TCS Daily


Independents' Say

By Lee Harris - February 2, 2004 12:00 AM

I had actually been thinking about writing an article about independent voters when a piece by Jonah Goldberg caught my eye; and let me say in advance that I agree with all the negative images by which he tars and feathers this appallingly spineless group of human beings, most of whom, as he quite rightly observes, are intellectual poseurs of the worst ilk. I am an independent voter myself, so I should know.

In the past, I have voted for Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Vegetarians, and the Social Worker's Party -- (we are approaching the quite distant past now.) To me, asking a man to vote for the same party all the time is a bit like asking a child to stick with only one flavor of ice cream every time he goes to Bruster's -- and in the Republican's case, always choosing vanilla. How do they do it? Don't they ever wonder about those purple-green fruity concoctions that the other children are eating, with exotic names like Pistachio-Raspberry Passion Fudge?

Now any good observer of human nature will tell you that most all individuals operate with a recognizable style that manifests itself with surprising consistency throughout many seemingly disconnected facets of their personal lives: political conservatives often dress conservatively, and are conservative in their tastes for music and architecture; political liberals are more laid back, their tastes more angular and exotic -- and, of course, varied. Occasionally, of course, there is mismatch; but generally the rule holds true. Style more often determines ideology than ideology determines style.

Now where does this conservative style or liberal style come from? From one's relationship to the means of production and distribution, that is, from one's class as defined by Karl Marx? No. In fact, it does not appear to come from anywhere noticeable by the closest observation -- rather, it seems to spring into existence with the formation of our basic character. We are, by nature, either seekers of security, or seekers of adventure.

But if we are cast this way by nature, and neither class, nor income, nor ideology, nor religious affiliation, nor ethnic background play the smallest role in the formation of our basic personal style, then many of what appear to us to be political quarrels may turn to be simply clashes of temperament.

This is the reassuring view expressed by Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Iolanthe, written toward the end of the Victorian era, and whose jaunty song reliably informs us that "every boy and every gal/that's born into this world alive/is either a little liberal/or else a little conservative. Tra-lalala."

The happy-go-lucky "Tra-lalala" testifies to the peculiar way in which Gilbert and Sullivan's English audience had adopted this natural clash of temperament as the basis for organizing political parties, as opposed to parties that were organized along ideological, ethnic, or religious lines. At the heart of the song is the just recognition that some of us have more settled ways and some more adventurous ones, and an implicit faith that somehow those of us who are overly set in our way will be shoved forward in a timely manner by those who are more adventurous; and visa versa, naturally.

Visa versa, ying yang -- the sounds themselves are suggestive of the give and take between people who have so long lived in such harmony with each other that they have come to incarnate the libertarian's bloodless maxim that one man's liberty ends when it begins to infringe another's. Which was how the two English political parties behaved with each other in practice. Neither felt any need to outlaw the other, or, even more importantly, neither felt any fear that it would itself be outlawed. Like our own parties, the English system reflected far more a clash of style and temperament than of ideology -- and people of different styles are far less inclined to argue with each other than people of different ideologies, and much more prone to settle differences by mutual accommodation. We will have vanilla on your birthday, but on mine we will have something more challenging.

Thus was born the central maxim of Anglo-Saxon politics: You could be either a little liberal or else a little conservative, but not too much one way or the other. It was this myth that allowed them to live with each other in peaceful competition, and without the need to fight each other to the death -- it could all be worked out. You push a little this way, I push a little that way -- and together we go in a direction that is not too far off from our original course.

The Founding Fathers hated the very thought of a political party: for them, it meant everything that was wrong with the English system from which they had just revolted. But Hegel's ever vigilant cunning of reason quickly disposed of their utopian daydreams and set the United States on the path to construct a politics based on team work, along precisely the same lines that the clash of temperament had forged in the mother country working with the same basic human capital.

The Politics of the Gang, The Politics of the Team

The politics of the gang, which has dominated most of history, requires the absorption or the annihilation of rival gangs. The politics of the team, mastered by only a few societies besides our own, requires the co-existence of other teams against which you justify your existence. Mr. Jefferson created the Democratic Party not to gain power, of course, but to keep a check on those Federalist rascals; and both parties quickly got into the routine of justifying themselves by insisting that they were not like the other party. To be a Republican means Not to be Democrat; to be a Democrat means Not to be a Republican.

The team is an exacting master, and does not like for its members to possess minds of their own -- and thus is quick to subdue the impulse for independent thought by forbidding dissent among the ranks.

But it is absurd to think that it could be any different, since a team where everyone could say and do what he pleased would not be a team. It is the price of having teamwork, and all the marvelous products of teamwork, such as our enormous economic and military power, and our history of political stability.

Imagine what the United States would be like if all of us were independent-minded voters, who felt no obligation to serve any particular party. It would be a ghastly nightmare. There would be thousands of minute and wildly fanatical splinter parties, many comprised of a single member, and then only because the members were not too independent to share their independency with others. An unnerving thought, especially when you consider how few minds have any cause to celebrate their independence from the pack.

Yet, on calm reflection, what these arguments really prove is that we do not want too many independents; not that we do not need any at all. We do, and I will briefly explain why.

Someone has to change his mind. Someone has to say, now and then, My heavens, I voted for the wrong man; I am sorry that I did.

The team player cannot change his mind, because his mind is the collective mind of the team, and he obeys it. He obeys it the way a good football player obeys his coach -- because this is what he must do in order to be a member in good standing of his team. You cannot remain on the team, and cheer for your team's opponents.

That is why God, in carefully weighing out the proper amount of conservatives and the proportionate amount of liberals, also factored in a not insignificant dose of independents. They are a necessary ingredient in the complex American civil ecology, just as a nauseatingly repulsive form of algae may turn out to be an indispensable agent in the harmonious ecology of a beautiful forest pond.

In short, I have a right to exist -- but not to set a trend.


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