And Now, a Word From the Independents
By Jackie Salit
January 27, 2010
The Republican and Democratic Parties have finally found something to agree on. Americans are angry. And what do the parties propose to do about it? The Republicans say they know the answer. Just put them in power. The Democrats say they know the answer. Just keep them in power. But wait! Isn’t it partisan vanity that made Americans so angry in the first place?
Anger is a consuming emotion, as anyone who has been betrayed, insulted or manipulated can tell you. But what’s dangerous, psychologically speaking, is if you’re angry but you have no productive way to express it. And when the object of your anger – the political establishment that is densely woven around the two parties – is also the only available solution to your anger, the problem is compounded. That is the psychological and political bind that most Americans find themselves in. And, it is also the catalyst for so many millions of Americans – 40% in some polls – becoming political independents. They are looking for a way out of the maze that only leads back to itself.
This “breakout” phenomenon has been gathering steam for nearly 20 years. And during that time, an organized independent movement took shape that has operated largely – though not entirely – out of public view. We know from every emerging force in American history – the movement for independence that eventually tore us away from Britain to become a new nation; the anti-slavery movement; the populists; the labor movement and the pro-life lobby – that movements come of age as leaders with diverse, sometimes divergent, visions challenge their movement to follow a particular path.
In retrospect, these formative battles are easy to see. In the 1770s, many in the Continental Congress sought accommodation, not revolution. In the 1840s and 1850s, compromise, not confrontation, over the issue of slavery was hotly contested. And leaders of change movements throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries competed over whether and to what degree these social upheavals could and should be channeled into an alliance with a political party.
The contemporary independent political movement is as, or more, volatile than any of its predecessors, in no small part because it grows from a situation where the current organization of America’s political process is proving inadequate to the current crisis. But in its short life, the movement has acquired a history, it does have identifiable leaders, and it does have a set of controversies which define it. These have, for the most part, been ignored or trivialized by the pundits, surely, but also by the political group which benefitted the most substantially from it: President Barack Obama and his political team.
Here is a four-point crash course for the Obama team on what they need to know about the independent movement and why they must reach out to support its progressive/process wing.
1) Don’t Buy Into the Myth That Independents are Only White Center-Right Males
When the Perot movement exploded into the political scene in 1992, its political profile was the angry, white, right-leaning male. But the progressive wing of the independent movement, which built a small but active base for independent politics in the black, Latino, gay and liberal communities, coalesced with the Perot movement to define its new direction – one that included all Americans, especially Black America. There were many voices in the independent movement which opposed that idea, believing that independent politics not only was, but should be all white, arguing that African Americans would be more powerful if they “stayed behind” in the Democratic Party. (And besides, these political segregationists thought black people didn’t look good in tri-corner hats!) This battle has taken many twists and turns. The Obama team, which benefitted from the Black and Independent Alliance in 2008, must support those independents who successfully shaped that alliance.
2) It’s the Process, Stupid
Over time, the mainstream of the independent movement resolved to bridge the partisan and ideological divide to bring independents together as a cohesive force. Turning against the notion that independents were best represented by a third party – an experience brought to a head by the implosion of the Reform Party in 1999 and 2000 – a process agenda which could unify independents across the spectrum came to take the place of traditional issues. Recognizing that parties and partisanship have driven the country to the brink of dysfunctionality, independents in the “process wing” of the movement believe that the political decision-making structure must be substantially reformed as a means of engaging our social crisis. Open primaries, putting independents on the Federal Election Commission, nonpartisan governance and reducing the hegemony of the parties over the people are the first priority. The Obama team must engage with that process agenda, notwithstanding the resistance from the Democratic partisans in Congress and elsewhere. Obama was elected to be a progressive independent reformer. He is failing because he has unnecessarily chosen to govern as a Democrat.
3) The Independent Movement Is Vulnerable to Swinging to the Right
In 2008, Obama won the primaries and the general election with the support of independents. The progressive/process wing of the independent movement made that hook-up happen from the bottom up. Nineteen million Americans voted for Perot in 1992. Nineteen million independents voted for Obama in 2008. But don’t assume those are the same 19 million people. Or that the endorsement is permanent. The right wing lost control of the independent movement after the Ross Perot/Pat Buchanan tryst, when the center-left alliance in the national Reform Party buried the Pat Buchanan presidential candidacy, even though Buchanan was given $18 million (by the FEC) to spend on his campaign. But now the right wants it back. Massachusetts was just the beginning, from their vantage point. The Obama team needs to study that history and learn from their own mistakes. They have a stake in supporting the movement’s progressive/process wing.
4) Independents Elected Obama to be Independent
Since the 2008 election, Obama handed over his independent campaign organization to the DNC and to Rahm Emanuel and gave healthcare to Nancy Pelosi, reentering the partisan grid. Obama needs to extricate himself and connect to the progressive/process networks in the independent movement. That means supporting them, it means supporting the process agenda and it means standing up to his own party and to the party system. Like George Washington, independents don’t like parties. That’s why we’re not building one.
Independents are the swing voters in today’s angry America and they have a history and a vision that is uniquely their own. What’s the state of the union? It’s in distress and its people are in a straitjacket. Independents are, first and foremost, looking for a way out.
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We are a national strategy, communications, and organizing center working to connect and empower the 40% of Americans who identify themselves as independents. (See: Activist Center, DVD, The Neo-Independent magazine, and Talk/Talk).
Our mission is to develop a movement of independent voters for progressive post-partisan reform of the American political process.
We do not aspire to be another special interest. Independents seek instead to diminish the regressive influence of parties and partisanship by opening up the democratic process. Independents in the CUIP networks are creating new electoral coalitions such as the Black and Independent Alliance, supporting new models of nonpartisan governance and striving for the broadest forms of “bottom-up” participation.
Independents played a decisive role in the nomination and subsequent election of President Barack Obama, whose call for a transformation of the old political culture reflected the values of many independents. More than 19 million independents – roughly the same number as voted for Ross Perot in 1992 – chose to vote for Obama in 2008. The independent movement's shift away from the politics of the right-of-center Texas billionaire Perot to the left-of-center Obama was propelled, in part, by CUIP’s grassroots activism. (See "How the Independent Movement Went Left by Going Right")
Yet independents who backed Obama did not become Democrats. As the Pew Research Center reported in May of 2009, since the 2008 presidential election the number of independents is continuing to rise.
With the size of the independent voting bloc growing, the barriers that limit independent participation have become even more glaring.
What barriers do independents face?
Closed primaries, which exclude independents from the crucial first round of voting, is one major structural obstacle to a vigorous democracy. (See www.OpenPrimaries.org) Another obstacle is partisan control of redistricting, whereby state legislators – Republicans and Democrats all – carve up their state’s districts to guarantee the election of party-sanctioned candidates, using the power of partisan legislatures to support the status quo. Discriminatory ballot access requirements that are heavily biased against independent and third-party candidates, and the exclusion of such candidates from the nationally televised presidential debates jointly sponsored by the two major parties, are other obstacles. State laws that ban fusion and citizens’ initiative and referendum distance independents and all voters from the policy-making process.
Why do independent voters need a voice?
Although the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of political parties – and although George Washington warned us to beware of them in his Farewell Address to the nation – the major parties conflate their own institutional priorities and interests with those of our government. They operate a virtually closed system in which they make all the rules; independents have no representation on any of the bodies that regulate elections, from the Federal Elections Commission to state and local boards of elections. The rules are largely designed to keep out competition and to sustain the power of the parties themselves. Without traditional partisan allegiances and with a recognition that nonpartisan politics produces the best public policy, independents are singularly positioned to drive meaningful reform of the electoral process.
What is CUIP & IndependentVoting.org's political reform agenda?
CUIP works to bring about the structural reforms that will allow the American people to participate more directly in the political and policymaking process. (See You Can’t Change the Political Game Unless You Change the Political Rules)
Why does CUIP / IndependentVoting.org have two names?
CUIP (Committee for a Unified Independent Party) grows out of our origins in the organized independent political movement, where we continue to work across ideological and organizational boundaries to bring independents and third parties together. IndependentVoting.org, CUIP’s online presence, reflects our focus on grassroots organizing of unorganized and unaffiliated independent voters.
What is CUIP & IndependentVoting.org's history?
CUIP was founded in 1994 by veteran community organizers and third-party activists whose progressivism took an unusual form: in place of by-the-book adherence to ideology or a program of traditional issues, we sought to create new kinds of partnerships for new kinds of reform. The short-lived national Reform Party, which CUIP leaders helped to found, was one product of that enterprise, a left-center-right coalition linking the “radical white center” with voters in communities of color who were becoming increasingly independent. (See "How the Independent Movement Went Left by Going Right")
What is fusion and why does CUIP & IndependentVoting.org support it?
Fusion is an electoral tactic that allows independents to exercise their power as “swing voters” by giving their support to whichever candidates – Democratic, Republican, Independent – are most responsive to the independent reform agenda. Fusion allows independents to create coalitions and participate in politics as independents. CUIP’s fusion strategy does not require legalized fusion (only a half dozen states permit parties to cross-endorse) but advocates for legal cross-endorsement whenever and wherever possible.
Where does CUIP get its funding?
From thousands of individual donors in all 50 states.
What is the Black and Independent Alliance?
It is a daring new electoral coalition between African American and independent voters that in 2005 elected the first independent mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and three years later “scaled up” to elect Barack Obama, America’s first “independent” president. (See "How the Independent Movement Went Left by Going Right")
Does CUIP endorse and/or campaign for candidates?
No. We give tactical support to local independent activists and organizations. They may choose to support particular candidates. In the 2004 election cycle CUIP launched Choosing an Independent President (ChIP), a project in which independent voter groups in our national network “screened” presidential candidates, engaging them in dialogue about the reform agenda of concern to independents. We repeated the process in 2008; ultimately many activists in our networks partnered with the Obama campaign to bring out the independent vote in the 33 states with open primaries and/or caucuses.
What are some of the grassroots activities that CUIP promotes?
CUIP’s network of associations of independent voters currently extends to 40 states. With support from the national office, independent activists are pressing for non-partisan and post-partisan reform of politics and government through ongoing outreach to other independents, hosting local discussion groups and statewide conference calls, developing reform legislation and meeting with and lobbying state legislators, testifying at legislative hearings, public education through writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in local newspapers and working on a range of local political reform efforts. (See our Homepage and Activist page for details and updates.)
Every six weeks CUIP’s president, Jackie Salit, hosts a national conference call for new and veteran political activists. One hundred and fifty independent leaders from as many as 40 states participate in each of these conference calls, making them the largest regular gathering of independent voters in the country.
Who serves on CUIP’s Board of Directors?
Jacqueline Salit, New York, NY, is the President of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, Inc. (CUIP). A longtime journalist, political strategist and “on the ground” organizer, she is the executive editor of The Neo-Independent magazine.
Nancy Ross, New York, NY, is the Secretary/Treasurer of CUIP. She was formerly a partner in the Washington, DC-based lobbying firm of Ross and Green.
Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., Towson, MD, is an assistant professor of history at Towson University in Maryland. An independent political activist as well as a scholar, his most recent book is In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States.
Jessie Fields, MD, New York, NY, is a specialist in internal medicine on staff at Saint Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center in Harlem. She is a vice chairperson of the New York County Independence Party.
Bob Friedman, Birmingham, AL, is a talk show host on WJLD AM and the station’s chief copywriter. He is the chairman and founder of Independent Alabama.
Lenora Fulani, Ph.D., New York, NY, became the first woman and the first African American presidential candidate ever to be on the ballot in all 50 states and is an outspoken advocate and organizer on behalf of the political independence of the Black community. A developmental psychologist, Fulani is also the co-founder of the All Stars Project, a widely respected after-school program for inner city youth and directs Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids. Together with Jackie Salit, she was a co-founder of CUIP.
James Mangia, Los Angeles, CA, has been a nationally prominent leader of the independent movement for more than 25 years. Mangia, a long time gay activist, was the first national secretary of the Reform Party and is the co-founder of IndependentMovement.org. He is the President and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, a network of nonprofit health centers and school-based clinics.
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