10 October 2013

The curse of the political independent

We are the largest political contingent in the United States. In recent years we have quite reliably made up more than a third of the voting electorate: in 2011, as many as 40% of American voters identified themselves this way. We don’t like attaching themselves to the political parties, and with good reason. We (quite rightly) see the political parties as so much institutionalised theatre, driven by groupthink and rancour, either to dysfunction or to extremism. We would rather rely upon our own good sense, and take our stands upon each issue as it comes to us.

Many of my best friends and mentors growing up were political independents. I understand how they think and why they think what they think – in part because I myself have come to sympathise with them so heavily now. Like them, I am not a fan of either the mainstream Democrats or the mainstream Republicans. (Though, there are quite a few Democrats in recent years with some incredibly decent ideas: Elizabeth Warren, Dennis Kucinich, Kathy Dahlkemper. Republicans with good ideas are harder to find, admittedly, but they still have a Sisyphean battle to fight for those ideas to even to gain attention within the ‘big tent’.) But we independents have our own problems which we must sort out.

The first of which is the curse the non-label label puts on us. ‘Independent’, in the popular imagination, summons up the image of a lone cowboy, someone beholden to no tradition and no value, someone who does and thinks as they please with reference to nothing outside themselves. This is regrettable enough when it characterises popular social reaction to being ‘independent’, but it becomes truly dangerous when those amongst us who do not subscribe to the entire programme of either major political party begin to believe it of ourselves. The lures of libertarianism lie down that stream – the cheap anti-establishment, individualist rhetoric which masks merely a vulgar defence of the corporate status quo. Libertarianism is a temptation to which, sadly, all too many American ‘independents’ are vulnerable, because it arises straight out of (and appropriates shamelessly) the Americanist civic-religious mythos which surrounds the term ‘independence’.

What we independents have to remember is that this mythos is as much to be distrusted as the narratives put forward by both major parties. Indeed, they all stem from the same source. And we must recognise our curse and political label as a potential mark-of-Cain, because no man or woman is truly ‘independent’, ever. Everything we are is dependent. Physically and bodily, we are dependent upon our parents for having birthed us, and upon them and the communities in which we have lived for having cared for and nourished us. Intellectually, we are dependent upon our teachers and mentors, and upon countless influences from our society. The paradox of the doctrine of predestination is that we are free – we have free will – but that even that freedom is dependent upon the goodness of the power that created us. This is a paradoxical formulation which is coming to be adopted (albeit in a necessarily methodologically materialistic way) even by some within the scientific and sociological communities in response to the nouveau atheists and others who cannot reconcile freedom with the fact that we are physically and causally contingent beings.

The problem stems from our political label being, ultimately, a negative: ‘not dependent’. In a sense, it is not a label of our choosing, but rather a means Democrats and Republicans have of saying: ‘okay, you’re not one of them, but you’re not one of us either’. And the negative descriptor carries with it the implication of a concession, that the sum total of American political reality is meant to be defined by allegiance to one party or to the other. I’m going to call the approach that demands such concessions nomicohoplichrimatian pseudo-communitarianism – NPC for short – after the habit of certain bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money of deriding those not-(vocal-enough-)Democrats with commitments to the common good as reductive atomists, hyper-invidusalists and narcissists. I can’t really improve that much upon Dr Russell Arben Fox’s deconstruction of the NPCs (also here), but I’d like to add my agreement to his point that it rarely strikes those advocates of NPC that elections do take place in different contexts which are not entirely dictated by the logic of partisan politics, and that some of us might have politically-meaningful commitments outside the structure of the DNC or the GOP, which might demand that we occasionally make stands on issues not in line with the party platform. (A commitment to a church, say. Or to a union.)

Party politics is indeed part of the social reality of modern America. But if we independents continue to define ourselves by what we are not, or allow ourselves to be defined by what we are not, and thereby concede to the NPCs that the sole or the ultimate expression of community and solidarity is within the established corporate party structures, we will fall victim to the social pathology they promulgate. We will essentially be proving their point for them that there is nothing to political non-alignment except reductive atomism, hyper-individualism and narcissism.

For many of us, perhaps, it is simply a matter of orienting ourselves to more local forms of political expression. But regardless of the solution they choose, self-declared independents who are dissatisfied with the current political status quo quite simply cannot afford to keep calling themselves ‘independents’. We know what we’re against, but what are we for?

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