The Primary Illusion: the Democratic and Republican Parties are capable of representing the interests of the people of the United States

The specter of an organized independent movement among voters in the United States is likely a cause of great concern among Democratic and Republican strategists and other assorted partisans of the two-party state. Reflecting on the results from the NYC mayoral election, in which Michael Bloomberg was elected as an independent, Nancy Hanks writes at The Hankster:
At a time when the votes of both major parties Dems and Repubs went down, the 15 year old grassroots Independence Party doubled its vote . . . Partisan politics isn't the future of our country, but the search for an independent alternative might be.
I disagree here only with Nancy's use of the subjunctive in her conclusion. There is no future in the politics of the Democratic-Republican Party: there is only the present news cycle and the momentum of historical inertia. The two-party system is a nineteenth century electoral anachronism in the United States of the twenty-first century. Confronted with the rise of political independents, the duopoly parties are clearly in disarray, scrambling to retain some semblance of relevance for the many people who have already left them behind. It is no wonder duopolists are rethinking the primary process (psychoanalytic pun intended). In South Dakota, the Democratic Party is opening its primaries to independent voters. The Daily Republic editorializes:
The South Dakota Democratic Party’s governing members have decided to open their 2010 primary elections to participation by voters who are registered as independents. Should the South Dakota Republican Party do the same? We respect the right of a political party to govern its own affairs. But we think the Republicans would be wise to open their primary elections to independent voters, too. Without question, independents have been the fastest growing category of the three major groups of voters in South Dakota. [Emphasis added.] . . .

If these first-time voters aren’t naturally gravitating toward being Republicans or Democrats, or some other third party, we need to question not whether but why Republicans or Democrats aren’t representing the values of the emerging independent class of voters. [Emphasis added.] . . .

As of Oct. 1, registration stood at 82,348 independents; 235,206 Republicans; and 198,775 Democrats. Looking back just three years, registration for Election Day 2006 registration was 74,608 independents; 240,101 Republicans; and 190,905 Democrats. While Republicans and Democrats have gained, too, independents are the new third force in South Dakota politics, and getting them involved in selecting the party’s nominees for the general election ballot is smart politics in the long run for our state.
The question of why the Democratic and Republican Parties do not adequately represent increasingly large segments of the population is easy to answer: they simply can't. Unlike the political class, the US electorate is not bipolar in character, it is multi-polar. Arguably, it is structurally impossible for the two-party system to represent the diversity and the wide array of interests to be found among the people of the United States. Changing the primary process will not change this underlying reality. But the ruse may well succeed in extending the life of the two-party state for a little bit longer, at least through the next news cycle.


Nancy Hanks said...

Poli-Tea --- you have given us so many great posts lately, it's hard to keep up! Appreciate the links, thanks so much for your responses and for drawing attention to the issue of open primaries.

Open primaries became a national issue during the primary elections in the run-up to the Presidential nominations. There are some 33 states where independents are allowed to vote in the first round of voting (as you point out, psychologically speaking “primary” means "base" - for lack of a better term; the linguistic turn teaches us that primary also means "first"... But I digress.)

Open primaries became an issue in 2008 because so many registered independents wanted to vote for Barack Obama in closed primary states and learned during the election that independents in other states were not discriminated against in this way. There have been some interesting legal and legislative efforts since then, particularly in Idaho and Pennsylvania. Richard Winger (Ballot Access News) is an excellent source on these issues.

Another issue that organized independents have brought forward is the partisan makeup of the Federal Election Commission. President Obama has the ability to appoint one or more independents to this commission. CUIP has a push on for this. You can find out more at their website

Now, within this context, I do agree with you that “Changing the primary process will not change this underlying reality.” And I have to assume that your underlying reality would be “the duopoly”.

There are thousands of independents throughout the country who are doing small things to engage their communities, their elected officials, their friends and families.

Let's change our underlying reality.


Septimus said...

If you are correct, and I think you are, we are in for some interesting developments if the two parties collapse, and are replaced with a system more in tune with the modern world.

d.eris said...

Thanks Nancy. Just for the sake of clarity, the "underlying reality" I was referring to was not the duopoly itself, but the inability of a bi-polar system to adequately represent a multi-polar social order. I've been wondering recently what will happen when many newly declared independents realize that they can no longer vote in primaries in states where they are not open. Certainly not all are aware of this implication of changing one's registration.

Have you been following developments on Senate bill 1648? It seems to require a third party or independent member in the conceived Federal Election Administration.

Septimus, I liked your recent post on historical-ideological cul de sacs. Gonna relay that one tomorrow.

Nancy Hanks said...

Let's do another BlogTalkRadio show soon!

d.eris said...

Send me an email.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

The paradox that keeps buzzing in my ear about politics as an independent is that "independent" doesn't automatically mean "people who agree with me" on matters of policy, solutions to problems or even how problems are framed in reality. I am a self-described Progressive independent -- but that doesn't mean I will automatically agree with or vote for a politician who is running as an independent. Because there are a lot of independents who hold views that run counter to my beliefs as a Progressive. For example, many independents are very conservative when it comes to issues like abortion, gun control, health care, economics, etc.

This, I think, is the crux of the difficulty in organizing a political movement among political independents. On what grounds or platform can independents of all political stripes agree on and what practical, concrete things can be done that will give voice to that unity?

Simply voting for candidates in elections I think is tricky -- because if it comes to a race between a Progressive Democrat and a conservative independent I will have a very difficult time voting for the independent.

But I think in matters of process and structural reform -- voting methods, open primaries, ballot access, etc. -- if the conservative independent were to run on a platform of opening up the political process to independents and third parties via the structural reform issues I mentioned above I might consider voting his or her way. Especially if the "Progressive" ends up opposing such reforms.

This, of course, presupposes an electorate of independents who consider structural reform issues important.

d.eris said...

Those are all good points LAD, few of which are ever broached in the media's superficial discussions of independents. There is a great deal of diversity among independents. But I think it may be the case that at the state and local level independents are more like-minded and may be capable of concerted action. There is also the possibility that an independent could be more palatable not only to independents, but also to Democrats and Republicans, than the Democratic or Republican candidates for office.

A few months back, the liberal/progressive Democrat-oriented blog Down With Tyranny compared conservative leaning independent Trevor Drown with conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln (Drown plans to oppose Lincoln for her Senate seat next year) and came down on the side of Drown, writing:

"1- he isn't corrupt and he won't have his head up the asses of every corporate CEO waving a check under his nose;

2- he genuinely cares about ordinary American working families and will look to put their interests ahead of the special interests;

3- no matter how he votes on issues, he won't be working behind the scenes to undermine progressives within the Democratic caucus-- since he won't be in the Democratic caucus;

4- no one trying to persuade him about the merits of a progressive stand on an issue is going to face a closed mind or a door closed to all but corporate donors."

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hi Damon -- thank goodness for outlets like Poli-Tea, The Hankster, and other Independent bloggers of all political stripes who make discussions like these possible in the blogosphere. We sure as hell won't find mainstream media pundits discussing independent politics with this detail and on-the-ground perspective.

I love the point you made that "an independent could be more palatable not only to independents, but also to Democrats and Republicans, than the Democratic or Republican candidates for office" -- with most people registered now as independents than registered as Democrats and Republicans, I could certainly see this happening.

The conditions are certainly ripe for some sort of national political effort to harness all this discontent with the two major parties. The CUIP is the only organization I know of which exists that is trying to do just that.

But I agree with you that locally and state-level, there might be more of an opportunity for independents to make an impact. I just moved to Montgomery County MD several months ago and am excited about the prospects of participating in the local political scene and seeing what activities independents are involved in.

d.eris said...

Thanks LAD. Don't forget IPR! When I first started Poli-Tea, I was afraid that I'd only be speaking into the aether.

Undoubtedly, one way to help build legitimacy for third party and independent politics is to create a strong web presence, which is all the more important given the lack of institutional support for alternatives to the major parties (i.e. in media, think tanks, polling organizations etc.).