Monday, January 21

Against Independent Voters

Stanley Fish

We’re in that season now when we hear the same things being said over and over again, and nothing is said more often by political pundits than this election (it doesn’t matter which one) will be decided by independent voters. Accompanying this announcement is the judgment – sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit – that this state of affairs is to be welcomed, even encouraged: it’s good that the independent voters are making themselves heard and forcing candidates to think outside their partisan boxes. And this judgment itself implies another: independent voters are better, in the sense of being more reflective and less ideological, than voters who identify themselves strongly with one or the other of the two major parties. The assumption is that if we were all independent voters, the political process would be in much better shape.

This seems to me to be a dubious proposition, especially if the word “political” in the phrase “political process” is taken seriously. Those who yearn for government without politics always invoke abstract truths and moral visions (the good life, the fair society, the just commonwealth) with which no one is likely to disagree because they have no content. But sooner rather than later someone gives these abstractions content, and when that happens, definitional disputes break out immediately, and after definitional disputes come real disputes, the taking of sides, the applying of labels (both the self-identifying kind and the accusing kind) and, pretty soon, the demonization of the other. In short, politics, which is what independent voters hate.

They tend to agree with (and quote) George Washington. In his farewell address (1796), Washington spoke of the “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” which includes “ill founded jealousies and false alarms,” “the animosity of one part against another” and the propagation of the “belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.” Parties, he concluded, “make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted…projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

Consistent, wholesome, common vs. conflicted, divided, factional. Mutual interests – interest that are shared – are what we want rather than special interests. This is the rhetoric and vocabulary of the independent voter, for whom it is an article of faith that differences are inessential and that what unites us is larger and more important than what divides us. Why can’t we all just get along?

Washington himself knows why. The spirit of party, he says, “unfortunately is inseparable from our nature,” from our tendency, that is, to identify our passions with what is right and true. Factionalism is not a deviation from ordinary human behavior; it is ordinary human behavior. (That is why checks and balances figure so prominently in The Federalist Papers.) Human beings are situated creatures; they see things not from a God’s-eye point of view, but from the point of view of the beliefs, allegiances, aspirations and fears they bring with them into the ballot box.

Floating independently above the fray and inhabiting the marketplace of ideas as if were a shopping bazaar rather than a battlefield is an unnatural condition. The natural condition is to be political. To be political is to believe something, and to believe something is to believe that those who believe something else are wrong, and after all you don’t want people who believe (and would do) the wrong things running your government. So you organize with other like-minded folks and smite the enemy (verbally) hip and thigh. You join a party.

What do independent voters do? Well, most of all, they talk about the virtue of being an independent voter. When they are asked to explain what that means, they say, “I can’t stand the partisan atmosphere that has infected our politics” (forgetting that politics is partisan by definition); or “we like to make up our own minds and don’t want anyone telling us what to do (as if Democrats and Republicans were sheep eager to go over whatever cliff the leadership brings them to) or (and this was a favorite of those interviewed in Iowa and New Hampshire), “We vote the person rather than the party.”

Now, voting the person rather than the party is about the dumbest thing you can do for a reason I elaborated in an earlier column (“Parties Matter”). The party affiliation of a candidate tells you what kind of appointments he or she is likely to make. Do you think that regulations of industry stifle productivity and damage the economy, or do you think that unregulated industries endanger the environment? Do you think that illegal immigrants are just that – illegal – and therefore should be deported when detected, or do you think that we should figure out a way to legitimize their status and make the best of what has already happened? Do you think that Iran poses a threat that must be countered before it is too late, or do you think that military action should be resorted to only after every avenue of diplomacy has been exhausted, even if it takes years or decades?

If you feel strongly about these and other matters, it is incumbent upon you to take into consideration the positions of the two major parties, for the successful candidate can be counted on to appoint to the offices responsible for answering these questions men and women whose views reflect the party’s platform. Voting the person, however attractive or impressive he or she may be, could very well get you four years of policies you detest. In other words, policy differences are party differences, and it is hard to see how you could be a responsible voter if you held your nose at a whiff of party politics. If you are really interested in the way things should go in the country, come off the high pedestal and join the rest of us in the nurturing (and, yes, dirty) soil of the partisan free-for-all.

To this an independent voter might reply that the two-party structure is the problem, and if we could only elect an independent candidate, he or she wouldn’t be beholden to any party and could make appointments on the basis of merit. But even if this miracle were to occur, the parties would still be in control of federal and state legislative bodies, and in order to do anything at all, an independent president would have to negotiate with the very political forces he or she beat up on in the course of getting elected. (There goes independence.) And what leverage would a president in that position have?

In the end, there is nothing to be said for independent voters and a lot to be said against them. Remember, a bunch of them voted for Ralph Nader. Case closed.