December 27th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
The rise of independents in American politics is a major trend that has drastically changed the political landscape.
But why is it happening now? Are both major parties so bad now — indeed so much worse than they have ever been — that the majority of involved citizens just can’t stand them anymore?
Actually, the parties have always had their struggles, and many people have wanted alternatives over the years.
But something is different now. Technology has drastically altered the way people interact with and through media, and this has made all the difference.
The views of independents are far from monolithic; independents include people from many political perspectives.
It’s interesting to wonder how many voters would have been independents over the decades if they had enjoyed the technology we do today.
Perhaps we can gain a little insight by understanding some of the major competing political perspectives. Though the party system tended to divide people into Democrats and Republicans, the reality was much more byzantine.
There are at least nine major historical types of conservatives and 11 types of liberals, though most of these were either Democrats or Republicans during the modern era of politics since 1945.
Understanding a little about each of these makes it clear that there have been many American citizens with independent leanings for a long time.
Every American will likely see the world differently upon realizing the diversity of American political thought that has helped shape our current political landscape. Just consider the following liberal views:
- Hobbesian Liberals have promoted a centralized world government for several centuries, and have used national policy to move toward this goal.
- Lockeian Liberals continually promote the philosophy that the old system obviously hasn’t worked, so we need to keep trying something new. Until we get a truly ideal society, without major problems, we need to keep seeking new answers.
- Rousseauian Liberals mistrust the power of the state, church and big business (the aristocracy), and emphasize the need to keep an eye on anyone in power and keep them in check.
- Benthian Liberals believe the primary purpose of government is to help the poor, and anything else is a distraction.
- Marxian Liberals see the state, church and business as the enemies of the masses, and want a party (vanguard) which truly stands for the people and uses its power to keep the “haves” from hurting (and withholding prosperity from) the “have-nots.”
- Keynesian Liberals want to use the state and big business together to help the poor.
- Social Liberals are deeply concerned with maintaining personal freedoms, especially the rights to choose one’s own personal morals — free from enforced societal or institutional dogmas and traditions.
- Fiscal Liberals believe in using government to redistribute wealth to care for all social needs.
- Civil Libertarians want government to aggressively protect everyone’s civil rights.
- Single-Issue Liberals support a given issue (such as feminism, environmentalism, minority rights, etc.) that has traditionally been supported by liberal politicians and officials.
- Blue Collar Liberals 1.) believe in the U.S. Constitution and the rights and freedoms it guarantees, 2.) want government to provide effective national defense and good schools, 3.) resent the centralization of power in Washington, 4.) are against communism (1947-2001)/terrorism (after 2001), 5.) believe in private property, equality before the law, the importance of family, and 6.) want fairness and common-sense solutions to problems.
Now, compare various types of conservative perspectives:
- Machiavellian Conservatives care about power, want to win and want to always stay in power.
- Puritanical Conservatives seek to use government power to regulate and enforce a strict moral code (the various factions passionately disagree about the specifics of such a code).
- Southern Conservatives strongly emphasize states’ rights and the need to return to an agrarian rather than industrial society. (Of course, there are “southerners who are conservatives” but not part of this philosophy.)
- Humane Conservatives believe in breaking society into units small enough that everyone knows each other, and making this the basic level of government. Sometimes these are known as “Humane Liberals.”
- Social Conservatives argue that morals are more important than armies and laws, and that given America’s current moral decay we can expect major national decline unless we (voluntarily, as a people) change our behaviors.
- Fiscal Conservatives promote balanced budgets, a minimum of debt, only spending what you have, and limiting government to its basic roles in order to leave more money in the free market.
- Neo-Conservatives promote strong national security through robust American leadership (critics call it intervention) in the international arena.
- Compassionate Conservatives believe in limited government and that one of the basic roles of government is aiding those in need.
- Popular Conservatives believe in the same 6 points as Blue Collar Liberals (see above).
There are, of course, other views, including anti-government libertarians on the far right who want no government at all or at least a very limited government, and Rousseauian Unionists on the radical left who suggest using labor unions to fight government, business, church and all other powerful institutions at the same time.
But these 20 views are the major perspectives which have influenced modern American politics.
At first blush, it might seem that independents would naturally represent some of the minor groups on the list, but this isn’t usually the case. Most independents agree with ideas from several, or many, of these 20 viewpoints, and also disagree with a lot of these ideas.
For example, I personally agree with the following:
- Big institutions should be closely watched by citizens and kept in check;
- Dogmatic religious traditions should not be forced upon citizens by government;
- Government should not curtail the right of individuals to believe and worship as they choose;
- Positive contributions from religion and morality are a great benefit to society;
- Government should help the poor and needy — but almost solely at local levels where voluntarism and private-public community solutions can take common-sense action;
- The protection of individual rights should be closely guarded and maintained;
- Minorities and women should have equal rights with all citizens and special rules should ensure this where such rights have been curtailed in the past;
- We should take care of the environment in a smart and commonsensical way with proper action from both government and business;
- We should more closely follow the 10th Amendment and return more power to the states;
- Morals greatly matter to national success;
- We should balance our budget and spend only within our means;
- The federal government should do better what it is designed to do under the Constitution (especially national defense) and leave the rest to the states and private citizens and markets;
- We should all voluntarily do more to help the needy and improve the welfare in our communities. (Of course, the specific details would depend on the situation. Nuance is everything in politics, governance and policy.)
In short, I’m an independent. Of course, many independents would construct this list differently, which is why so many of us prefer to be independents. But we do share some major views.
Specifically, the six points held in common by blue-collar liberals and popular conservatives are accepted by many independents. Again, these six values are:
- Belief in the U.S. Constitution and the rights and freedoms it guarantees;
- Want the government to provide effective national defense and good schools;
- Resent the centralizing of power in Washington;
- Against communism/terrorism;
- Belief in private property, equality before the law, and the importance of family;
- Want fairness and common-sense solutions to problems;
It seems obvious to me that many Americans have held independent views like these for a very long time.
As long as our political news only came through a few big media outlets and our political choices were limited to those supported by two parties, people from many political views found themselves forced to work within one of the parties or have no influence in the political process.
Today, given the explosion of news outlets at the same time as the proliferation of the Internet, individuals are able to gather information from various sources and then make their viewpoints heard. It is a new world for freedom, and the growth of independents may just be the start of the trend.
Indeed, the prime directive of future dictators may well need to be to censor, regulate or shut down the Internet within their nation.
Surveillance State or Wise Citizens?
The danger is that many of today’s citizens will only interact with people who agree with them on almost everything. This is a serious and persistent problem.
Still, independents are leading in fighting this trend — searching out ideas, concepts and proposals from many sources and passing them on with comments, concerns and ideas for improvement.
This is an exciting development in American, and world, politics. And it has the potential to become a major movement toward freedom.
In all of history, real freedom only occurs where the general citizenry takes its role as overseers of government seriously.
In the era of books and newspapers, such citizen-statesmanship was the norm in America. Then came the television age, where the general citizenry tuned in to “experts” who told them much of what they thought about. Not surprisingly, this coincided with the rise of the secretive, massive and bureaucratic government.
Today we are at a crossroads. The technology is available for two great options: The massive surveillance state, or the renewed freedom of a deeply-involved citizenry thinking independently and holding the government to the highest standards.
We are entering “the Age of Overseers,” but it is still unclear who the overseers will be.
Either we will be overseen by a technologically-advanced “big brother” government with capabilities well beyond the wildest imaginations of Orwell or Huxley, or we will become a nation of people who oversee the government at the levels envisioned and initiated by the founding fathers.
Either way, technology has raised the stakes.
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.