Real Independents

As fascination with independent candidacies from Maine to Alaska intensifies, the historian Michael Kazin steps in with a TNR piece distinguishing today’s indies from yesterday’s–or more specifically, from the band of independents who broke away from the GOP shortly after the turn of the twentieth century:

“Independent” wasn’t always a synonym for vapid. In the early decades of the last century, independent politicians played a far more serious and largely beneficial role. Stalwart “progressives,” they advocated open primaries instead of closed party caucuses, non-partisan elections for city government, replacing partisan hacks in the federal bureaucracy with dedicated civil servants, banning corporate spending on campaigns, and giving voters a chance to initiate their own laws or turn down ones passed by often corrupt state legislatures. Figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Fiorello La Guardia left their party, temporarily or for good, to speak out for ideas that were later converted into policy. “There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people,” TR told his followers in the independent new Progressive Party in 1912. “In the present day, the limitation … of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.”

Don’t believe we’ll hear Greg Orman or Larry Pressler talking that way anytime soon. But more to the point, says Kazin, there’s really not any positive agenda around which the current spasm of “plague on both houses” candidates could unite:

[I]f elected in normally Republican states, would Pressler or Orman unite with their fellow non-partisans in the upper house—the socialist Bernie Sanders and independent Angus King, a strong exponent for gun control and a skeptic about fracking—who represent states that nearly always vote blue?

The unlikelihood of this happening is due to the absence of any true “movement” to infuse the independent impulse with meaningful demands or a strategy to turn them into policies. There is no shortage of elite groups, like Third Way and the Peterson Foundation, that yearn to advance a “moderate” platform. Not to mention Michael Bloomberg, who is spending up to $25 million on TV ads to elect a handful of candidates from both parties whom, according to his spokesman, he deems “are open and actually inclined to work with people across the aisle.” Skillful at pleasing pundits and raising funds, these groups have no clue and little real interest in inspiring activists or voters. Unless that changes, today’s independent candidates will be able, at most, to nudge the discourse of the two parties a bit further toward some muddled middle than to become the prophets of a new era of reform.

In other words, voters might cast a ballot for one of these candidates to indicate what they’d prefer a pig in a poke to what they perceive the two parties as offering. But the size, shape and color of that pig is so variable that it won’t add up to a pound of bacon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.