I’ve often remarked on the irony that the best daily newspaper journalist in Seattle doesn’t write for a Seattle newspaper. And that still might be true. But the NY Times’ Timothy Egan is beginning to lose my attention:
The election this fall will most certainly return to power the most despised Congress in the modern era, if not ever. The House, already a graveyard for common sense, will fall further under the control of politicians whose idea of legislating is to stage a hearing for Fox News. The Senate, padlocked by filibusters over everyday business, will be more of the same, with one party in nominal control.
Republicans suck, amirite? And yet congressional gerrymandering and an antiquated Constitution that gives tiny rural states like Wyoming the same representation in the Senate as giant California virtually guarantees another Benghazi-obsessed do-nothing Congress. Hopefully, Egan has some ideas on how to fix this tyranny of the minority.
The fastest-growing, most open-minded and least-partisan group of voters will have no say. That’s right: The independents, on this Independence Day, have never been more numerous. But they’ve never been more shut out of power.
Oh. Independents. That old trope. Sigh.
Earlier this year, Gallup found that 42 percent of Americans identified as independents, the highest it has measured since modern polling techniques started 25 years ago. That survey found that Republicans — destined to keep control of the House and possibly take the Senate — comprise only one in four Americans, their lowest share over that same quarter-century span. Democrats were at 31 percent.
Honestly, I’ve never understood the argument that we should hand political control to the people who can’t make up their minds. No doubt there are some Americans who self-identify as independent because they’re too good to sully themselves with party politics, or something, but adopting a political label that stands for nothing is not inherently a sign of intellectual conviction or rigor.
The breakdown is even more unrepresentative when you look at the millennial generation, which, by most definitions, is the largest ever, with about 80 million people. These are the baby boomers’ kids, who bring their life-as-a-buffet view to voting as well. They like choice — in music, food, lifestyle, religion and politics.
Half of all Americans under the age of 34 describe themselves as politically independent, according to a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year, a high-water mark. This generation is also near the highest levels — 29 percent — to say they are not affiliated with any religion.
I suppose one could view this as a sign of a long term trend, or as an indication that it takes longer for young people to make up their fucking minds. It’s a holiday, so I’m not willing to put in the work to research the data, but I’d guess that young people often tend to skew more independent than older voters.
And if you consider California, our most populous state and long a trendsetter for values and politics, the same picture emerges. There, the latest tally of registered voters shows that the fastest-growing segment is the category of “no party.” While the number of these independent voters in California grew by 50,000 people this year, the Republicans lost almost 37,000. Democrats were basically flat, with a loss of 3,000.
Okay. But if you consider California as a trendsetter for values and politics, one might also want to consider that after years of political gridlock and decline, California voters have turned things around by handing Democrats supermajority control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. California is virtually a one-party state! And it’s working! Voters may be self-identifying as “independent” in greater numbers, but they are voting for Democrats.
The pattern, nearly everywhere but in the states of the old Confederacy, is the same: People are leaving the Republican Party, and to a lesser extent the Democrats, to jump in the nonpartisan lane. The independents are more likely to want something done about climate change, and immigration reform. They’re not afraid of gay marriage or contraception or sensible gun laws. They think government can be a force for good.
Um, then doesn’t this pattern say more about the declining brand of the Republican Party than it does about some ideological swing to “independence?” I mean, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in switching parties. The act of doing so acknowledges that one was wrong. It also reeks of disloyalty. Far easier to just proclaim oneself an independent, and then vote for the Democrat, than it is to officially switch parties entirely.
And none of those sentiments are represented by the current majority in the people’s House. The Senate, at least, has two independents, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. In the House? Zero. Remember that the next time Speaker John Boehner says that his members are doing the work of the American people. They’re doing Fox’s work, which is why they’ve had endless hearings on Benghazi, and voted more than 50 times to take away people’s health care, but won’t allow a vote on the minimum wage or immigration reform.
What is it that Egan doesn’t get about our two-party system?
If you thought that the last election — in which 1.2 million more votes were cast for a Democratic member of the House, but the Republicans kept control by a healthy margin — was unrepresentative, the coming contest will set a new standard for mismatch between the voters’ will and the people who represent them.
And how is this in any way a result of a lack of deference to independents? This is a result gerrymandering, pure and simple, that ghettoizes the Democratic vote into urban districts.
Only 12 percent of the general public is defined as “steadfast conservative,” in the latest breakdown of seven political niches done by Pew. But that rises to 19 percent for the “politically engaged.” Thus the Tea Party, though disliked by most Americans, can win elections in red states, and send people to Washington who will govern only for the narrow, passionate base that elected them.
Um, “politically engaged” means actively engaged in party politics. The teabaggers have won influence by seizing control of the Republican Party. Independents lack influence because they refuse to engage in party politics at all.
When you examine the beliefs of independents, particularly among millennials, they lean Democratic. That is, most policy issues pushed by the Democrats get majority support from the nonpartisans. Combining all the categories, Pew put the pro-Democratic cohort at 55 percent, the pro-Republican at 36 percent. But the two party brands are so soiled now by the current do-nothing Congress and their screaming advocates that voters prefer not to have anything to do with either of them.
So that means, what, only 9 percent of independents are truly “independent”—less than the 12 percent defined as “steadfast conservative.” Independents these days are disproportionately Democrats who refuse to self-indentify as such. So why should I care what they call themselves as long as they’re voting for my candidates?
The indies still vote. They went for Barack Obama, twice, but hate partisanship. They’ve soured on Obama for not fulfilling his great promise of forging a coalition that is neither red nor blue.
Way to feed into the Fox meme that this lack of a coalition is somehow Obama’s failure. He tried. Way too often and way too long. And at every turn the Republicans fucked him. Obama would have been a much more effective president had he been more partisan from the start instead being so goo-goo-eyed over that “team of rivals” fantasy.
What to do?
Good, Egan is going to propose some pragmatic solutions.
First, recognize the imbalance. Any democracy is broken when a plurality is not represented in the halls of power. The November contest for control of Congress can’t possibly be a “wave election,” as many politicos will claim, because a near-majority has no slate of candidates.
Second, get a slate of candidates. Some states now allow “no party” politicians a prominent place on the ballot, so long as they finish in the top ranks. In the age of crowdsourcing, raising the kind of money to fight, say, a Koch brothers-backed Republican is not all that difficult.
You’re fucking kidding me, right? Does Egan understand absolutely nothing about how American electoral politics works? I mean, forget the fact that American history is littered with dismal third party failures. The very nature of independents is that they are not members of a political party! So how the fuck are they going to put together a representative slate of candidates?
Third, don’t check out.
The emerging majority is the most racially diverse, politically open-minded, social-media-engaged generation in history. They’re repulsed by the partisan hacks, and the lobbyist-industrial complex that controls them. You see their influence in everything but the governing institutions in Washington. It’s about time that voice is heard.
Whatever, Tim. Too bad you didn’t actually propose any actual reforms that would allow that voice to be heard. So let me help you out.
First of all, we need proportional representation. Imagine how different Congress might look if instead of electing representatives from highly gerrymandered districts, we instead elected them statewide, through a ranked choice voting system? For example, here in Washington, we’d rank our top ten choices, and the top ten vote getters would go to Congress. Betcha that would elect a House more representative of the people as a whole.
Second, we need to eliminate the Electoral College, and elect our president directly through the popular vote. Not only would that avoid another bullshit coup like the one that gave us President Bush, but it would also dramatically transform the nature of our presidential elections, forcing candidates to campaign in all fifty states, instead of just the swing ones.
Third, we need standard election laws and procedures nationwide, so as to prevent the fascistic Republican strategy of voter suppression.
And finally, we need real campaign finance and disclosure reform. If that means a constitutional amendment, so be it. (While we’re at it, we can address that whole corporate personhood bullshit.) If that means packing the bench, I’m up for that too.
Is the American political system broken? No shit, Sherlock! Anybody can see that. But where Egan goes wrong is that he sees the rise of “independents” as some sort of a solution, when in fact what it really is, is a symptom.
Independents are by definition less engaged in electoral politics. They’ve opted out. They don’t caucus. They don’t doorbell. They don’t participate in the hard grassroots work that characterizes the very best of American politics. So of course their voices aren’t heard. Have you ever been to an LD meeting, Tim? Have you ever sat through one of those godawful party platform debates? It’s boring, tedious, frustrating hard work. But imagine if the 36 percent of independents who lean Republican got themselves engaged in party politics, how quickly they’d overwhelm their Tea Party counterparts, restoring some sanity to the GOP?
So instead of just fantastically declaring that we need to elect more “independents”—a label that stands for absolutely nothing—it would have been much more useful had Egan any suggestions for how to get disaffected voters more engaged.