Politics & Policy

Democracy Is Not a Chinese Restaurant

The danger in fetishizing Independents.

Warning: I’m going to jump the gun and be a curmudgeon about this election now.

So, let me ask you a few questions: Are you an independent? Do you reject “partisan labels”? Do you like to weigh each candidate on the merits rather than simply vote the party line? Do you wait until the last weeks of the presidential election before you make up your mind on whom to vote for, so you can study the issues as much as possible? Do you watch the presidential debates and feel disappointed that you didn’t get enough “substance” on “the issues.”

Well, bully for you. You might deserve a lollypop, but you don’t deserve to run the country. Unfortunately, you (and people like you) do.

November 2 promises to be another in a long line of elections decided by those Americans who are the least engaged, least interested in, and least informed about politics. And even if that’s an overstatement, the media will work very, very hard to convince the public and the politicians that “moderates,” “swing-voters,” “independents,” and “undecideds” are the heart and soul of American politics.

Now, let me back up for a moment. Decent, smart, and conscientious people are distributed across the political spectrum, including the middle. Also, there are significant differences between, say, a “moderate” and a “swing voter”–or there can be, if you know what you’re talking about. And–since it never hurts to flatter the reader–if you’re reading this column and you call yourself an independent or undecided, you’re still probably not the sort of person I have in mind, since you’re actually taking the time to read about politics more than 100 days out from the election.

But as a matter of gross generalization, no segment of voters is less deserving of the high esteem they get from the media and politicians than independents, centrists, moderates, swing voters, undecideds, and others we generally call middle-of-the-roaders.

First let me make a simple factual point. There is inherently nothing more intellectually rigorous, morally decent or politically sophisticated about being a centrist. If you have a choice between voting for Nazis and voting for pacifists, how would ticket splitting be the superior way to go?

Now, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are Nazis, but the principle remains the same. Whatever your personal ideological leanings, it’s just as likely that one party will be right about X and the other will be wrong. Blurring right and wrong isn’t necessarily an improvement. Blending black and white may make you feel good about your capacity for nuanced thinking, but in terms of public policy, gray is often worse than either. For example, California’s recent electricity crisis was the result of trying to deregulate “a little,” which is worse than not at all.

This irony is completely lost in the public debate; the more strongly held your beliefs, the less seriously the media take you. What’s ironic about this is that people of strong political or ideological views tend to know what they are talking about more than people who have no strong views at all. This is a fact confirmed by common sense. You need to know about something before you can have strong feelings on it.

If you wait until the last minute to figure out whom to vote for; if you can’t tell the differences between the parties and their candidates (and you’re not politically exotic–i.e., an anarchist or a libertarian); if you think voting is like a Chinese menu where you can pick a little from here and a little from there; then the odds are you don’t know very much about the political system. You may be a brilliant neurosurgeon, but I know interns who are sharper than you about politics.

The reasons for this odd state of affairs are complex. We tend to fetishize independents because we live in an age when nonconformity is the new conformity. When people are designing their own religions and their own moral codes, is it any shock that they’re designing their own politics, too? Also, the parties themselves are weaker today than they’ve been at pretty much any time in American history, so it’s just easier for most folks to buck them. And the press itself is deeply cynical about politics, believing that true believers are all freaks or gauche–and therefore that the Americans who echo their own views are the most wise.

But the biggest reason is structural. By Election Day, the bases of the parties have already made up their minds, which leaves only the procrastinators and prima donnas to scrounge for. This turns “swing-voters” into kingmakers even when they don’t deserve to be. So politicians flatter them. The news networks treat them like oracular geniuses. But their only genius is to have been too lazy to pay attention until the last minute.

For example, in 2000 Michelle Cottle of The New Republic covered one focus group set up to watch the presidential debates. One woman, Yeshai Gibli, explained that she went into debate liking Gore but after watching Bush and Gore debate she decided that Gore wasn’t left-wing enough–so she was voting for Bush. Is that any way to choose a president?

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services

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