This July 4th, let’s declare our unity by reclaiming our independence.
I am one of those stubborn political independents who believe that solving problems is more important than winning ideological fistfights, and I deplore politicians whose interest is limited to being a cult leader’s toady. I believe in empowering people to achieve their objectives, rather than oppressing others and bending them to the will of my particular beliefs. I have learned to see Americans as neither Republican nor Democrat, nor any of the other meaningless and often dangerous ways we try to classify people to break them down and treat them differently. Mine is a learned (and often dismissed) disposition in a political system that otherwise demands group affiliation. On the surface, it seems easier to classify people to wage a desired political agenda and affect public policy but, today, it often just inflames conflict and compromises success—especially at the national level. Perhaps it’s just my advancing maturity, but I find little affirming value in belonging to groups, and I wish folks would wave just one flag: the American flag, without changing its colors. Until and when we rally around one flag—with one set of colors: red, white and blue—we will continue on our current course: flirting with authoritarianism in the face of a democracy in chaos. Meanwhile, our adversaries throughout the world lick their chops. Our disunity is their opportunity.
The prevailing mindset in America today is Us vs. Them. Try and find a group today that is not beset by this condition. The other prevailing characteristic many groups share is that they believe they are the exception—that they conscientiously subscribe to inclusive consensus-building practices. But spend more than five minutes in their group discussions and the Us vs. Them mentality quickly percolates to the surface. It is astonishing how fast it rises and equally astonishing how blind participants are to its existence. And don’t dare call them out; you will be banished in a heartbeat. They are like alcoholics who believe that everyone but them are drunks; claimed with cocktail in-hand. As a scholar, I have studied the effects of Us vs. Them righteousness and certitude that historically emanated from organized religions—especially monotheistic religions. I have traced and illustrated religion’s effects on American foreign policy. However, in the last ten years or so, politics has supplanted religion as the locus of righteousness and certitude. There is no need to trace religion to politics; today, politics is religion.
My parents taught me that to exclude people in politics—or any other persuasive endeavor—is foolish if you want to win. Political parties call this the “Big Tent Strategy”; something they give lip service to when attempting to feign inclusion. Candidates today love to judge, shame, and condemn others in a feeble attempt to bolster their standing—especially with donors. They rarely address the needs of their constituents. To me, we are all just humans trying to find a secure, predictable, and fulfilling path to live our lives. Many would call me an outlier, and I am often looked upon with curious contempt from hardcore blinders-on partisans. But the truth is we independents—while only informally and generally involuntarily associated—now make up the fastest growing political segment in America as more folks abandon the quagmire of left/right traditional thinking in favor of political pragmatism. My home state of Colorado calls me “unaffiliated” on the voter rolls as if I am a wayward orphan. However, we outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in the state. We make the purple, purple.
That is not to say we independents are by any means cohesive in our ideological convictions. Our diversity does not lend itself to forming a group, which is both our strength and our weakness. Among independents, you will find a wide range of positions on many issues. Some are independent because Republicans are not conservative enough, while others are because Democrats are not liberal enough. The vast majority, however, sit in the middle-way of America where reason and wisdom and, moreover, calm resides. We are the new jokers in the deck of the traditional two-party system. What we share is the realization that our political system in the United States has completely collapsed rendering our government unable to serve our interests—to support basic public goods that have been the elements of a social contract between the government and the governed since the founding of our country, first put forth by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. What we also share is a simple and clear proposition that defines what Americans want: stability and the right to self-determination. We want our political leaders to focus on safety, security, fairness, and predictability, and do so in a manner consistent with their oath of office. That’s it.
Sounds simple enough, but there is a natural tension between stability and self-determination that must be understood to balance these aims. Stability requires norms, laws, and structures to assure order. Self-determination tests those institutions as personal liberties must be expressed in a manner that does not violate them or otherwise risk their collapse. Partisan zealots who dominate both parties today have adopted similar strategies: pursue liberties and related political objectives regardless of the institutional guardrails that assure stability in a civil society. Every hot-button issue today—from abortion to guns—are hot for one reason: advocates or adversaries who want to impose their beliefs on others at the expense of stability—of civil society. Historically, shared American values have provided the touchstones to dull the sharp edges of political discourse and support the prospect of compromise. Trump threw those norms away and Democrats have followed his lead. When only you are right and everyone else is wrong, entropy is inevitable.
Traditionally, Republicans have advocated for rules and structure and compliance in hierarchical and often patriarchal regimes of command and control where discipline is more valued than creativity. Democrats have taken a much more laissez faire approach to social and political order where personal liberties and creativity are favored over boundaries, and government exists to nurture, support, and protect such individualism. Today, in many ways those profiles have flipped. Trumplicans don’t want to follow any rules (as modeled by their namesake) and woke-Democrats are imposing new rules (often through shame-based tactics) in a frankly awkward attempt to be the bigger bully. The result? Bullying has become the modality of the dominant-extremes in both parties. And we wonder why people are fleeing politics or, as I have done, rejected both political parties by declaring independence. The question now is which party will get control of their bullies (and attract independent voters like me) in time to win in November? The party that figures that out first could be in power for the foreseeable future.
The irony of the chaos that characterizes all aspects of American life today is that what Americans want from their politicians has never been simpler or clearer. Recent research shows that Republicans want conservative ideas (some of which Trump advocates) without Trump style. They want competence in execution—an ability to actually govern—rather than lies, corruption, and hysterical fear-mongering. Conservative ideas with Eisenhower’s executive capabilities and disposition. As for Democrats, they want the humanity and openness that is safeguarded by democratic institutions and assured by liberal society, which is to say fair, open, and inclusive. They want the fortitude and convictions of Teddy Roosevelt —especially toward the middle class and the environment—with the calm demeanor of Barack Obama. Today, all of us want to see strength and determination in setting America on a new path to sustainable prosperity. We know we are in trouble—no need to scare us further about that. We also know some things must be broken, which include everything from outdated and outmoded congressional rules like the senate filibuster, to our tax code, to narrowing the scope of government in order to right the ship of America. We want to see courage from our leaders and a self-effacing commitment to empowering Americans to pursue their particular American dreams. Is that too much to ask?
Pundits argue that the Republican Party is in disarray with Trump continuing his modality of divisiveness in every political race in America. To my eye, that just means they are as confused as Democrats have always been in seeking any sense of cohesiveness. Traditionally, Republicans are like the duck on the water that appears completely calm and at-ease while paddling like hell beneath the surface where all the organizational work is done to maintain power, like redistricting, voter registration (and suppression), and the appointment of judges and justices. On the other hand, the traditional Democratic duck squawks and flaps its wings creating all manner of surface disturbance—often espousing grievances and claims of victimhood—while it can’t seem to paddle in any particular direction whatsoever. I want a calm and determined duck that glides across the water leaving a smooth wake in its path. Those are the ducks this independent voter will support.
Both parties need to realize that the strength and determination we prefer is found in neither intimidation nor whining. Attempting to bend people to your will (the Republican modality) or extolling grievances and victimhood (the Democratic modality) have this in common: they both convey weakness. Neither bullies nor victims are icons of strength. Some folks will support intimidation in the short run, but when they realize it only benefits party leaders, they become disenchanted. Meanwhile, those attracted to victim narratives similarly are left wondering why they were, in the end, never liberated from their oppression (real or imagined). Strength is necessary to persuade people you can deliver stability and restore self-determination, but it is a strength based in American values that respects its democratic institutions. In short, strength deployed with integrity.
This is where the current Democrat-controlled congress has failed. Americans have easily seen past the provocative slogans and have found plenty of bickering, but little legislative substance. Running around with your hair on fire just leaves one bald and, eventually, out of office. This reality coupled with historical midterm voting patterns stacked against the Democrats will undoubtedly spell disaster for them this November. All, right when the Republican Party is as vulnerable as it has been since Nixon fled the White House on Marine One in August 1974.
Republicans understand how to organize, execute, and win elections. They understand that to get what you want you must have power. However, at the hands of Trump, McConnell, and McCarthy, they have fallen into the abyss of selfishness, dishonesty, and cruelty that is beyond disgusting, it is abhorrent. Just last Friday, the Trump/McConnell-loaded Supreme Court did what it has never done before: it rescinded an established individual right when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Is it any surprise the target was women? They won’t protect children from assault rifles, why would they protect women’s rights? The only shocking thing is that we are shocked. The Republican Party needs a massive purge of their crazies (especially its libertine misogynists), yet it’s mostly nutjobs that are winning primaries because that is what the few who participate at this stage in the process want: the nuttier the better. When a Cheney is the voice of moderation in your party, you might want to pause for a moment of reflection.
What’s surprising today is that neither party has figured any of this out. They have been captured by their extremes who care more about their personal beliefs and grievances than serving Americans. Do we really need to suffer complete societal collapse before we get back to restoring civil society? Leadership really isn’t that complicated when your head and heart are in the right place. That’s what this American wants, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.
Happy Independence Day. Now, go exercise your independence under one flag that is red, white, and blue. It may seem paradoxical that declaring our independence is the pathway to unity, but it is the only avenue I see. Until we realize there can be no Them, only Us, we have no chance of meeting the challenges of the day. Americans have achieved the impossible to save the republic before and we must do so now, again. To my Democrat friends who cringe at waving our flag, get over it. Allowing Republicans to claim the flag as exclusively their own is a strategic political error your party made that has persisted for decades and must end, now. It is your flag too. You are patriots too.
One America, one flag.