I have been writing for IVN since the summer of 2014. Though my academic background is in political science, I can confidently say I have learned more about American politics in this one year of researching and writing for you (the readers) than I have in my six years in higher education.
Over this time, I must confess, many of my beliefs have remained the same.
I still believe that America, despite its history of having committed many unjust actions in its foreign policy, is and can be a positive force across the globe. In a world imperiled by numerous cases of unjust aggression and oppression, I believe that America has a moral responsibility and a vested interest in promoting its values of secularism, democracy, and human rights abroad through whatever means are most effective and efficient.
Some might call this outlook hawkish or neoconservative, but many of my views are anything but conservative: indeed, some are quite radical. I support economic and social policies that might best be described as social democratic and that – with the exception of politicians like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – are rarely touted by elected officials in this country.
Also, as a vegetarian, I believe that in our age of abundance and advanced technology, our ability to produce nutritional food no longer requires the killing of billions of animals each year, and I imagine that, in just a few generations, our descendants will view our current treatment of animals to be as barbaric and as perplexing as we now view the institution of slavery.
If my social-democratic moorings and vegetarianism did not make me enough of a political minority, I am also an atheist – the demographic most distrusted in the country today – all because I believe that ethics and spirituality do not require religious belief and that the doctrines of our organized religions, in one way or another and to varying degrees, contaminate these things, which are best understood, I believe, on a secular basis.
And as far as social issues are concerned, my beliefs are rather complex: while I agree with social liberals on many issues (gay marriage comes to mind), I am also persuaded by thinkers – from Robert Bellah to Slavoj Žižek to G.A. Cohen to Alasdair MacIntyre – who are critical of some of the central tenets and features of liberalism.
I disclose the complexity and nuance of my beliefs not to wallow in my own marginality, but to establish my independent bona fides and to say that, like many of you, I know what it feels like to not have a candidate or party that fully represents your beliefs and interests.
Yet while many of my beliefs have remained the same, below are some reflections and comments on the things I have learned or come to believe – in my time as an IVN independent author thus far – from writing several dozen articles, reading thousands of comments posted here, and discussing various topics with some of you individually.
1. Americans have a great diversity of beliefs, and many are politically underrepresented
One thing that I have come to appreciate over the last 12-plus months is the true diversity of public opinion in this country: outside our narrow two-party system are, among others, prohibitionists, libertarians, environmentalists, moderates, evangelical Christians, tea party conservatives, resigned cynics, and people like myself whose beliefs defy easy classification.
Moreover, I have also learned just how underrepresented this diverse group of political independents is today. The work of political scientist David Broockman, for instance, has shown that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that extremists have hijacked our political system, it is often the case that voters hold opinions more extreme than those of our lawmakers. Nevertheless, moderates also do have trouble getting elected given the difficulty of surviving primaries that often benefit more partisan and dogmatic candidates.
This leaves only certain groups of voters to feel that the current system is working for them.
According to research by Pew, which classified Americans into eight different political categories, those whose beliefs are well represented by the two major parties make up 36 percent of the population, yet comprise 57 percent of the politically engaged electorate. The other 64 percent of the population, the majority, is not as closely affiliated with the two major parties and makes up just 43 percent of the politically engaged electorate.
Clearly, there is something wrong with this situation: nearly a third of the electorate should not dominate the political process simply because these citizens happen to feel at home in one of the two major political parties.
2. Our legislatures need to be more diverse
It is this underrepresentation that leads me to believe that our legislatures – for reasons of sheer fairness – should be more diverse.
To put it another way, I agree with the New Jersey senator from the 1840s who said that, ideally, a legislature (he was referring to the House of Representatives) should be “a bright and honest mirror, reflecting all the lights and shades of the multifarious interests of this mighty people, as they lie spread out over this broad land.”
Yet there are also practical benefits to adding diversity to our legislatures.
First, making our legislatures more diverse – or more accurately, enacting policies that will allow them to become more diverse – will likely motivate higher voter turnout rates. If citizens believe they can elect lawmakers who truly represent them, they will be more inclined to vote.
Second, it is important to pay tribute to the origins of many now-cherished values, laws, and ideas that were proposed, at first, by those on the political fringe. It was evangelical Christians and freethinkers who led the movement to abolish slavery. It was anarchists, syndicalists, and socialists who first agitated on behalf of workers and won for them basic protections and rights. It was so-called extremists who led the movements for women’s suffrage and civil rights. It was the influence of outsider candidates such as Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan who paved the ground for the Republican Revolution of the 1990s and the mainstreaming of fiscal and social conservatism, and it was Ross Perot’s 1992 Reform Party presidential campaign and his crusade to balance the budget that had a moderating effect on the presidency of Bill Clinton.
This overview shows that we do a disservice to political minorities – and often times to ourselves – when we exclude diverse opinions from the public conversation.
Moreover, I believe it is important that we include these diverse voices as close as possible to the institutions where our laws and policies are made: it is not merely enough to pay lip service to these groups every election cycle (if they are lucky to receive even that much attention), but instead to have such groups included in the legislature roughly in proportion to their popularity among the general public.
It is for this reason that I oppose the top-two primary system. In addition to effectively keeping minor party and independent candidates off the general election ballots in California (and thus effectively sidelining fascinating and inspiring people like Green Party gubernatorial candidate Luis Rodriguez), it turns political minorities into electoral pawns rather than empowered groups, legislatively speaking. During the election process, Democrats and Republicans can appeal to them – speak to their concerns in exchange for their votes – but there is no ensuring that their concerns will be acted upon once the major party candidates enter the legislature.
Open Primaries president John Opdycke seems to view this as a positive trade-off, one in which political minorities can “leverage” their support so that their concerns are “part of the conversation from Day 1.”
Yet there is something insincere about this logic. If political discourse should be inclusive, and if political diversity is a virtue, then why limit that diversity merely to the electoral process? Why not, rather than making the role of political minorities to vote for the Republican or Democrat who best represents them, instead make room for these groups where their voices would matter most – in the legislative process?
But the question is, how do we achieve this diversity?
3. We need reforms that will help make our legislatures more diverse
Our current unrepresentative two-party system is the product of a deeper institutional cause: the adoption of single-member districts and first-past-the-post elections. It follows, then, that if our unrepresentative system is the product of certain institutional designs, then it could be mended with the proper institutional changes.
Following the lead of many industrialized and stable democracies, I believe that we need the number of political parties to proliferate so that all voters can feel at home in at least one party that can advance their interests in an organized way. One way to do this is to move – most likely gradually – toward a proportional representation system.
However, there are other ways to weaken the grip of the two-party system and make room for third parties and independent candidates. This would involve reforming ballot access laws all around the country: reforms can include repealing anti-fusion laws that keep minor parties off the ballot and out of the public’s consciousness, giving ballot access to parties with small yet significant numbers of registered voters, and reducing the burden (in time and resources) for the collection and approval of petition signatures.
Together, these measures (in addition to deeper structural reforms) can help end the vicious cycle that keeps minor parties and independent candidates in relative obscurity. Currently, such parties and candidates are in a bind: they do poorly in elections because voters know little about them, and voters know little about them because they do poorly in elections.
Enhancing ballot access can turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous one: their presence on the general election ballot will expose them to more media attention, and more media attention can result in better performance in the general election.
4. We need more political parties, but we can accommodate independent voters and candidates as well
Some readers on IVN may bristle at these ideas. I have read comments that are critical of parties in general – not just the two major parties. Parties, some argue, are part of the problem because they divide the public against itself and because partisanship causes the legislative process to malfunction – or seize up and not function at all.
First, while I agree that reflexive partisan loyalty is problematic, I do not believe that political parties are responsible for the fracturing of public opinion. People, as I have discussed above, have a wide variety of beliefs in this country. Parties are the expression of this diversity of public opinion, I contend, not its cause.
Second, political parties, I believe, are necessary in a large political body. They are essential for political organization and mobilization. There are often 5 to 10 political parties in national legislatures in countries with significantly smaller populations than that of the United States.
Nevertheless, I have read on this website that some voters simply do not want to join a party and that voting rights should not depend on party membership.
Fortunately, there are electoral reforms and systems that can lead to fuller representation while also accommodating independent voters and candidates. FairVote, for instance, has advocated for a “fair representation voting” system that uses multi-member districts combined with ranked choice voting. This system allows voters to vote for candidates – even independent ones. Indeed, New Hampshire’s lower chamber, which uses multi-member districts, has an independent in its midst: David Luneau.
5. We should have open primary laws, yet we should also respect parties’ rights, and we can do both
Perhaps the greatest evolution I have undergone in my time writing for IVN concerns my views of the primary system. It was only when I began reading IVN that I learned that taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay for closed primary elections in some states, and, as a result, independents in these states often cannot vote in elections that they help pay for (though, in some states, they can switch their registration at the polls and then re-register as independent).
This knowledge shook my belief in the soundness of closed primaries. It struck me as unfair that independents should pay for elections in which they cannot participate.
However, I still believe in parties’ First Amendment rights to manage their own affairs. Given that, in an open primary system, voters can cross over and vote for a “weaker” candidate to give their own party candidate an easier contest in the general election, I believe that parties should be able to close their primaries to party members.
So, how we can have both – a system that empowers independent voters while also preserving parties’ rights?
One such answer was provided by Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News. Writing for IVN in July, he proposed that California could hold a jungle primary in which voters can vote for candidates from any party for the various offices. This primary election, paid for by taxpayers, would respect the rights of independents, who would be able to vote in this primary alongside partisan voters.
However, parties would reserve the right to abstain from the jungle primary process and conduct a closed primary if they wish – so long as they pay for this nomination process themselves. As Winger pointed out in his article, the Republican Party in states like South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia has failed to invalidate open primaries because the law in these states lets them nominate by convention at their own expense if they do not want to participate in these government-administered open primaries.
This is an ingenious solution: the major parties would likely be reluctant to pay for their own closed primaries, especially in large states where the costs could be quite high to administer such an election. Therefore, it is likely that many parties would participate in this kind of open or jungle primary, thus empowering independent voters. However, such a system still leaves parties the option to manage their own internal nominations and thus would likely survive a legal challenge to its constitutionality.
6. In a competitive party marketplace, we should allow parties to manage (and sabotage) themselves
However, some independents might still lament the option for parties to hold private elections that exclude the participation of non-members. Wouldn’t such a privilege lead to all sorts of abuses? Wouldn’t it take us back to the days before mandatory primaries when party bosses dominated the caucus and convention system with impunity?
Here, I would argue: let them. Let the political parties, if they so choose, enact any measures they want in the regulation of their internal affairs. In a competitive party marketplace (which, I argued above, ought to expand greatly), parties that are overly exclusive or dogmatic will end up hurting themselves.
Take, for instance, the case of the Utah Republican Party. As I wrote for IVN, the party has chosen to pass provisions that essentially allow it to conduct “litmus-tests” and, if it wants, to deny party membership to those who contest the party’s nomination through a newly mandated petition process.
As pointed out by a fellow Utah Republican, state Rep. Jeff Cox, the state party chairman, James Evans, has spoken in favor of “purity” interviews for prospective members and floated the idea of having petition-route candidates pay the party $10,000 to cover the cost of learning about – and informing party members of – these candidates’ positions. He also apparently likes to use the phrase “compel behavior.”
Rep. Cox writes that such talk “breaks [his] heart” and adds that, “If this continues, I truly believe that, at best, we will see increased disenchantment and disengagement. At worst? Mass defection.”
However, he adds that “political parties are not immune from the forces of market corrections.” What does this mean?
Well, it means that if people do not like the direction the party is headed and find it too controlling or doctrinaire, people may leave the party and perhaps join – or found – another one.
Such occurrences are not without precedent. In 1948, for instance, after Hubert Humphrey delivered a passionate speech in support of civil rights at the Democratic Party Convention, he won over so many delegates that he prevented – to many people’s surprise – the nomination of a candidate committed to a segregationist platform. Unhappy with the popularity of Humphrey’s speech, many southern delegates fled the scene, created their own States’ Rights Democratic Party, and selected Strom Thurmond as the party’s presidential nominee.
There is no reason to believe that this kind of splintering cannot occur more often. If ballot access laws are softened, and political parties do indeed begin to proliferate, then market forces will naturally operate so as to allow people to abandon parties that do not represent them and to join or start ones that do.
As you can see, my work on behalf of IVN has taught me a lot about independent voters and the state of American politics. I have closely read your comments and feedback, and I often learn fascinating things and derive story ideas from your contributions. Some of you have taught me important lessons and given me many issues to consider.
After a little more than a year, it has been a pleasure to write for IVN and to interact with you, the readers. I look forward to many more years so that we can continue these important debates about how to improve our political system.