By Jackie Salit
When we finally get far enough down the road on health care reform, it will become clear that a driving force in the intensity of the fight was a heart attack. Not the medical kind. The political kind.
Independents swung decisively to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. And it is this shift by independents – who repositioned themselves from center-right to center-left – that gave the Republican right the political equivalent of cardiac arrest.
In 1992, 19 million independents voted for Ross Perot. In 2008, 19 million independents voted for Barack Obama. Over the span of 15 years, the largely white, center-right independent movement re-aligned itself with Black America and progressive-minded voters.
This did not happen out of the blue. It did not happen by magic. It happened because the progressive wing of the independent movement did the painstaking and often controversial work of bringing the Perot movement and the Fulani movement together at the grassroots. The Fulani movement refers to the country’s leading African American independent, Dr. Lenora Fulani, who exposed the black community to independent politics and introduced the independent movement to an alliance with Black America.
No doubt the dramatics that the right wing brought to the Town Hall meetings this summer were intended for the television cameras. But the organizers, strategists and radio personalities who orchestrated the theatrics had a particular audience in mind: Independents. If they could tarnish Obama’s image with indies, they could damage the black and independent alliance and re-establish the Republican Party as an influential force amongst independents. Some of that could be accomplished, they felt, by claiming Obama’s health plan would drive up the national debt – a concern that animated the early Perot movement. Some Republican strategists felt that if they simply branded Obama a socialist, it would scare independents away – not from the health care plan (everyone recognizes a plan of some kind will get passed) but away from the center-left coalition that elected him.
If indies are feeling somewhat disillusioned with President Obama over the health care reform fight, it has more to do with fears that he is being overly influenced by the partisans in Congress. Since independents voted for him to be a more independent president, it’s easy to see how some felt disappointed by his handling of the Republican onslaught. Obama’s independent appeal was based on his challenge to the prevailing culture of Clintonian opportunism in the Democratic Party and partisanship inside the Beltway. Put another way, the independent vote for Obama was an effort to define a new kind of progressivism, one that was not synonymous with Democratic Party control.
After years of hard work and organizing, independents have become a sought-after partner in American politics. They elected President Obama and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, arguably the country’s two most independent and pragmatically progressive elected officials. No wonder the Republican Party right wants a clawback.
Independents are vulnerable to being peeled away by the Republican right. The Pew Research Center reports that were the 2010 midterms to be held today, independents would lean towards Republicans by a 43 to 38 percent margin. But, the evolution of a 21st century independent movement is not that simple. First, the movement is very fluid and very new. Historical movements develop through twists and turns, not in a straight line.
The far right has attempted to take over the independent movement before. In 1994, Newt Gingrich crafted the “Contract with America” to woo Perotistas back into the Republican tent. And in 2000, social conservative Pat Buchanan hijacked the Reform Party presidential nomination, though he was roundly repudiated by independents in the general election.
If Republicans are increasing their influence among independents, it’s also because the Democratic Party Left has not been a friend to the independent movement. Sure, Democrats were happy that indies broke for Obama. But they were disappointed that we didn’t become Democrats. They equate progressivism with being in the Democratic Party. But they’re wrong.
Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party has been enthusiastic about the development of indies as a third force. For different reasons, surely. But they share a common goal: to maintain the primacy of two-value logic (where there is only one or the other, never neither) and make sure independents are passive companions. That’s one reason that the fight for open primaries – which allow independents to cast ballots in every round of voting – and the campaign to appoint independents to the Federal Election Commission are so important. Those fights are about our right to participate and our right to represent our interests in changing the political culture.
The independent movement went left in 2008, after many years of grassroots organizing to link it to progressive leadership. Now the right wants to peel it back. Obama, presumably, wants to hold on to the partnership, but must also privilege his own party, which turns independents off and makes them more susceptible to Republican attacks. Meanwhile, independents are working hard at the grassroots to hold our own.
Jackie Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org and the campaign coordinator for Mike Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign on the Independence Party line.
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