outside of the prism of Republican or Democratic perspectives, the CUIP’s fusion strategy presents an intriguing possibility for political outsiders to affect the political process as players instead of marginal participants. Indeed, if Independents act as a unified bloc or an organized group of political actors, whatever agenda they represent can be attractive enough for mainstream political candidates who seek their support to adopt.

This crux of the Fusion approach (and its main weakness) is that political independents can and should act as an organized bloc of voters who will throw their support behind any political candidate or movement which represents their interests. If independents are united and mainstream politicians see the benefit of getting their support, independents can potentially alter power dynamics which have traditionally favored the entrenched two major parties. With more than a third of the American electorate now self-designating as independent, the Fusion approach has real potential to have a major impact.

I say weakness, however, because the job of organizing independents and enacting an agenda that this third of the electorate can rally behind is easier said than done. Absent such a consensus, this approach is still heavily dependent on the major parties to set the agenda of political choices. In addition, independents span the political spectrum left to right and there is not a consensus even within independents what types of reforms, if any, the majority of them favor.

What pretty much unifies independents is their distrust of the traditional major parties and their skepticism of both Democrats and Republicans in addressing and actually solving problems. But is that enough to rally them into an actual, bona-fide movement for political reform?

The ongoing efforts by the CUIP is the only existing effort I know that is attempting to do this. I am not aware of any official outreach within the Democratic or Republican parties to appeal to independents in-between election years.

Recommended reading:

We the Purple by Marcia Ford
Committee for a Unified Independent Party
Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America by Micah Sifry
Electoral Fusion (from Wikipedia)


Constructive Feedback said...

My friend Rikyrah:

Could you tell me what a "Progressive take over of the Democratic Party" WILL DO that a Progressive Take over of California, New York City, Cleveland, Philly, etc FAILED to do?

Progressivism is a METHODOLOGY that aspires to get to a certain END.

I am not sure that you have clearly defending your END and if you are agreeable to get to this END even if it mandates that you abandon progressivism on the issues that don't LEND THEMSELVES to being PROGRESSIVE on.

What process do you have to make measure of your forward progress in your vehicle called "Progressionism" and change course or change vehicles when your forward progress is deemed unsatisfactory?

Riding a snowmobile is great when its the appropriate tool. Try to ride the same vehicle on the same lake which is not frozen any longer and it could prove deadly.

When will YOU hold progressivism accountable?

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hello CF

I am the one who wrote the essay, not Rikyrah so let me respond first.

OK -- you are not a Progressive. You are a free-market conservative. I get that. Most likely you prefer Republicans and their policies to the Democrats. I also get that. I also get the point that you make over and over that electing liberals and black Democrats have done little to improve the social and economic conditions of the majority of African Americans.

My question for you -- do you believe the Republicans can do any better? Do you believe that free market ideologues can be your source of uplift where democrats and liberals have, in your opinion, failed?

Here's the thing -- I am neither Republican or Democrat and I see both sides with equal suspicion and skepticism. However -- and this is a big however -- what other options do we have? And I don't mean meaningless choices at the voting booth between big-money financed major party candidates and marginalized minor party candidates. I mean what legitimate choices do we have in this so-called democratic system?

I'm in the camp of the political scientist Adolph Reed who argues ordinary citizens have to build this alternative to the major parties.

The Progressive Democrats at least are involved in trying to do something similar from within their own party. That at least I can point to and respect. If you don't agree with them fine. Then don't vote for or support them.

What are you doing or supporting as the alternative to the major parties? I'm sick of ideological debates that accomplish nothing.