Thursday, October 15, 2009

Serious As A Heart Attack: The Independents' Story

The following article was forwarded by Nancy Hanks of The Hankster. It was written by independent activist Jackie Salit. In it, Salit provides insight on the impact of the independent vote.

Personally, I think the story that Jackie outlines in this commentary below is a "sea-change" story that "big media" picked up on briefly in 2006 and again in 2008 (election fever) but is now somehow completely missing from today's analysis. More than 40% of the American electorate identify as independents. And that growth was produced in large part by the progressive wing of the independent movement. If you blink on this, you will miss the story.

Thanks!
Nancy


SERIOUS AS A HEART ATTACK: THE INDEPENDENTS’ STORY


By: Jackie Salit


When we finally get far enough down the road on health care reform, it will become clear that a driving force in the intensity of the fight was a heart attack. Not the medical kind. The political kind.

Independents swung decisively to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. And it is this shift by independents – who repositioned themselves from center-right to center-left – that gave the Republican right the political equivalent of cardiac arrest.

In 1992, 19 million independents voted for Ross Perot. In 2008, 19 million independents voted for Barack Obama. Over the span of 15 years, the largely white, center-right independent movement re-aligned itself with Black America and progressive-minded voters.

This did not happen out of the blue. It did not happen by magic. It happened because the progressive wing of the independent movement did the painstaking and often controversial work of bringing the Perot movement and the Fulani movement together at the grassroots. The Fulani movement refers to the country’s leading African American independent, Dr. Lenora Fulani, who exposed the black community to independent politics and introduced the independent movement to an alliance with Black America.

No doubt the dramatics that the right wing brought to the Town Hall meetings this summer were intended for the television cameras. But the organizers, strategists and radio personalities who orchestrated the theatrics had a particular audience in mind: Independents. If they could tarnish Obama’s image with indies, they could damage the black and independent alliance and re-establish the Republican Party as an influential force amongst independents. Some of that could be accomplished, they felt, by claiming Obama’s health plan would drive up the national debt – a concern that animated the early Perot movement. Some Republican strategists felt that if they simply branded Obama a socialist, it would scare independents away – not from the health care plan (everyone recognizes a plan of some kind will get passed) but away from the center-left coalition that elected him.

If indies are feeling somewhat disillusioned with President Obama over the health care reform fight, it has more to do with fears that he is being overly influenced by the partisans in Congress. Since independents voted for him to be a more independent president, it’s easy to see how some felt disappointed by his handling of the Republican onslaught. Obama’s independent appeal was based on his challenge to the prevailing culture of Clintonian opportunism in the Democratic Party and partisanship inside the Beltway. Put another way, the independent vote for Obama was an effort to define a new kind of progressivism, one that was not synonymous with Democratic Party control.

After years of hard work and organizing, independents have become a sought-after partner in American politics. They elected President Obama and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, arguably the country’s two most independent and pragmatically progressive elected officials. No wonder the Republican Party right wants a clawback.

Independents are vulnerable to being peeled away by the Republican right. The Pew Research Center reports that were the 2010 midterms to be held today, independents would lean towards Republicans by a 43 to 38 percent margin. But, the evolution of a 21st century independent movement is not that simple. First, the movement is very fluid and very new. Historical movements develop through twists and turns, not in a straight line. The far right has attempted to take over the independent movement before. In 1994, Newt Gingrich crafted the “Contract with America” to woo Perotistas back into the Republican tent. And in 2000, social conservative Pat Buchanan hijacked the Reform Party presidential nomination, though he was roundly repudiated by independents in the general election.

If Republicans are increasing their influence among independents, it’s also because the Democratic Party Left has not been a friend to the independent movement. Sure, Democrats were happy that indies broke for Obama. But they were disappointed that we didn’t become Democrats. They equate progressivism with being in the Democratic Party. But they’re wrong.

Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party has been enthusiastic about the development of indies as a third force. For different reasons, surely. But they share a common goal: to maintain the primacy of two-value logic (where there is only one or the other, never neither) and make sure independents are passive companions. That’s one reason that the fight for open primaries – which allow independents to cast ballots in every round of voting – and the campaign to appoint independents to the Federal Election Commission are so important. Those fights are about our right to participate and our right to represent our interests in changing the political culture.

The independent movement went left in 2008, after many years of grassroots organizing to link it to progressive leadership. Now the right wants to peel it back. Obama, presumably, wants to hold on to the partnership, but must also privilege his own party, which turns independents off and makes them more susceptible to Republican attacks. Meanwhile, independents are working hard at the grassroots to hold our own.

Jackie Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org and the campaign coordinator for Mike Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign on the Independence Party line.

3 comments:

The Angry Independent said...

One of the main problems for Independents is that they lack a formal organizational structure (ie. a Party, a political Organization, a platform, etc). Those who call themselves independents represent too many divergent interests.

Therefore, without any formalized structure, or Party with any clout, or even a basic platform that most independents can agree with.... independents have been and probably will continue to be unable to demand any respect. Politicians either aren't motivated to court the independent vote in the same way that they court other parts of the electorate...or they find it difficult... because no one person or group speaks for independents. It's probably a case of a little of both. If independents represented a definable voting block (or block(s))...then they would be able to make political demands and would motivate politicians to be more responsive.

If you look at these sorts of movements in other Countries... you will find that in most cases these groups weren't taken seriously until they organized more formally into definable blocks (The Greens in Europe, Kadima in Israel, etc, etc there are examples in a number of Countries). If Independents in the U.S. are to move to the next level, this formalization process will have to take place. Then and only then will there be any kind of fundamental tangible change to the status quo two-Party dynamic. Even if Independents formed a block consisting of 10-15% of the electorate...or broke into two groups of 10% each....it would still be monumental... because they would essentially become King makers and could become influential in shaping policy in this Country.

I did enjoy this article though. Interesting take on independents. I am also annoyed by how independents aren't represented in the news or on the political programs. They could at least provide an independent pundit on the panels every now and then (other than Bernie Sanders).

Nancy Hanks said...

Angry Independent -- Thanks very much for drawing attention to this *imho* very important viewpoint and commentary by my colleague Jackie Salit about where the independent movement is at relative to health care (crisis) reform.

I have followed Mirror on America for 4 years now, since I founded The Hankster, and it's one of my top favorite political blogs. Kudos for a job well done!

In terms of our task here, as you say: "..without any formalized structure, or Party with any clout, or even a basic platform that most independents can agree with.... independents have been and probably will continue to be unable to demand any respect. Politicians either aren't motivated to court the independent vote in the same way that they court other parts of the electorate...or they find it difficult... because no one person or group speaks for independents. It's probably a case of a little of both. If independents represented a definable voting block (or block(s))...then they would be able to make political demands and would motivate politicians to be more responsive."

Independents have been able to accomplish quite a bit, based on your criteria. I'm wondering what your take is on how it happens that this story doesn't get out to more people.

After all, Salit et al. have created an organization of affiliated local and state-wide committees in 35 states of independents who are engaging the political powers that be structurally -- in the courts, on the ground and in the media. We are poised to elect the first independent Mayor of New York City (Mike Bloomberg, who is an independent running on the Independence Party line.)

There are more and more voters who identify as independent (some 40-43% of the electorate according to the pollsters) and more and more politicians who are seeking support from that "unknown" bloc categorized as "independents"...

If independents can use the current political structures (political parties, primaries, elections, etc.) to gain ground for ordinary Americans in our political process (open primaries, independents on the Federal Election Commission, Initiative & Referendum, non-partisan elections... etc.), that seems like a good thing to me.

The American independent political movement will never look like the European movement because we have different histories -- after all, we are the Americans; they are the Europeans... that's partly what the American (and French) Revolution was about. We all may well end up in the same place (pro-working class, humanistic); history will tell.

I look forward to the dialogue.
-Nancy

The Angry Independent said...

Independents have been able to accomplish quite a bit, based on your criteria. I'm wondering what your take is on how it happens that this story doesn't get out to more people.

True, Independents have been able to achieve some successes. But it's uneven and it happens under the national radar. Independents are forced to operate outside of the normal channels, because the standard system of political networking.....those built-in advantages that the two main parties have, are not available to independents. While Republicans and Democrats can walk right through the doors that are built for them.... 3rd parties have to dig a tunnel under the doorway and through the floor to gain access to the same benefits that Dems and Republicans take for granted. That takes a lot more work....and the results will almost always be limited. Independents have to work twice as hard just to make a fraction of the progress that the big Parties make. The political infrastructure in this Country is built for 2 Parties. Independents and other 3rd Party groups are seen as folks disrupting the normal order. If you can't even get a seat at a debate.... then there is really no chance for true progress towards alternative Party development in this Country.

Regarding why there is not more coverage of these issues... Again... it's the political infrastructure problem again. The American corporate media is hardwired to accommodate the 2 Party system. So is the American public for that matter. Plus, the 2 Party system is where all the money is. Since Independents are so disjointed...they can't consolidate their resources and compete successfully in the corrupt money game that is so much a part of the American political system. Having tens of millions of dollars at your disposal (like RNC and DNC leaders do) allows you to wield a lot of power.... the major networks want the ad dollars...and the access to political big shots. Therefore, they feel obliged to play the game. There is also this cushy relationship between American media and the political establishment. You have media folks who either have worked for government or have plans to work for government....so they feel the need to play along by accommodating the 2 Parties as much as possible. (Tony Snow is one example...but there are many others). They aren't going to do anything that upsets the status quo that they benefit from....by introducing alternative Parties and giving them airtime. It's just not going to happen.

And the politicians are certainly not going to do anything to disrupt the status quo.... because they benefit bigtime from being among the dominant Parties.

That's why we need laws that would lower the threshold for the number of signatures needed to get candidates onto ballots, guaranteed access to political debates (as long as certain basic standards are met), laws that would provide equal airtime for alternative Parties (if certain criteria are met), and laws to take big money out of politics....with public campaign funding...where everyone gets the same amount of money to start with. There are all sorts of ways to level the playing field.

But you won't see any leveling of the playing field in this Country, because the two main Parties will always protect their interests. They have a vested interest in making sure alternative Parties and voices aren't really allowed to emerge. They will allow you to have a blog.... they will allow you to write books, they will allow you to protest and create petitions for people to sign.... but they aren't going to allow your candidates onto ballots (not without legal challenges)....and they aren't going to allow you equal media time and they aren't going to allow you to take part in debates (not without paying millions to try to block your candidate via the Courts).