These are the best of times—and the worst of times—for independents striving to disrupt and transform our broken politics.
The Best of Times
Though it can be obscured in the dust and smoke of moment-by-moment partisan rancor and wrangling, tangible progress is apparent in vital areas:
1. Poll after poll shows rising, record numbers of citizens declaring themselves as Independent.
Given the extensive privileges in law and custom accorded to the Republicans and Democrats, this is no small change.
2. The Trump and Sanders candidacies shook the establishments of each of the legacy parties.
President Trump achieved what is, in effect, a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Given the implacable opposition to his candidacy from all vestiges of the “establishment,” this is a remarkable achievement.
So, too, Senator Sanders nearly upended the Democrats’ carefully constructed citadel that cosseted the Hillary Clinton campaign.
3. Weaponized gerrymandering, using 21st century technologies and often cloaked as complying with Voting Rights Act mandates, is now under fire and facing credible, constitutional legal challenges.
The Worst of Times
At the same time, there are daunting challenges:
1. The legacy parties maintain their extra-constitutional duopoly through a latticework of laws, regulations, and customs.
Reform efforts can be strangled in the crib at every level. States continue to bend laws to disadvantage third-parties and independents in ways large and small.
The Federal Election Commission remains a stolid force for the status quo. The members are divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
At a time when more than 40 percent of Americans self-identify as independent, the FEC’s composition is a stark reminder of how the system in DC is impervious to public opinion. It’s as if the politics of the 1970s remain, frozen in amber.
2. Special interests are more potent than ever.
The functionaries who “lead” the legacy parties in Congress more faithfully represent the lobbyists in the nation’s capital than their own states and districts.
Reformers face a conundrum.
On the one hand, there is more widespread sentiment for reform than at any time in living memory. So, too, digital age tools are offering many new avenues of participation.
On the other hand, the system of the Special Interest State is hydra-headed. One hardly knows where to begin.
If we’re to build on the current possibilities we must look to 2020. Bottom-up demands for change must find clarifying expression through the presidential campaign.
We have an enviable problem: an abundance of reform initiatives is flowering.
Some aim to work within the legacy parties, building on the Trump and Sanders examples. Some declare independence from the party system while aligning themselves with left or right causes.
Others advocate a specific issue such as ranked choice voting. Still others provide a forum for discussion of systemic reform.
A few seek a new constitutional convention, with all the uncertainties and possibilities it would entail—were the prospect to amount to more than a bargaining chip to spur movement from entrenched power.
E Pluribus Unum
If reformers are to seize this disruptive moment, we must focus our bottom-up efflorescence on specific actions that can be advanced as a united front in the 2020.
The question is: How can we harness the rising tide of reform toward specific goals, with tangible results?
There’s a crying need — and corresponding opportunity — to convene a diverse range of organizations and advocates. The goal should be to come up with a concise, clear manifesto with specific goals and timetables.
There’s no exact historical model for what needs to be done. There are examples, though, worthy of consideration and emulation.
One stands out: Theodore Roosevelt’s “Covenant with the People,” offered by the new Progressive, “Bull Moose” party in 1912.
What Do You Think?
At the dawn of the 21st century, we have the inestimable advantage of social media tools to gather the best thinking of more Americans than ever before. So, too, new information technologies open new vistas for action.
What do you think is the best approach for the next presidential election season?
What is your vision for 2020?