The Hermeneutics of Independence in the Context of the Two-Party State: the Case of Crist

In a post at the Think 3 Institute on "moderate independence and the spirit of compromise," Sam Wilson takes issue with an op-ed by Douglas Schoen and in the process touches upon what might be a definitive tension within the theory and practice of independent politics today. The question at issue is deceptively simple: what is independence? Following Schoen, Sam takes the case of Charlie Crist in Florida as his example, and writes:
Schoen describes Crist jumping ship as his having "eschewed the partisanship he once championed." But how has Crist changed? If the Republican party in Florida has changed, then the GOP itself no longer embodies "the partisanship he once championed." If it has changed, and he hasn't, how has he become independent? By saying so, apparently. . . .

A readiness to negotiate and compromise is often an admirable trait, but praise for compromise begs the question: who's at the table negotiating? Praising the likes of Charlie Crist (or even less plausibly, Andrew Cuomo) as true independents misses the point that we need new people at the table.
We do need new people at the table, but this, in itself, is not enough. New representatives can be ushered in within the Democratic-Republican schema, via primary challenges, or upsets in which a seat changes hands from one party to the other, etc. Yet, this strategy is doomed to failure, as it only reproduces the problem that is the Democratic-Republican two-party state and duopoly system of government. In order to address this problem, and potentially break open the duopoly lock on elected office, the new people at the table cannot be representatives of the problem and complicit in its reproduction.

It is thus not enough to simply call oneself an independent. If you maintain your identification and affiliation with the Republican or Democratic Party, while supporting the ruling parties and the reproduction of the two-party state, but call yourself an independent – as Scott Brown did, for instance, in his campaign for US Senate –, you are not an independent. You are delusional or a fraud. However, there is a performative linguistic dimension to political independence; independence must be declared; but such declarations are little more than empty slogans if they are not supported by actions. Crist, for example, not only calls himself an independent, he actually left the party, changed his affiliation, lost his donor base in the GOP (while keeping their money!), and is now struggling to define himself independently of the Republican and Democratic candidates in the race. Just today he reversed his position on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Coincidentally, in a comment to a post here yesterday, Shawn of Ranger's Arrows would seem to concur with Sam's position regarding Crist above:
While I agree that Crist is not the 'de-facto Democrat,' I disagree that Crist augers well for true third-party politics. . . . Crist is an Establishment Republican who's been tossed out by the groundswell of the populace. If anything, supporting Crist as a third party alternative is, to my mind, antithetical to our long-term goals, since he's not a committed independent/third party candidate. He's a committed Establishmentarian, who's trying to pull a Bloomberg to be in office.
Even granting these points, it is nonetheless still worth considering to what extent a change in an establishmentarian candidate's political identification, from Republican or Democrat to Independent, can transform that individual's candidacy and even that individual him- or herself. What begins as nothing more than an ancillary appearance can become an essential existential anchor. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Knight, you are what you pretend to be. A new poll commissioned by the Libertarian candidate in the Florida Senate race finds 40% of respondents now in support of Crist, giving him a significant lead over Rubio, his nearest rival.

Given the totalitarian character of the Democratic-Republican two-party state and the strength of the ideology that sustains the ruling duopoly system of government, it is not likely that any movement toward real political freedom and independence in the United States will be born whole, as it were, like Athena from the head of Zeus. We must be wary of Democratic and Republican charlatans who don the mantle of political independence only to ensure the reproduction of the political status-quo, but we should also be cognizant that not all independents worthy of the name will be free of any past association with the ruling political establishment.


Shawn said...

The problem with defending Crist is he's a career charlatan. He hid with the Republican Establishment because they had the money and influence to get him elected in Florida.

Then he embraced Obama and sang the praises of Health Care and the stimulus package while trying to tell people he was still fiscally conservative.

Then when he got called on it in the Senate race by the populace, he fled the party and has, it seems, thrown his finger in the air to catch the polling on issues to 'triangulate himself' as Clinton used to do.

While I agree no movement is going to be born whole-cloth from perfect pieces, the messengers still matter. And I would be leery of choosing Crist as a messenger. In the end, he has an Establishment politician's commitment to self and pulling the levers of power over concern for what ideas he might be espousing by doing so.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

"Crist is an Establishment Republican who's been tossed out by the groundswell of the populace. If anything, supporting Crist as a third party alternative is, to my mind, antithetical to our long-term goals, since he's not a committed independent/third party candidate. He's a committed Establishmentarian, who's trying to pull a Bloomberg to be in office."

Bloomberg was a moderate who switched parties to get to the general, ran as a moderate, won as a moderate, governed as a moderate, and finally dropped the party affiliation altogether and now governs as a moderate under the banner of Independents.

I wish MORE people "pulled a Bloomberg".

Samuel Wilson said...

d., your point is a valid one, but the specific question with Crist is: what is he declaring independence from? My impression is that he's declaring independence from an insurgency in the form of Rubio and his Tea Party supporters. If I'm wrong and the Florida GOP establishment got behind Rubio early, that might make Crist's a different story. In any event, I'd be more impressed by someone going independent who was not in danger of losing a primary. Then at least the newly minted indy couldn't be accused of sore-loserism. On the other hand, I admit that the outcome of a primary could well prove that something is so wrong with a party that declaring independence is the best option for the loser and his supporters. The difficulty lies in the fact that parties do evolve while the Bipolarchy endures. If a conventional Bipolarch deplores the evolution, does his preference for a previous line of stalemate prove him objectively independent of the bipolarchy mentality? I accept your point that such a refugee as Crist can prove himself by the positions he takes, but let's insist on specific positions like election law and ballot access reform as real proof.

Solomon: How many people can afford to pull a Bloomberg? The independence of plutocrats isn't necessarily a model for the rest of us.

d.eris said...

Don't get me wrong, Shawn and Sam, I don't disagree with your respective takes on Crist. But I think we still have yet to see what he will make of himself as an independent, if anything at all. There is no model, which is why the question "what is an independent? what is independence?" is so important, imo. Unfortunately, whatever Crist does will likely become a media template for what independence is. In reality, issues like election law and ballot access reform would be good gauges though. It would be good to brainstorm further in that vein.

It is significant that his numbers have gone up in the public opinion polls since he left the GOP. It would be highly ironic if the people of Florida used Crist's candidacy to give a big FU to the Democratic-Republican Party apparatus. It is also significant that he still hasn't gotten endorsements from any other prominent independents or independent groups, as far as I'm aware. Bloomberg's office has reportedly rejected rumors that Bloomberg would endorse Crist, apparently because he vetoed an education bill, according to a report at IPR.