The Obama campaign team did everything right. That’s the consensus among journalists, consultants, and the political class. I’ve watched some of them literally swoon over maps of the 50 states showing how the President’s campaign surgically identified pockets of “blue voters”, marooned in “red territory” and drew them to the polls in sufficient numbers to carry a battleground state.
An impressive operation, surely, even if it reminds me—in a spooky way—of the satellite imaging that helps our military track terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amazing technology and our obsession with data, fused with the time-tested political machinery of the political parties, has produced a slice-and-dice culture of campaigning where the “micro” rules and where the geeks are inheriting the earth. Or, at least they’re helping the parties maintain control of it.
I am an Obama supporter—one of the independents who voted for him both times. (Our numbers dropped from about 20 million in 2008 to about 16 million in 2012.) I’m very glad he won re-election for many, many reasons. And the methodology of the “micro” surely enabled Obama’s political victory. But I worry that the reductionism of micro-targeting—such as making sure that the 200 voting-age Latinos who moved to Broward County in Florida got the right mailer-obscures the political meaning of the macro. In the old days, we used to call this not being able to see the forest for the trees.
In this election, one forest that was missed was the 40 percent of Americans who disalign from the Democrats and Republicans and call themselves independents. Independent voters were an indispensable part of the Obama coalition in 2008. He carried 52 percent of independents nationwide—an 8-point margin over Republican John McCain. That post-partisan coalition provided both the numbers and the heart of the 2008 campaign.
But after the election the Democratic Party, the senior partner in this new and fragile coalition, established its own set of terms for future collaboration with independents. Post-partisanship was simply not their agenda. For obvious reasons—namely that it thrives on partisanship—the Democratic Party was not about to open up a process that they, together with Republicans, currently control.
While leaders of the progressive wing of the independent movement—myself among them—attempted to show the Obama team that this anti-independent posture would cost them support, party stalwarts held their ground and ran the table. The idea that President Obama should appoint some independents to the Federal Election Commission, or authorize a task force to consider ways to remedy the second class status of independent voters (who are locked out at many levels of the election process) was a non-starter. Instead, independents had to hew to the Democrats’ framing of what is troubling America.
Not surprisingly, independents’ support for Obama diminished by 7 points. Overall, Obama polled 45 percent of the independent vote; Romney, 50 percent. Of the 30 states where exit polling on political identity was conducted, Obama carried independents in 14, almost half, including the crucial swing states of New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Florida and Iowa. In Michigan, Obama and Romney virtually split the independent vote. Independents as a whole did not abandon Obama, even if the Democratic Party preferred to win the election on its traditional demographics, rather than by sustaining a new kind of anti-partisan coalition.
Notably, Romney was not able to mobilize independent support sufficient to alter the outcome, though towards the end of the campaign, in a last ditch effort, he ardently promoted the need to transcend partisanship and bring change to America. Two years ago, in the 2010 midterms, independent voters broke by almost 60 percent for GOP congressional candidates, giving Republicans control of the House. Thus, in 2012 the Republicans dropped nearly 10 points among independents. (Word to the wise: independents are not especially drawn to major league capitalists unless they are independent, anti-establishment, and pro-reform. Romney was none of these.)
With the Presidential election now behind us, the unseen forest—the more historical macro forces—resurface. Among these, of course, is the growing gap between rich and poor. Another is the growing disaffection with partisan politics-as-usual. And another is the seeming inability of the system to adequately address either.
The Democrats have settled on an electoral strategy based on appealing to Americans on the basis of identity (ethnicity, gender, etc.) and the fear that the Republicans will shred the safety net. But sheer demographics and maintaining the status quo is not enough. Creative and innovative approaches to social and economic problems that are desperately needed, and are being worked on in the nonprofit sector, outside the party dominated governmental apparatus, can only thrive in the fresh air of a non-partisan political culture.
Will second-term President Obama, free of the constraints of running for re-election and thereby free of the partisan norms imposed on him by his own party, become the independent President he was first elected to be? The answer turns, in no small part, on his reaching out to the independent movement and to its progressive wing.
Independents, the 40 percent—the forest—are both the opposition to and the product of the current gridlocked state of affairs, the tool and the result. They are slowly becoming organized, not as a party, but as a bottom-up force for post-partisan change.
In Act IV, Scene I, the Third Apparition tells Shakespeare’s Macbeth he will never be vanquished “until Great Birnam wood … shall come against him.” In other words, until the forest itself comes to Macbeth’s fortress. Macbeth is comforted because he believes that could never occur. Of course, it eventually does. Which is one reason why it’s never a good idea to take your eyes off the forest.