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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Greg Orman's Declaration of Independents

Greg Orman is gone but not forgotten--and given the political rumors which abounded during the early part of this year's election cycle here in Kansas, he's probably not even gone. As the many people who worked for the man's Independent campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican Pat Roberts in 2014 can testify, he's a resourceful, charismatic, serious individual--and the fact that he's rich certainly doesn't hurt. Very likely, Orman will at some point take to the hustings once more. When he does so next time, though, he won't just be presenting himself as the answer to the longings of voters frustrated with the political process--instead, he'll have a whole book-length cause behind him.

That book is A Declaration of Independents, subtitled, humbly enough, "How we Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream." Yes, it's one of those "reform the system" books, which always alternate between inspiring and wearisome. But it's also more than that; it is, first and foremost, a good book, with some thoughtful discussions and interesting excursions into Orman's own life and his experiences on the campaign trail. Ultimately, the book doesn't live up to its subtitle, because there are too many electoral realities, ones both deeply embedded in America's political history and culture and structurally supported by our constitutional system, which Orman simply ignores; his determination to stay true to his vision of genuinely independent and practical voters and representatives governing our country leads him to pass by more radical alternatives which, in contrast to pure "independence," actually have some record of success. But that doesn't mean the book isn't worth reading. It provides an important view of the political landscape, in Kansas and America, in 2016, and that's valuable all on its own.

The key insight the book provides into Orman's worldview is his deep conviction that the American party system serves to limit and depress real productive thinking. He repeats this again and again. In talking about his economically deprived childhood, his parent's divorce, and his youthful enthusiasm for John Anderson (the Illinois congressman who ran as an Independent for president in 1980), he claims "one of the real strengths of Independents" is that "they're able to approach an issue with an open mind and see all sides of an argument" (p. 23); much later, in talking about the excitement he discovered on the campaign trail for his candidacy, with "people traveling seventy-five miles to share a few minutes with a first-time Senate candidate running third in the polls," he observes that political Independents have the mental freedom to avoid "empty games" and can instead "focus exclusively on solving problems" (pp. 63, 66). (At the end of the book, in his list of "Common Independent Principles," the utilitarian, resolutely pragmatic bias of his praise in made clear; in his view, "Independents view political issues the way those running a business seek to ensure its success: understanding all sides, embracing facts, identifying root causes, and ultimately trying to make logical conclusions"--p. 264.) That this kind of self-congratulatory thinking is pretty much identical to what conservative and liberal partisans routinely believe about themselves--e.g., "the good thing about us Republicans is that we actually care about God and morality" or "at least we Democrats still believe in fairness and treating people equally"--is apparently lost on Orman, but he's certainly not alone in believing it's true. What Orman correct identifies as today's "hyper-partisanship" really does frequently seem to stand in the way of people being able to see, as George Orwell once put it, what is right in front of their nose. The problem is that seeing a problem "independently" is no more guarantee of being able to formulate a good response to it than if one sees it in a particular partisan light.

Why do so many people see the issues which confront us through a partisan lens? Here, Orman understands the relevant research very well. In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of his book, he identifies most of the culprits which political scientists and historians have long pointed out: how mobility, individualism, and suburbanization in American life has functioned as a "Big Sort" that has resulted in overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic neighborhoods, churches, and social circles; how the gerrymandering of congressional districts has taken advantage of that sorting and magnified it; how our own very human habits of judgment tend to direct us towards becoming defensive advocates rather than open-minded explorers; how technology (and particularly social media) encourages--and makes profitable--the nationalization, simplification, and polarization of particular, complicated, local debates; and how our single-member, plurality-based, winner-take-all electoral system logically leads people to think in terms of maximizing majorities and eliminating minority viewpoints anyway ("Don't vote for a third party candidate; you'll be throwing your vote away!"). This middle section of Orman's book is really a masterful review of important scholarly literature, communicated in an impassioned yet common-sense way. It's the best part of the book. (Though his reflections on his campaign, with its multiple eminently justified--though never mean--snarks at the alternately unimaginative, lazy, and ignorant, if ultimately successful, campaign Roberts waged against Orman is a lot of fun as well.)

Unfortunately though, Orman's solution to addressing these well-documented and mutually reinforcing trends--namely, figuring out what kinds of reforms would enable as many non-major-party-affiliated candidates as possible to get elected to office--reflects his own admirable, but somewhat simplistic, individualism. Career-minded politicians, angling for a "seven-figure job lobbying their former colleagues" (p. 169), earn his ire, not the economic and political structures that which have proliferated such corrupting incentives in the first place. He's right to argue that Citizens United should be overturned, but he doesn't consider that Citizens United was only the latest (however grievous) step down the road which the Supreme Court set us on with Buckley v. Valeo decades ago, when they established that spending money on a candidate was equivalent to speaking out on their behalf, and thus was a constitutionally enshrined right. He rails against closed political primaries, claiming that they are an act of disenfranchisement which rob Independents of their political rights, thus failing to appreciate the importance of the constitutional guarantee of collective, private self-association...though he does have a strong point when he asks, "if party primaries are a private political endeavor, as courts have ruled, why does the state administer the primary elections--and why do taxpayers pay for the process of holding them?" (p. 225).

Answering that question cuts to the heart of why Orman, despite the attractiveness of his personal determination, simply undermines his own cause when he writes that being an Independent doesn't mean "belonging to a third party or sharing a particular political ideology. Independence is really a state of mind" (p. 258). Why do state governments enlist nominally private organizations like the Republican and Democratic parties to organize elections to public office? Because as mass democracy slowly emerged as the aim of the American experiment from the early 1800s on, the necessity of creating some kind of structure to bind together voters, and translate their individual preferences into majorities that could actually wield the levers of our representative system, became undeniable. Parties, which were essentially unheard of at the time the Constitution was written, became central to its effective operation by the time of John Adams's administration, and within a generation after him they were not only central--they were essential. Under a different form of government, with a different electoral arrangement, parties (especially what Orman routinely condemns as the "two party duopoly") would play a very different role--and if that's what Orman really would like to achieve, then his criticisms and ideas need to move away from simply praising the brave Independent candidates out there, and instead be radically re-focused on the structures of our constitutional system as it was written and as it has evolved. Until then, a "state of mind" is exactly the wrong approach. Ultimately, those who wish to bring "independent" thinking into government need to either commit themselves to one of the major parties and work to build support and coalitions within them, with the aim of using them as a vehicle for introducing real system reforms....or, if that is not a tolerable option, they need to go about building an alternative party to challenge the duopoly, and that means discovering a set of motivating ideas (which, yes, may well mean an "ideology") which fall outside the intellectual space where the logically, structurally inevitable two dominant parties of our country currently reside, and starting attracting voters to that party, from the ground up. That is, after all, how the Populist and Progressive parties ended up profoundly changing the direction of the dominant parties a century ago: by stealing their voters, and thus obliging them to change.

This is not to discourage candidates who are inspired by Orman's example and words, and who think, upon serious study, that the opportunity exists for an unaffiliated, Independent candidate to influence a particular election for better. (Locally I'm thinking here of Miranda Allen, who is very much following in Orman's footsteps, and more power to her!) On every level, from the most local to the presidential, there will occasionally emerge opportunities for well-prepared Independents to insert themselves into races and attract the support of voters grateful for the chance to support an alternative. There are, after all, all sorts of reasons to vote for any given candidate, not all of them strategic. And the pure civic benefit of seeing new faces and considering new issues is great, for voters and candidates alike. But if Orman truly imagines that hundreds, even thousands of such one-off races will "break the two-party stranglehold," he misunderstands something basic about how American government works. Our messy, divisive democratic system can't function without parties to give the interests of voters some rough shape, however self-interested those who operate those parties may be. A real Declaration of Independents's first step would thus have to be an upfront announcement of the formation of an Independence Party. Until then, Orman's story is an impressive one, but not very instructive at all.

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