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Issue No. 54 (May 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Wake up, you
there in the Beltway:
by John Avlon
A grassroots independent movement is growing in America. Independents now outnumber Democrats or Republicans, and independents will determine the winner of this year’s presidential election. But the Beltway crowd is entirely blinded to this reality.
At a time when Congress is more polarized than ever before, the professional partisans are desperately trying to deny the influence of this rising tide. Independents are the elephant in the living room of this election.
Don't dis independents
Ideologues on both sides are deluding themselves by embracing the currently fashionable conceit that all Democrats or Republicans need to do to win an election is appeal to their base. This is wrong as a matter of simple math.
Another tactic used to explain away the independent vote is to accuse it of being incoherent and consequently irrelevant. But this ignores the fact that the number of independents and moderates has risen at precisely the same time that our domestic politics has grown more polarized.
A recent survey by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows that 41% of undergraduates identify as independents.
“Young people in particular are repulsed by this polarization,” explains Prof. David King of the Kennedy School of Government. “They don’t want to be labeled Republican or Democrat. . . .
“People who declare themselves independents tend to be . . . centrists. [But] it is a radical center that feels alienated from politics. And this is something we have to confront if we are going to engage the next generation of voters.”
Leading from the center
Prof. King’s remarks were given in Cambridge, Mass. on April 13 at a conference titled “Declarations from Independents,” hosted by the Kennedy School’s student-run Independent Caucus. Also speaking at the conference were the author of Radical Middle, Mark Satin; the former governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura; and myself.
When Mr. Ventura campaigned as an independent for governor in 1998, his centrist message was unmistakable. Describing himself as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate-to-liberal,” Mr. Ventura repeatedly argued that “neither of the two parties is truly representing the people anymore. They are on opposite extremes with about 70% of us in the middle.”
Likewise, the highly successful two-term independent governor of Maine during the 1990s, Angus King, explained why he ran as an independent by saying “I’m too fiscally conservative for the Democrats and too socially liberal for the Republicans, like 75% of the American people.”
There is obvious and instinctive overlap in these independent voices. In sharp contrast to past third-party candidacies -- such as Henry Wallace’s Soviet-sympathizing 1948 campaign, or George Wallace’s 1968 and 1972 segregationist campaigns -- the campaigns of Messrs. Ventura and King were explicitly centrist, seeking to give a voice to the disenfranchised moderate majority.
Their independent voices echo a generational impulse toward the center.
As Douglas Coupland, who coined the term “Generation X” with his novel of the same name, argues, “The old left-right paradigm is not working anymore. . . . Coming down the pipe are an extraordinarily large number of fiscal conservatives who are socially left.”
Case in point: the Independent Caucus at the Kennedy School was founded last year by students who’d been asked to segregate themselves into groups according to whether they were Democrats or Republicans -- and found themselves standing out in the hall. This led to a series of discussions about what led them to reject left and right politics as usual, and an examination of the issues they shared in common.
Theirs is a small but important example of a larger discussion that is going on in a growing number of coffee shops, classrooms, and Internet chat rooms across the nation.
Books by authors like Ted Halstead, Michael Lind, Matt Miller, and myself [see "Five Books That Would Make a Radical Middle Revolution" - ed.] approach the same idea from different angles and perspectives.
It is not that there is absolute agreement on all issues among these voices -- a litmus test is precisely the sort of lock-step politics that centrists and independents are looking for liberation from. But there is broad and instinctive agreement that extreme partisanship is the problem in American politics today.
Not all independents are centrists -- Ralph Nader’s far-left protest candidacy is masquerading under the independent label this year. But, increasingly, centrists are independent, because they want the freedom to choose the best ideas from both major parties.
Independents and centrists are uniquely well suited to serving as the honest brokers of politics. The classic mission of politics, after all, is the peaceful reconciliation of competing interests.
No less a political mastermind than Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized as far back as 1940 that, “The growing independence of voters . . . has been proven by the votes in every presidential election since my childhood.”
These independent voices and independent voters remain the rising tide as Americans search for common sense solutions beyond the Beltway obsession with partisan politics as usual.
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE GROUPS AND BLOGS:
SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:
SOME RADICAL MIDDLE LESSONS:
SOME PRIOR WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:
NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE: