Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Going Independent?

By the time I turned 18, I had already formed fairly strong political positions. Like others my age, I was idealistic and inexperienced. But I was not nearly as uninformed as the electorate at large. Being rather certain of my political leanings, it was an easy decision to register to vote as a Republican.

In 1980 I voted from Europe by absentee ballot. Given the European media coverage of the presidential campaign, I fully expected the Carter administration to continue for another four years.

While walking through a neighborhood on a chilly November morning just hours after the polls had closed in the states, we were stopped by a news delivery boy. He asked if we had heard the news about the U.S. election. When we replied that we had not, he excitedly pulled a newspaper from his bag and held it up.

I felt an incredible surge of hope as I saw the words “PRESIDENT REAGAN” emblazoned on the newsprint in the largest headline font I have ever seen in any newspaper. The newsboy handed me that copy and told me that I could keep it. I still have it stashed away among my mementos.

Throughout the years I have been politically active. I first volunteered on a political campaign when I was in my early 20s. I have attended my neighborhood caucus meetings and have served as an election judge. I have attended party conventions and I have held precinct leadership positions. And I have worked to be well informed politically.

But a funny thing has happened as I have become more experienced in political matters and in our political system. I have gained greater awareness of and appreciation for the varied and contrasting opinions that span the political landscape (even if I cannot bring myself to adopt many of these positions). The “we’re always right and they’re always wrong” mentality makes little sense to me nowadays.

Perhaps more importantly, I have reached a much more pragmatic understanding of the political system as a whole. I understand that actors in the system respond to incentives inherent in political culture. Thus, politicians may differ significantly on style but they generally differ little in what they substantively do. The best constituents can hope for is for their interests and the interests of political actors to occasionally coincide.

The media and the political class love to portray politics as being a battle between differing ideologies and viewpoints. While this does exist, I have come to view it as a distraction from the system’s main feature.

It’s not really about right vs. left, but about the political class vs. the citizens, who end up as mere pawns in the game being played by the political class. The object of the game is to gain as much power over the lives of other people as possible, thus, limiting their liberty. The citizens are easier to control and use when they are distracted by competing opinions.

Besides, it seems to me that when you observe what the political system actually DOES as opposed to what it claims it does or will do, most of the hopes we pin on achieving positive outcomes via politics should be seen as self deception. It should come as a shock to no one that politicians almost always end up acting like … politicians.

But political opinions are not wholly unimportant. They define which part of the political class gains temporary power. (I say temporary because almost all political power is temporary.) It is here that I find myself in a bit of a quandary.

Political parties exist for a reason. Any party in the U.S. that is large enough to regularly win elections necessarily consists of a broad coalition of various factions. The party can’t stray too far from the center line without losing voter support. But neither can it stray too far from its core identity without alienating its base or changing the political landscape. Too much movement in any direction can easily upset the party’s position.

The U.S. has had and will continue to have two major political parties, mainly due to the way electoral votes are currently allotted by the Constitution and the states. These parties set the agenda and control who can get elected. Third parties arise, but their success is generally limited to pulling support away from the major party to which they are most closely aligned.

When a major political party dies, a third party (mostly made up of people leaving the dying party) arises to take its place. This is what happened in the 1850s-60s when the GOP arose as the Whigs died out. But this very is rare, and neither major party is currently in danger of expiring, regardless of what some pundits say on the matter.

In heavily GOP areas of Utah, the Republican candidate almost always wins the final ballot. Since that ballot is often a mere formality, all real power in selecting who will hold political office in these areas happens at neighborhood caucus meetings, at county and state conventions, and in primary elections. The only way to have any real say in these matters is to be active in the party at these levels.

And herein lies my problem. It has become increasingly apparent to me that I often (probably usually) differ with the majority of the Utah GOP on issues and candidates. I have gotten used to rarely seeing any candidate win that I support. It is obvious as I attend neighborhood caucus meetings and party conventions that I am pretty far out of step with the party’s majority.

For some time I have felt that it was my duty to represent my (apparently quite eclectic) viewpoint by remaining active in the party. But I have come to wonder how useful this tactic is. The main reason for being active in party politics is to influence outcomes. But my abject ineffectiveness with this approach begs the question of whether I belong in the party at all.

A somewhat comical sidelight to all of this is that I have been approached several times to run for political office. When I ask people why they would want me to run, I usually get responses along the lines of being a level-headed guy that seems to know a lot about politics. I chuckle to myself because these people would likely consider me unfit for public office if they really understood my political opinions.

At what point do I formalize my independent thinking and declare my independence from the party? This can easily be done online. Yet I dither.

Part of me wonders whether I can appropriately do my duty to my country outside of a major political party. Almost all political office holders come from one of the major parties. If I remove myself from party affiliation, I am in essence giving up any real ability to influence the outcome of partisan elections. Still, it would seem that I’m there already. So what difference would going independent make?

I will not be joining another party if I leave the GOP. If I am out of step with the GOP, I am much further out of alignment with the Democratic Party.

Third parties offer the opportunity for a principled but ultimately futile opposition vote. Since I feel like I already do that, I see little value in joining a third party—all of which have enough uncomfortable idiosyncrasies to ward me off. Besides, one reason for disassociating from a political party would be to reduce my frustration level. I doubt that joining a third party would achieve that goal.

I feel that I presently have little if any political power as a member of the Republican Party. I am generally ruled over by people that I did not support and that implement policies with which I do not agree. Leaving the GOP would not change this. But I would no longer feel required to uselessly voice my opinions through the party.

Admittedly, part of the problem may revolve around my own fecklessness in gaining support for the issues and candidates that I like. But if one rarely finds others in a group that already share similar sentiments, even a good salesman will likely have difficulty persuading many group members to his way of thinking.

One national GOP mover and shaker recently left the party, claiming that the party had changed over the years. While all organizations evolve, it appears to me that this man is not so much concerned about any change in party ideology as he is upset that his own political power has diminished.

In my view, it’s not that the GOP has undergone significant change; it’s that my own political opinions have evolved to the point that I no longer feel that the GOP is a comfortable fit for me.

I want to be prudent as I weigh whether to register as an independent voter. I am looking for compelling reasons against doing so. But my search so far has been fruitless.

No comments: