Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I Am An Independent

From "Inherit the Wind:"

Matthew Harrison Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you've moved so far away from me?

Henry Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it's you who've moved away by standing still.

Gallup reports that more than two–fifths of Americans self–identify as independents.

That is the highest it has been since Gallup started asking that question a quarter of a century ago, and it indicates that a large portion of the American electorate is up for grabs.

Gallup reported this finding last week, and I have been trying to figure out what it means. The talking heads of all political stripes appear to believe they understand why so many Americans say they belong to neither party, but I think the answer is a lot more complicated than they like to believe.

I have my own thoughts on that, but, ultimately, I can only speak for myself. I, too, consider myself an independent, but I'm sure the path I took is unique to me in most respects.

The fact that so many Americans consider themselves independents suggests several things to me:

For one, I believe winning this voting bloc is going to be a tall order for either party. Both parties will give you ample reasons why the independents should vote for them — indeed, why so many people are leaving the established parties — but I think one of the reasons why so many Americans do identify as independent is because the shrillness of the extreme wings of both parties (and both parties have extremists) turns them off. To win them over, the parties will have to be less accusatory and more placatory.

I repeat, I can only speak for myself. Until a few years ago, I considered myself a Democrat, but I have been bothered by the fact that both parties presume too much about each other — and assume too much about anyone who disagrees with them. Initially, I saw it as the embodiment of George W. Bush's assertion that, essentially, if you ain't with us, you're against us.

(That, in turn, reminds me of some graffiti I read about in my studies of history, graffiti that appeared in Massachusetts in the late 18th century — "Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't stay up all night damning John Jay!" I always thought that was a pretty good example of why George Washington warned against the formation of political parties.)

Now, I think it is far more insidious than anything Bush suggested. Bush's use of that with–us–or–against–us approach was simplistic, but, originally, it was aimed at foreign countries. Now it is aimed at our fellow citizens — from within, and that bothers me a lot.

I believe people who self–identify as independents are uncomfortable with the extremist bent in both parties. They don't care for it in the party they have called their political home, and it is probably the main reason why they have resisted switching to the other party.

Personally, I have never considered joining the Republican Party.

My ideology is more inclusive, always has been, and I concluded, after careful reflection, that my loyalty is not to a party. The way both parties operate these days, they believe a voter's first (and only) loyalty is to his/her party. I don't walk in lockstep with any party. My loyalty is to freedom.

I don't remember when I began identifying myself as a Democrat, but I know who influenced me in making that choice — my parents, especially my mother.

(My father played a role in it as well, but he was never as outspoken about his political beliefs as my mother was. They believed the same things so he seemed content to let her do the talking on politics for both of them.)

As nearly as I can recall, Mom never spoke in terms of Democrat or Republican. She spoke about the qualities of leadership that she admired, and she chose candidates for office who demonstrated those qualities. Usually (but not always), those candidates were Democrats.

She admired them because they stood for tolerance and acceptance. She truly believed in those qualities. She lived them, and it was entirely consistent that, when it was time to vote, she should gravitate to those who were tolerant and accepting.

(Mom also encouraged my faith in basic American concepts like freedom of the press and freedom of speech.)

I followed her lead because I believed in the same things — and, for most of my adult life, I voted almost exclusively for Democrats.

But times were different when I was a boy. Both parties had strong centrist factions. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Party division wasn't nearly as divisive then as it has become. There were healthy and vigorous debates on most issues in both parties. The concept of the big tent really applied to both parties.

When I was growing up, Mom really embodied the concept of tolerance and acceptance — for me, I know, but also for the people who knew her. She was active in community groups that promoted positive relationships between races, religious groups, etc. She is still remembered in my Arkansas hometown for her commitment to making it a better place for all.

Even as a child, I was proud of her for that. I'm prouder still today.

But our friends weren't exclusively Democrats. If they had been, I suppose my family's circle of friends would have been considerably smaller than it was.

My mother taught my brother and me to cast a wide net for friends, to look beyond those things that divided us, and I have tried to do that. I haven't always succeeded, but I have tried.

She never told me to shun people with whom I did not agree.

I often wonder what she would think of today's Democrats because that is exactly what they do. Most of them, anyway. Not all, but most. I speak from personal experience. There are people I have known since college (some longer than that) who have thrown me under the bus because of politics.

A conversation I had is fairly representative of others I have had. Why are you a Republican? I was asked by a Democrat whom I have known for a long time. (Well, at least, he asked me why. I have other "friends" who never bothered to ask that question before tossing me in the path of an oncoming train.)

I'm not a Republican, I replied. I'm an independent.

You're a hater and a racist.

No, I'm not.

You hate Barack Obama because he's black.

(This accusation has been made against me often but never with any supporting evidence. That doesn't surprise me because there is no such evidence. But that is irrelevant to the accusers. You see, I have learned — the hard way — that you have to be careful when you are accused of this because it is the equivalent of the old "Have you stopped beating your wife?" query. If you say that you don't hate Obama because he is black, you are implying that you do hate him for some other reason — and I don't hate him at all.)

No, I don't. I disagree with him.

(That really does express how I feel. I didn't vote for Obama in 2008, but I didn't vote for John McCain, either — I voted for Ralph Nader. After Obama was elected, I told people I was willing to give him a chance, that I would judge him on his record of encouraging job creation.

(And that is precisely what I did when he sought a second term.)
"I didn't leave the Democratic Party. It left me."

Ronald Reagan

How did it come to this? I don't know. I do know that I really started to notice a shift in Democrat attitudes about five or six years ago, and I felt increasingly uneasy.

See, one of the things that bothered me most about the Bush years was the way that his supporters accused those who disagreed with him of being unpatriotic. That flew in the face of something that I have always believed — that the very essence of freedom and patriotism is the right to criticize the government without fear of being impugned.

At the time, most Democrats seemed to agree with me. But I came to realize they were taking notes on the actions of their Republican colleagues and refining them for future use. Once they seized congressional power, they began using the same tactic — and accelerated it — after Barack Obama was elected president because they could replace unpatriotic with racist to squelch criticism.

No doubt, there are some racists among those who criticize Obama, but criticism of Obama is not proof of racism any more than criticism of past presidents by blacks or Hispanics or any other minority group was proof that those voters were racist.

I don't object to a black president (or a yellow one or a brown one, either). I do object to an incompetent one of any color.

Perhaps the thing that troubles me the most in our present political environment is the tendency to make race or gender or religion or sexual preference more important than anything else. Such things are irrelevant to me. What matters to me is whether the person in question can do the job.

In the past, I have voted for non–whites, non–males, non–heterosexuals. Voted for some in the most recent election, in fact. I voted for some Democrats. I voted for some Republicans. I didn't vote based on labels. That, it seems to me, is what being an independent is all about.

I was bemused recently by the reactions, as expressed on Facebook, of some diehard Democrats here in Texas when Charlie Strong, the coach of the Louisville football team, was named coach at the University of Texas.

Strong is black, and these two Democrats could only talk about how UT and its longtime rival, Texas A&M, both have black football coaches now. Not one word was said about Strong's qualifications as a coach and an educator. Not one word was said about his coaching style or his ability to recruit talented football players — or his record of graduating his players.

UT is very oriented to recent results. The man Strong is replacing, Mack Brown, brought Texas its first national championship in 35 years, and he coached the Longhorns in another national championship game a few years later. But the last couple of years have been very un–Texas–like.

I predict that Strong will be judged on his results, the same as any other coach at UT. If he wins his conference and, perhaps, coaches the Longhorns to the national championship game, he will keep his job. If he continues the recent trend of eight– and nine–win seasons, well, that might be good enough at other schools, but it wasn't good enough for Mack Brown or his predecessors at UT to remain in the good graces of the athletic department and its wealthy boosters.

Nevertheless, if Strong is dismissed because he doesn't make the Longhorns a Top 10 team, I further predict that there will be those, possibly many, who will say he was fired because of racism. It is the nature of the times.

As far as I am concerned, both parties rely on stereotypes to discredit the opposition. That has been part of the political game as long as I can remember, but never to today's extent. it has completely overwhelmed everything else.

And I think that explains, to a great extent, why so many Americans think of themselves as independents. The parties aren't working together, and that's what the voters want them to do. They want real solutions to real problems. They want the people who have been elected to high office to do what they were elected to do — solve problems — instead of pointing fingers at each other.

I don't know if it entirely explains my decision, but I suspect I will continue to try to explain it to people who are determined not to listen for a long time.

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