If political independents, presumably centrists and/or pragmatists for the most part, could coalesce around a single party or entity, it would be larger than either the democratic or republican parties. Poll data indicates that about 40-42% of Americans identified as independents in 2011 (31% self-identified as democrat, 27% republican) and about 41% in 2012 (31% democrat, 28% republican). There is a drift of a few self-described independents away from republican-leaning status. At the national level, the two parties are no longer the biggest game in town, nor are they aligned with opinion of the largest political group, the independents.
The relatively high level of independent identification is likely due to factors including (i) a low public image for the federal government, (ii) a low image both the democratic and republican parties and (iii) possibly a growing recognition that dropping party affiliation makes it easier to avoid having a partisan mindset and reflexive partisan support for or opposition to competing policy options. If it is true, the latter point is evidence that there is erosion of blind faith in liberal and conservative ideology, at least as practiced by the two-party system. The Reform Party of California (RPCA) sees erosion in ideological faith as a major change for the better in how the U.S. public sees and thinks about politics.
It is reasonable to believe that independents and presumably centrists and/or pragmatists are open to considering a reduced reliance on ideology as the main framework for doing politics. Ideology is a lens through which reality, politics and policy choices are usually viewed and assessed in the two-party system, which is something the RPCA has criticized repeatedly. That belief is based in part on the fact that the Democratic, Republican, Green, Socialist, Libertarian and most other political parties are firmly grounded in their ideologies. If ideology was the key driver, most independents presumably would be in an existing ideologically-based party and not independent. Therefore, common sense says that loss of faith in ideology is at least partially behind the phenomenon of drift from the status quo model.
Big numbers, small impact: The independent’s one-night stand?
Despite large numbers of independents, their impact on policy is limited. Although both sides openly appeal to independents in elections, once the election is over it is easy to argue that the winning candidate swings back to the left or right. The influence of the center fades into oblivion. That phenomenon is not new, nor is it a secret. As one observer put it, once candidates who appealed to independents get what they want by winning their election, “independent voters are forgotten as quickly as a one-night stand.” Although the analogy might be inappropriate, the sentiment is clear.
If you listen to the rhetoric, it is reasonable to argue that independent voters are forgotten after most elections. The rhetorical focus is on political posturing and status quo party well-being, not problem solving or the will of the people. The republican party is well-known for shooting RHINOs in pursuit of ideological purity and that purity isn’t anywhere close to centrist or independent. The republican party is selling the same old time blind ideology of the hard core right and democrats continue to sell the unsustainable ideology of the left. Centrism has nothing to do with it. On the bright side, the polling data referenced above suggests that republican ideological extremism is slowly eroding public support, as it should. That’s a good thing. The drift is toward the democratic party, which isn’t such a good thing because that reinforces the status quo.
Can anyone unite independents and the political center?
Given the circumstances, an obvious thought is to somehow unite the independents, centrists and pragmatists in some way. That would appear to require an intellectual framework or ideology for people to see and accept. To a large extent, the politics of the left and right for average Americans is driven by strongly held ideological beliefs. Those beliefs constitute an intellectual framework for attracting and holding supporters. The content that the RPCA has generated was intended to provide an intellectual framework that differed from the ideology-based frameworks that other parties are based on.
The point of being different, i.e., pragmatic and non-ideological, was intended to address three concerns. One was the loss of trust in both government and political parties that characterizes politics today. Another was to provide a different and better way to see and think about politics, i.e., objectivity and logic without distortion and knee-jerk instinctive thinking that ideology imposes on the process. The third concern was to elevate transparency and service to the public interest as key components of the different political approach.
Addressing those three concerns provided a clear alternative for doing politics in a way that would appeal to independents or centrists. The assumption behind that belief is simple. If it is true that the two parties and their ideologies are losing their grip on independents and centrists, then transparent logic and pragmatism focused on service to the public interest ought to appeal to many or most of them. Offering some other kind of standard political or religious ideology, e.g., socialism or libertarianism, doesn’t seem to be a promising way to appeal to discontented independents and centrists. If any ideological message was sufficiently appealing, then it would be capturing many of the independents. Reality, backed by polling data, shows that those messages are simply not appealing to the mainstream public.
If you more or less accept the RPCA’s version of reality, at least one conclusion is obvious. Centrists and pragmatists have no meaningful place in the two-party politics of the left and the right. What they get is, at best, lip service in elections followed by little, nothing or quiet derision for naïvety. That raises the question of what centrists and pragmatists can or should do if they want the status quo to change. One obvious answer is to unite just like the Tea Party and Occupy folks. If nothing else, both of those movements got attention in politics and the press. Their concerns are now mainstream in political discourse, if not yet policy. What their ultimate impact will be cannot be known.
In politics, change happens only when people act. Therefore centrists and pragmatists have to unite or remain irrelevant in politics. The RPCA just cannot see any other reasonable conclusion. Given that reality, the RPCA will begin an initiative to unite the center, or if one is ongoing, join the existing effort. The goal is to generate an organization of a sufficient presence that the press and politicians cannot ignore. Tea party and Occupy folks, are picketing-street protesting type folks. That draws press and political attention. Most centrists just do not do that kind of thing.
Throw down the gauntlet
Despite that, there are other ways to have an impact. The RPCA will find that other way and work to use it. But here’s the gauntlet: If centrists and pragmatists do nothing, nothing will change. Therefore, we must become less passive and at least occasionally act in concert. That may not be protesting in the streets, but it has to be something more than just protesting on blogs. It does not necessarily mean joining the RPCA, although that would be very helpful. If others have not already figured out what actions to take that centrists would be willing to commit to for the long haul, the RPCA will figure it out. Its part of our job. There has to be a viable way forward to real change.
Suitable music to accompany this cheerful commentary: We Are Telephone – Ahead and/or VNV Nation – Perpetual (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikRbKhbvees). No pessimism there folks.
2. Links: http://www.gallup.com/poll/156713/Americans-Rate-Computer-Industry-Best-Oil-Gas-Worst.aspx; http://www.gallup.com/poll/24655/Party-Images.aspx; http://www.gallup.com/poll/149795/Republican-Democratic-Party-Images-Equally-Negative.aspx; http://ivn.us/2012/10/22/50-reasons-register-independent/.
3. Links: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-what-is-the-proper-size-and-scope-in-government/; http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-6-what-is-the-public-interest-and-how-is-it-best-served/.
4. The RPCA, like the national Reform Party, is grounded in centrist/pragmatic non-ideological politics. The RPCA emphasizes objectivity in politics, policy options and the definition of service to the public interest. Ideologically-grounded parties see these things through the lens of their ideology. In RPCA opinion, that makes ideologically-based politics more subjective than objective, which in turn gives you less effective politics in the long run. Obviously, ideologically-based parties would strongly disagree to say the least. This amounts to a simple difference of opinion and differing views of reality.
8. Conservatives are correct that our fiscal situation is unsustainable and probably very dangerous, maybe out of control. Where conservative ideologues fall flat is applying unspun reality to unbiased analysis in arriving at their policy solutions (less taxes, less regulation and less domestic spending) to this very real and urgent problem. The RPCA has argued that point elsewhere (http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-elusive-economic-reality/). In RPCA opinion, pragmatic problem solving, not ideology, best solves problems that affect the public interest. Ideology solves problems that affect the ideological interest, which is where the extremist republican party resides these days. Whether the ideological approach best serves the public interest is mostly a matter of chance.
10. Pragmatism means accepting the best policy choices based on unspun facts and unbiased analysis with an eye on sustainably serving the public interest. That is discussed elsewhere (http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-6-what-is-the-public-interest-and-how-is-it-best-served/). The implication of being pragmatic (not centrist) is that a fair hearing may suggest that a particular policy choice is best, regardless of whether it would be considered a preferred choice by the left, right, center or elsewhere. In practice most pragmatic policy will probably amount to centrist policy, more or less. If nothing else, that comes from the nature of the two-party system as it exists now because compromise is necessary to do much of anything. What differs is that arguments from the pragmatist can come from places other than the center even though the end result might be elsewhere.
11. Millions of Americans have sworn off politics arguing that it is a waste of time and that the system is rigged and corrupt. Yes, it is rigged and corrupt. However, if enough people do something it will not be a waste of time. Many wonks and partisans still argue that what dissidents like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did to their presidential elections was counterproductive or a waste of time/votes. The RPCA disagrees. They made the status quo pay attention, even if in the long run little or nothing changed. Inflicting change on an unresponsive, corrupt and arrogant two-party system will require sustained participation by millions or tens of millions of Americans. There is no other way. Rest assured, the RPCA will find a way to make that possible. For most average Americans, there is always a way.