I just got a very long, earnest email for some guy named John Chaffee’s new line of T-Shirts (somehow linked to his singing career) celebrating the alleged lions of American politics — the independents. Here’s the website. The T-shirt features a red, white and blue silhouette of a lion with the tagline: “Not Left, Not Right, Not Satisfied.”
Now I bring this up for a several reasons. One, I hate press releases of all kinds and they tend to tick me off. Two, I think this is an idiotic idea, mostly because I think the fetishization of independents as holders of a distinct ideology is dumb and groundless. Some independents are moderates, who simply split the differences between parties. Some independents are very conservative — to the right of the GOP in fact — but are disgusted with both parties. Some are to the left of the Democrats and are disgusted with both parties. Some like to pick from a Chinese menu of policies, supporting some Democratic ideas some Republicans. That’s fine, though the notion that this is necessarily any less arbitrary or more intellectually sound than being a consistent conservative or a consistent liberal is usually unfounded. And, some independents are simply morons who think calling themselves “independent” will confer some kind of seriousness that actually knowing what you’re talking about will not. Oh and some independents are really “undecideds” who like to hide the fact they haven’t been paying attention by calling themselves “independents.”
To lump all of these people into a single political category sharing anything like a coherent worldview is asinine (though the press does it everyday).
Oh, another problem with this lion thing: It’s a dumb animal to pick. The donkey and the elephant have a level of mockery and self-deprecation to them that make them authentic. Rick Brookhiser got at this in a great post many years ago in response to a blogger who got excited about Arnold Schwarzenegger:
Andrew Sullivan has greeted Arnold’s candidacy with a designation for social liberals/economic conservatives, which he has been pushing for months. He wants to call the SocLibs/EcCons “Eagles.” The reason this will fail as a partisan designation is that it lacks the self-mockery embedded in donkeys and elephants, the symbols of the existing major parties. Thomas Nast, who created the political creatures, was a Republican, but his cartoonist’s eye won out over his ideology, for while elephants have many virtues, they are also lumbering and funny-looking. Donkeys kick and bray. Iconic modesty reflects an important political virtue. In the 1976 election cycle, the Economist dryly compared the hoopla of American political conventions, including their animal imagery, with “the more mature demonstrations of the recent European past.”
The other reason “Eagles” will fail as a partisan designation is that there will be no such party.
Personally, I like the AARP’s effort a while back when it merged the donkey and the elephant into a single creature with an elephant’s front and a donkey’s behind. I wrote about this for the magazine in 2008:
Rightly ordered unity in a democratic republic is the end result of ceaseless debate and discussion. But today, ceaseless debate and discussion is precisely what many liberals object to. As Al Gore is fond of saying about global warming, “The time for debate is over.” Legions of liberals insist that we must move beyond ideology and partisan differences on this, that, and the other. But have you ever heard anyone say that we need to “move beyond ideology” for the sake of bipartisan unity and then abandon his own position? Of course not. When someone says that we need to get past labels and move beyond ideology, what he means is that you need to drop your principled objections and get with the program. That is why Time magazine heralded Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg as “new action heroes”: These “post-partisans” had dropped any pretense of a Republican vision and simply embraced the liberal agenda. That’s what the AARP intends when its ad campaign for health-care reform proclaims: “Divided we fail.” The mascot for this campaign is a chimera, the GOP elephant’s head and the Democratic jackass’s body. Of course, such a creature cannot be created without shrinking the Republican brain or vastly inflating the Democratic ass.