Independents Rising: Third Party Politics In America

Independents Rising: Third Party Politics In America
Jacqueline Salit

Michael Lewis is an imposing man. Six-foot-six, 340 pounds, barrel-chested, he looks like someone who could crush an opponent without even a sideways glance. Lewis played semipro football in his younger days. Today he is married, with two young daughters, and has worked as a prelitigation specialist in the financial credit industry. It’s a business that Lewis feels uncomfortable about. “It’s hard to make a living off of other people’s misfortune,” he says in a gentle voice that seems at odds with his physical stature. He’d like to change careers. But the economy being what it is, it’s hard to make that change especially in a place like Kentucky, where jobs are scarce and wages are low.

Michael Lewis is an independent. When you talk with him, you realize that it’s as much an attitude, a posture, a sensibility, as it is a political position. He doesn’t like political parties; he feels they have too much control. He wants independent voters to have more political power. Kentucky is a “closed primary” state— meaning candidates are nominated through primary elections in which only party members can vote, not independents.

Lewis took up the cause of open primaries in 2008, after he met a group of local activists working with to introduce a bill into the Kentucky legislature to allow independents to vote in primary contests. The bill was defeated in committee, but its sponsor, Representative Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon, a Republican, took notice of the voice independent voters were gaining in the state. When a special election was called for an open state senate seat in the 14th District, Higdon decided to make a run and reached out to Lewis for his help in delivering a campaign message to the district’s 3,500 independent voters. Lewis agreed, on the condition that Higdon would introduce the open primaries bill in the next legislative session. Higdon pledged that he would. Lewis mailed personal letters to several thousand nonaligned voters, promoting Higdon’s support for open primaries that would end the independents’ exclusion from first-round voting. Higdon won the special election and credits the support from independents with putting him over the top.

At the GOP victory party, where Republican luminaries and good ol’ boys hung out at the bar, Lewis was the man of the hour. A friend asked him afterward whether he was recognized at the event. “I’m kinda hard to miss,” he said. But it wasn’t his size that got him noticed. It was that Lewis, a grassroots independent, had stirred up a base around a political reform issue. They’d sent Higdon to the state senate on that basis.

Local Republicans were busy slapping Lewis on the back, buying him beers, and inviting him to join the GOP. “Why don’t you come with us?” they asked. “No thanks,” said Lewis. “We’ve got other things to focus on right now.”

And he did. He founded Independent Kentucky together with Alexander Kemble and several of their friends. They affiliated with, and Lewis soon called Higdon, asking him to deliver on his campaign promise. Higdon introduced the bill on January 6, 2010, and Lewis traveled to Frankfort in February to walk the halls of the state capitol and drum up support.

Along the way, he ran into Senator Julian Carroll, a Democrat and former governor of the Bluegrass State. Lewis pressed him about the open primary bill, about making sure that everyone in Kentucky, regardless of their party affiliation, would be admitted to every round of voting. Carroll, now 80 years old and once part of a circle of upstart Democratic legislators called the Young Turks, was incensed beyond reason by Lewis’s appeal. “Well, if you don’t like it, then move to another country,” he told Lewis in the capitol hallway. A CNN crew following Lewis’s campaign captured the encounter on video. Lewis was astonished. With the help of’s national organizer Gwen Mandell, the exchange went viral.

That day the Republican-controlled state senate, at Higdon’s urging, passed Lewis’s open primary bill. It was defeated, however, in the Democrat-controlled house. CNN’s David Mattingly pressed Senator Carroll about the issue on camera while the voting was underway. “If they want a party,” said Carroll, “fine, we’ll create them a party, and then they can have their own party that believes in their own principles.” Mattingly wasn’t satisfied. He told Carroll: “Independents don’t want to have their own party. They want to vote for Republicans or Democrats.” Carroll was unperturbed. “I don’t care what they want. I’m telling you how we operate a democracy in America. We operate a democracy in America with the two-party system.”

Lewis’s battle is far from over. In 2011 Higdon again introduced an open primary bill. This time it failed to pass by one vote. Lewis understands that reforming the process and building a movement take time. “We continue to gain momentum,” he says. “The independent voters of Kentucky are gaining ground.” Lewis is, in effect, fighting two causes. One is challenging the Kentucky closed primary system—in place in numerous other states, too—that permits parties to exclude voters from the nominating process. The other cause is to organize independent voters to become a force for changing the political structure without having to form a third party. Unfortunately, Carroll’s notion that if independents want to be recognized, they need a party of their own is conventional wisdom in the political establishment. For Carroll, that no doubt translates into Get them out of the way and over to the sidelines.

But for Lewis, and now for many hundreds of grassroots independent activists leading state and local challenges to the hardwired partisanship of the system, the goal isn’t to create a new party. It’s about making the process itself a cause; it’s about new forms of political expression that allow independents and all Americans to move the country away from partisan politics.

There is no real third-party movement in America today, in spite of the recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that 61 percent of Americans would like to see an independent alternative to the Democrats and Republicans in the upcoming presidential election. But there is an anti-party movement, one that is being organized and shaped by diverse influences. The emerging conflict over closed primaries, open primaries, and nonparty primaries, in which the rights of the people are pitted against the rights of the parties, embodies a uniquely twenty-first-century question. Are political parties the vehicles through which the American people want to self-organize and self-govern?

Today, 84 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Congress. This Congress? Surely. Any Congress? Maybe. Which raises another question. Given the partisan nature of the system, is it possible for Congress to behave differently? Many feel it’s impossible without structural changes to the party system itself. Mickey Edwards, who served in Congress for 18 years from Oklahoma, put it this way when he proposed a set of structural reforms to the electoral and congressional process: “The problem is not division but partisanship—advantage-seeking by private clubs whose central goal is to win political power.”

The political parties are the vehicles to which Americans turn to exercise their political will. But that exercise seems increasingly futile. A clear majority of Americans, for example, believe (and experience!) that income disparity is getting wider, but they have no power to do anything about it. The Occupy Wall Street events of 2011 are a reaction to that, and so are the polls showing many Americans sympathetic to those protests. No matter who is elected, the special interests, the elite, and the insiders still run the show.

Thus, reform of the process is becoming strategically important and popular among the American people. Michael Lewis’s battles in Kentucky are no mere local affair. They signify activities of an emerging anti-party movement with a new social and political fabric. And there is no better place to pick up its thread than inside the jacket pocket of a California state senator, Abel Maldonado.

It was February 2009. The California state legislature was under lockdown in Sacramento. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Assembly majority leader Karen Bass, a Democrat, had reached an agreement on the long-stalled state budget. But legislative leaders couldn’t cobble together the two-thirds majority required to pass it. Late into the night of February 18, entreaties and offers were made to the holdouts. The $143 billion budget deal hung in the balance…

From “Independents Rising” by Jacqueline S. Salit. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Read the article here