Sitting in the audience at the Unrig the System Summit in New Orleans two weeks ago, I couldn’t help but feel that a tide was turning. Speaker after speaker at this high energy and well-attended event made one central point: America cannot engage its massive social and economic problems under the present system. It is too corrupt.
Until we change it, reform it, re-engineer it, we will be powerless.
The conference’s main organizer, Josh Silver of Represent.Us, echoed this point throughout the weekend.
“They’re finally starting to make the connection that our rigged election system, the way we vote, is broken; the way that candidates run for office is broken, the way that politicians govern once they’re in office is broken. Until we fix that, we’re not going to fix any of these other issues that have been so stuck and moving backwards over the last few decades,” he explained.
I ran into Silver just before the event began in the corridor at Tulane University where the conference was held and wished him well on the event. I’d last seen him in Ohio in November at a gathering on the State of American Democracy at Oberlin College, where two hundred mainly left-wing academics made desperate claims that the Democratic Party had to be protected at all costs, no matter how corrupt it had become.
Trump was the reason they gave, of course. Nothing — no issue, no cause, no investment in any kind of alternative that engaged corruption and partisanship — could be entertained.
I don’t know Silver well. But I do know that we share a deep dislike of left intolerance of anything that is not ideologically aligned with itself. I’m not sure whether we share a dislike of the particular kind of hypocrisy and manipulativeness practiced by the Democratic Party. No matter. We’ll get to that at some point down the road.
The New Orleans event helped to crystallize the centrality of structural reform of the system. But it left open the question of how different reformers view the guardians of the system: the political parties. Do we fix them? Or do we work to remove their corrosive control over America’s political process?
For many independents, the rule-by-party paradigm is the source of our powerlessness. In my experience, challenging that paradigm is what brings left and right together.
The conference got a taste of that when Zach Wamp riled up the conference goers at a plenary on the second day.
Wamp is a former Tennessee congressman elected in 1994 as a Republican in the post-Perot populist wave which generated the Contract With America and the GOP takeover of Congress two years into the Clinton presidency. He heads up the Reformers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 200 former electeds who champion a set of ethics and process reforms for Congress.
A passionate crusader with deep roots in the faith movement, Wamp explained how his years in Congress showed him the dangers of partisanship. Passing legislation along party lines is a recipe for failure, he cautioned the conference.
Obamacare was well-intentioned, he said, but it passed without a single Republican vote. It was unsustainable. The tax reform package passed under similar circumstances, in reverse. No good will come of it.
Zach charged the audience with a simple refrain. “Party before country is un-American! Party before country is un-American!”
The crowd cheered. I’m sure that party stalwarts in the room winced.
Zach and I had a chance to talk at the airport later that day. I was flying home early for my annual Super Bowl party, and we crossed paths in the Delta lounge and compared notes. I told him my feeling that a fixation on Trump as the Devil and an exaltation of the Democrats will deflate this movement, sacrifice its independence, and hand everything over to the parties.
Obama was elected by independent voters (we were his margin over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries) to govern as one. The Democratic Party wouldn’t allow it. The result? Trump.
If we build a reform movement, the purpose of which is to hand power back to the Democrats on their terms, the whole miserable partisan cycle starts all over again. It would be foolish to think that systemic change could occur without empowering new and nonaligned forces from outside the system.
Hours before the conference opened, a group of some 25 reformers met to talk about developing a coalition of outsiders, about whether and how an “all-sides,” multi-constituency coalition might be engineered. Convened by John Steiner, co-founder of the Bridge Alliance and the Citizen Summit, Steiner pressed for crossing ideological boundaries to demonstrate a mass appetite for a humanistic alternative politics in America.
The discussion touched on many aspects, including whether or not process reform could and should precede economic and social issues. Some suggested that the democracy issues could be everyone’s second issue (this came from the rank choice voting adherents).
Dr. Jessie Fields, an African American physician and reform activist, and a longtime independent and close friend, reminded everyone that the Black community’s moral and practical leadership on voting and civil rights did not come about by putting democracy on a tier second to the hardship of poverty and alienation.
Later in the conference, Fields delivered a powerful talk at a panel on electoral reform, where she represented Open Primaries, the national advocacy center for an inclusive primary system. She said:
“There is no question that the Democratic Party was our ally in achieving civil and voting rights in the latter part of the 20th century. But no party owns the votes of any American. No American should be required to join a political party in order to exercise the franchise.”
Nowadays, the pressure for party loyalty is inescapable. One Republican conservative at the “all-sides” meeting explained his view. As much as I might disagree with Trump, he said, there is a limit to how much I can speak out against him. The more I do, the more I am branded as aligned with the liberals and the Democrats, and I will be drummed out of the conservative movement.
I was grateful for his candor and told him so. I thought it captured a bind of the movement. We seek radical systemic change, yet the most outspoken radical in America today is Trump, swinging a wrecking ball at every hallowed institution of US political life. The Left and the Democratic Party are busy defending those institutions.
I do not align with Trump’s corrupt and visionless vision, but I get his appeal. A movement for systemic change, it seems to me, has to live in the political vacuum created by those two poles.
Peggy Noonan wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s supporters, a solid third of the nation, don’t understand that “he must grow or die.”
But of more concern to me, at least, is that the independent movement itself has to grow or die, which is to say it has to resist the undertow that pulls back to the parties, it has to be independent of them—even as it leverages them to open up the system they have on lockdown.
This is not an abstract point. Forty-three percent of American voters consider themselves independent. Seventy-five percent of millennials do not align with any political party.
These voters, by virtue of declaring themselves to be independent, are the rigging of a different political culture.
What is that culture? For starters, it is based in the consent and creativity of the governed, not the unchecked authority of the parties.
For more than three decades, an independent/reform movement has been struggling to be born. This movement, by turns center/right and center/left, by turns issue-oriented and candidate-oriented, by turns a party and not a party, has periodically broken through to threaten the rulemakers and then been kicked to the fringes.
But it has persisted. Good things, developmental things are happening. Political reform and the need for systemic change are grabbing center stage. This need is being legitimized by institutions from Harvard to the voting booth.
Reformers across the spectrum -- from the arenas of open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, anti-corruption, ballot access, ranked choice voting, presidential debates, initiative and referenda, felon voting rights, independent candidacies, and more -- are looking for ways to coalesce.
The tide is turning. But now there are deeper, thornier questions coming to the surface.
Should the American people be satisfied with reforms that allow the parties to mediate our relationship to government and policy making? Do certain communities belong to one party or the other? Will our movement enable the American people to have a conversation about these questions or will it simply try to suppress it?
To be continued …
Jackie Salit hosts a national conference call for independents to give updates on latest developments in independent politics and answer your questions. To join the next conference call on Monday, March 12th at 8 pm / ET click here.
Photo Source: Unrig The System Summit / Represent.us