Unconventional Times

Unconventional Times
Jacqueline Salit

The parade of luminaries is over, confetti and balloons swept away, the parties and the presidential candidates having defined themselves for the American people. Both parties told us that America is at a crossroads, a hinge moment for the future of our country. And yet, the language, the themes, the issues and the framings — even the confetti — were all echoes of the past, echoes of a time when rational men (and a few women) could provide rational answers to serious questions.

The problem, however, is that the world in which we now live and in which America more or less thrives is a world that seems increasingly irrational. We’re the richest society on the planet but jobs are scarce. Technology is extraordinarily advanced but the human capacity to prevent violence is diminishing. Every fact known to man is available on a handheld device, but our educational models are antiquated — based on training kids in knowledge acquisition — not on the development of their creativity and critical thinking. What’s more, we seem to be unable to create a national consensus on the burning question of how to develop America’s economic strength in the face of serious adversity. A friend and unorthodox supply side economist Jude Wanniski once asked, “How can there be so much poverty when we have so many Nobel Prize winning economists?” A sensible question, to be sure. Maybe we should question the Nobel standards, or the brute vicissitudes of capitalism. Either way, rationality and coherency seem to have made a sweeping exit from the world stage.

No wonder 40 percent of Americans are neither Democrats nor Republicans but are Independents. They feel the waning of traditional political categories and do not trust that the political parties know what to do.

The American political parties persist, nonetheless, in offering their respective truths. For Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, a restoration of the prosperous America we once knew is just around the bend. Really? Given the instability of the financial markets, and the one-sidedness of wealth creation where the gap between rich and poor keeps growing, that’s not so easy to believe.

I liked Bill Clinton’s “country boy” soliloquy on the lies and logical inconsistencies of the Republicans at the Democrats’ convention, and his appeals to being “in this together” rather than everyone being on their own. But I couldn’t erase the memory of his White House having repudiated the entreaties of the independent political movement of the 1990s — ignited by Ross Perot — which culminated in the left/right coalition that became the Reform Party. This unorthodox movement opposed Clinton’s opening the floodgates of globalization and deregulation. It called for political reforms to ‘de-partisanize’ the electoral and governmental process. If the Independents of that decade had prevailed, perhaps the economic collapse of 2008 would not have been so extreme and the partisanship which engulfs us would not be so paralyzing.

During the recent decade, Independents have become the largest bloc of voters in the country, and the power of their collective “swing” rivals that of baseball’s most famous sluggers. Independents gave Barack Obama the Democratic nomination in 2008 in 33 open primary and caucus states where non-aligned voters were permitted, and then backed him by an eight-point margin over Republican John McCain in the general election. Obama was not only America’s first black President; he was America’s first independent president, as John Heilemann, the co-author of Game Change, wrote shortly after the election.

Time has passed since then. The Barack Obama we saw at the Democratic Convention was a president trying to apply his considerable talent, intelligence and commitment to bring order and coherence to an incoherent time, a time in which the dysfunction of our political process is more exposed than ever. But Independents, and many other Americans, are not necessarily looking for order. They’re looking for re-order. They want something other than strict party politics, something other than parties-as-we-know-them. Something Independent.

As the head of a national organization of independent voters, IndependentVoting.org, I am frequently asked which candidate independents will vote for in November. I honestly don’t know. What’s more, it’s hard to tell whether independent turnout will match 2008, when Independents were 29 percent of the electorate. Why? Because the parties are dead set against recognizing the Independent 40 percent who have, in a very personal way, made a statement about the depth of dysfunction and partisanship by declaring their independence, irrespective of who they vote for.

Pollster Frank Luntz put it well in a conversation with Charlie Rose last week when he said, “The problem is neither candidate is speaking to them in the way they want to be spoken to or talking to them with the words they want to hear.” That may be because the parties don’t understand us. Or, because they prefer to win the election without us. Perhaps both.

Luntz’ admonition echoes my own and should be particularly resonant for President Obama. He came to Washington as an Independent. Though it might unsettle the parties, the partisans, and the political order — he can still lead as one. But to do so, he has to defy some conventional wisdom and connect with these more unconventional and independent times.

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