The Declaration of Independents

Meet the future of American politics.

When was the last time you read the Declaration of Independence? Go ahead and call it up; give it a quick scan. Don’t focus on the detailed bill of particulars against King George (“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant”), disregard completely the bit about “the merciless Indian savages,” and concentrate instead on the two majestic, throat-clearing paragraphs at the top. Particularly this, the most influential English-language formulation of liberty in the 18th century: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Note what Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston did not include on the short list of unalienables. They did not write, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of politics.” No: The men chewing and gnawing at the crown’s leash elevated above all other pursuits the quest for happiness, as defined by each individual, by his own lights. It was a declaration within the Declaration, an announcement that existential meaning derives neither from the whims of a sovereign nor from enlistment in some grand national project but from the most atomized level of being: the personal, private, idiosyncratic human heart. Liberty was both a means and a destination—a process and a goal worthier than specific policy outcomes.

In 2011 we still do not equate happiness with politics; the mere juxtaposition of the words feels obscene. Politics, as John Adams’ great-grandson Henry famously observed, “has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Every election cycle (and we are always in an election cycle), we are urged to remember that deep down inside we really despise the opposing gang of crooks. We hate their elite (or Podunk) ways, their socialist (or fascist) economics, their reliance on shadowy billionaires with suspect agendas. In a world where mutual gains from trade have lifted half a billion people out of poverty in just the last five years, politics is one of the few remaining zero-sum games, where the victor gets to spend everyone else’s money in ways that appall the vanquished until they switch places again after the next election.

We instinctively know that our tax dollars aren’t being spent efficiently; the proof is in the post office, the permitting offices at City Hall, or the nearest public school. We roll our eyes when President Barack Obama announces a new national competitiveness initiative in his State of the Union address just five years after George W. Bush announced a new American Competitiveness Initiative in his, or when each and every president since Richard Milhous Nixon swears that this time we’re gonna kick that foreign-oil habit once and for all. And yet the political status quo keeps steering the Winnebago of state further and further into the ditch.

A growing majority of us has responded to the stale theatrics of Republican and Democratic misgovernment by making a rational choice: We ignore politics most of the time and instead pursue happiness. We fall in love, start a home business, make mash-ups for YouTube, go back to school, bum around Europe for a year or three, play fantasy baseball, or trick out our El Caminos. Through these pursuits we eventually find almost everything that is wonderful and transformative about our modern lives: the Internet, travel, sports, popular (and unpopular) music, the spread of freedom and prosperity around the globe. People acting peacefully, mostly left to their own devices and not empowered by the state to force others into servitude, will create riches far more meaningful and vast than the cramped business of tax-collecting, regulation-spewing, do-as-I-say-or-else governments.

Yet as robust and infinitely varied as our private universes may be, they no longer provide a reliable refuge from the destructive force of politics. Today there is only one real policy issue facing the country, and unfortunately it threatens each and every one of us, even (especially?) those of us not yet born: We are out of money. The national debt has zoomed past the $14 trillion mark, roughly the size of the entire economy. At least 48 of the 50 states are running deficits, many of them staggering. Cities, counties, and states are on the hook for at least $1 trillion, maybe three times that, in pension promises for which they haven’t socked away any cash. And the federal government is one sharp turn in international market sentiment away from a crisis like none of us has ever lived through. But still the prospect of imminent fiscal catastrophe is not focusing minds in Washington or in the 50 state capitals or in countless town halls on the need to change politics as usual. It is a turbulent situation, one that cannot, by definition, last much longer. Something has got to give.

This is another reason to reread your Declaration, especially the first 10 words: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary…” Sadly, it has become necessary to become political. We didn’t want to get into politics, but politics got into us.

That original American source code contains something worth pondering today. What if the private pursuit of happiness is the way to address the public problems that it has become necessary to solve? What if we were to foist the lessons, creativity, openness, and fun of our fantabulous nongovernmental modern world onto the unwilling and unaffordable bureaucracies keeping us down? What if we were to declare independence, not from a country or government but from the two political parties that have been dividing up the spoils for far too long? Indeed, what if we declared not only our independence in politics but our independence from politics?

Rise of the Independents

The only major American political grouping that has shown consistent growth during the last four decades is the bloc that no longer buys what professional politics is selling: independents.

The Gallup Organization, which has been measuring party identification since 1988, found that in 2010 Democrats had reached an all-time low of 31 percent—down five percentage points in just two years. Republicans were only two points above their 2009 all-time low of 27 percent. Independents had matched their all-time high of 38 percent. 

The Harris Poll has been measuring political affiliation since 1970, asking Americans, “Regardless of how you may vote, what do you usually consider yourself—a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or some other party?” Between then and 2008, the last year for which data are available, Democrats dropped from 49 percent to 36, Republicans dropped from 32 percent to 26, and independents jacked up a dozen points: from 19 percent to 31. 

Where independents go, so goes the country. When Democrats regained the House of Representatives in 2006, independents favored them by 18 percentage points over Republicans, 57 to 39. By the November 2010 election, those numbers had almost exactly reversed, giving Republicans a 56-to-37-percent edge. Barack Obama won the independent vote in 2008 by 52 percent to 44 percent over John McCain but has seen his approval rating among independents plummet from 60 percent in April 2009 to 35 percent in April 2011.

Who are these voters, and what is their problem? That’s how the question is routinely posed by dead-ender loyalists of the two shrinking brands. “What if these voters are just a clueless horde?” asked the headline of a New Republic piece by Dissent co-editor Michael Kazin in April. “At a time of economic peril,” Kazin warned, “when one party wants to protect the essential structure of our limited welfare state and the other party seeks to destroy it, most independents…appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard. Scariest of all, come 2012, they just might be the ones to decide the future course of the republic.”

Across the aisle, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has been banging this drum for years. “November 2 promises to be another in a long line of elections decided by those Americans who are the least engaged, least interested in, and least informed about politics,” he complained just before Republicans cruised to victory in 2004. “We tend to fetishize independents because we live in an age when nonconformity is the new conformity. When people are designing their own religions and their own moral codes, is it any shock that they’re designing their own politics, too?”

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  • ||

  • Crickets||

    Chirp.

  • ||

    Yawn.

  • Crickets||

    Precisely.

  • coniefox||

    Behind the government must have an economic groups supporting him.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you don't vote for one of the two established parties you lose, and if you vote for one of the two established parties you lose.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Said it before, I'll say it again.

    I've never really gotten the "wasted vote" argument. If there a candidate who reflects my views (80% or more), I'll vote for him or her. The idea of "winning" with a candidate I disagree with 65% (or more) of the time isn't really all that appealing.

  • sarcasmic||

    I can accurately guess the outcome of an election by the inverse of my ballot.

  • Nomad||

    The idea is that by voting for someone who absolutely won't win, you're giving up what little power you have to choose between Giant Douche and Turd Sammich. Maybe you think one will be .5% less awful?

    Of course, the argument also assumes that you can somehow magically determine how each of them would rule, since what they say and even their prior record, to a certain extent, isn't much of an indicator. ...and it also assumes that your vote somehow is statistically significant...

  • ||

    You know, if, say, the LP were regularly getting 10% of the vote, their ideas would get the attention of the major parties, simply because they need that 10%. Granted, that might only mean more libertarian rhetoric and no other changes, but if libertarians can just move us a little off the statist course, that would be worth doing.

  • Bill||

    But then when they only get 4% and are completely ignored, it's frustrating. Maybe this time it will be different? Let's hope so.

  • some guy||

    When you choose between Team Red and Team Blue, you aren't choosing the lesser of two evils, you're just choosing the next, new form of oppression. Would you prefer to lose social choices or economic choices after the next election?

  • ||

    I've never gotten that one either (and I hear it from friends and family at least every four years). I can only figure that most people need a win real bad, and think that by voting D or R they actually can claim one.

  • ||

    Good essay, though you (too conveniently) ignore all the contradiction in the polling that pops up when Americans are asked what programs they're willing to let go of in the name of smaller government. While they may say in overwhelmingly large numbers "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum, policy-wise: the people are delivering clearly conflicting wishes to a polity that is hard-wired (as the essay points out so well) to hate the "evil other". Until Americans (especially the much-vaunted Independents) can be cured of the "I want my cake and eat it, too" disease, we can rely on political dysfunction as the operating norm.

  • Frederic Bastiat, 1848||

    Citizens! In all times, two political systems have been in existence, and each may be maintained by good reasons. According to one of them, Government ought to do much, but then it ought to take much. According to the other, this two-fold activity ought to be little felt. We have to choose between these two systems. But as regards the third system, which partakes of both the others, and which consists in exacting everything from Government, without giving it anything, it is chimerical, absurd, childish, contradictory, and dangerous. Those who parade it, for the sake of the pleasure of accusing all governments of weakness, and thus exposing them to your attacks, are only flattering and deceiving you, while they are deceiving themselves.
  • ||

    "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum, policy-wise: the people are delivering clearly conflicting wishes to a polity that is hard-wired

    BULLSHIT

  • I||

    our independence from politics

    Hilarious! Do the Reason editors know that politics is a branch of philosophy? That politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics? That politics by any other name is still politics, and that it cannot exist independently of the other philosophical disciplines? That abandoning the two-party system in favor of an "independent" (libertarian) gang is still politics? This clumsy sleight of hand in rebranding libertarian politics and calling it anything but politics is comically transparent. The Libertarian Party, plagued with irreconcilable differences and superficialities and devoid of a consistent, comprehensive philosophical base, was and is a failure, so let's replace it with..."Independents!"

  • ||

    Yes, only by becoming Objectivists will we achieve political success. Brilliant!

  • NotSure||

    Last time I checked politicians do not practice metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, more like mud slinging and baby kissing.

  • cynical||

    Don't confuse politics with ideology. Politics is about power -- who is allied with whom, procedural rules, factionalization, caucuses, lobbying, deals, and that sort of thing.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: I,

    Do the Reason editors know that politics is a branch of philosophy?


    Hey, genius: Nick and Matt meant politics as known colloquially. Of course you cannot get away from Politics, but you can make yourself independent from the political 3-ring circus.

  • CrackertyAssCracker||

    2-ring circus man. 2 rings.

  • some guy||

    And they have a BIG overlap.

  • I||

    Beautiful evasions! Wondrous ignorance! Take a bow, all of you!

  • NotSure||

    Hey genius care to point out all the metaphysical politicians out there in the real world (as opposed to your made up "objective" one).

  • I||

    Keep writing. We laugh and laugh.

  • NotSure||

    Vote for me, my metaphysics, epistemology and ethics is better than the other guys. Vote for me my high brow sophisms really mean absolutely nothing in the real world, but hey that makes me a better politician.

  • MJ||

    Yes, claiming independence from politics is impossible in a representative democracy. Politics is the word we use to describe how differences in opinion in how the nation should be run. The only way to have no "politics" is to have near perfect consensus on how the government does and operates, or to have a tyranny. "Independents" is classification that says more about these people's dissatisfaction with the major parties than their political agreement about anything. The article states that independents comprise 38% of registered voters, but only 9% of the populace would describe themselves as libertarian. This means that at best, libertarians are only about a quarter of the independent vote, which suggests there is a wild diversity of political opinion among the so-called independents. How will those differences be resolved? By the process we call "politics".

    Libertarians are Independents, but Independents are not Libertarians. Trying to claim independents as a coherent political force is a delusion at worst, wishful thinking at best.

  • I||

    Somebody gets it. Not too difficult, right?

  • sarcasmic||

    You can ignore politicians, but that doesn't mean they will ignore you.

  • ||

    variety is the spice of life...

  • ||

    I will read your book gentlemen. You currently have the best audience for your sentiments that there will ever be. The Duopoly does not work and everyone knows it.

  • some guy||

    Certainly the Duopoly does work... to some extent. The evidence is all around us. We, counting our debt, are wealthier than any other group of people in history. Our quality of life is better than ever before. The question is whether the Duopoly can be improved upon. Certainly it can.

  • ||

    When the party hacks speak of the need for "informed voters engaged in the political process", what they really mean is "voters who agree with MY party and always vote for it no matter what promises it breaks or what crimes it commits."

    An active electorate isn't necessarily the key to salvation anyway. I'm currently reading Richard Evans' three volume history of the Third Reich (I'm halfway through the second volume The Third Reich In Power). One point that he makes is that the German electorate of the '20s and '30s was very much engaged in the political process; for instance voter turnout was often in the high 80s. We may remember how that turned out.

  • some guy||

    Exactly. What do we do when we find out that all these independents want less gov't spending and less taxes, but don't want any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or Defense? Many independents are less reasonable than strict party adherents! At least the Democrats think they can force us to pay for those expensive programs...

  • Saro||

    I think I've determined how my next vote for president will go down: If no party fields a candidate that I think can turn this country around, I'm just going to vote for the candidate I think will bring the country down faster.

  • some guy||

    So... you're voting for Obama.

  • MrGuy||

    Voting third party is a vote against freedom, and for terrorists. You don't want terrorists killing you do you?

  • MrGuy||

    "...revolution". So it has officially begun?

  • wildbillnj||

    The trouble with all the "cut spending" talk (and how it breaks down when you mention top-tier line items such as Medicare) is that there are massive amounts of waste, at every level of government, because they're all spending OPM.

    School districts that throw out perfectly good desks, books, etc. just so they can justify the same budget (or more, usually) next year.

    Construction projects that involve kickbacks for everything involved, because the Congressman's brother-in-law owns a building materials supplier.

    "Farmland Preservation" (this may be specifically a NJ thing) that involves government purchasing development rights for many acres of horse farms at a premium price, that are owned by millionaires related to the politicians who passed the law that created the program.

    And this is just "waste". I haven't even begun to discuss fraud.

  • Kjelene||

    I divorced my Republican party at my local Board of Elections...I wrote in my party as "other" party afilliation! It was thrilling! Free at last!!!

  • MattTrey||

    I generally describe myself as a conservative libertarian. For example, while I don't agree with homosexual marriage, I believe it is a state's right to decide, so I do not support a federal marriage amendment.

    As much as I would like to consider myself an independent, I keep my voter registration as Republican, otherwise I will not be able to vote in the primaries.

  • ||

    @DjG2TheWorl per your;
    ~Americans are asked what programs they're willing to let go of in the name of smaller government. While they may say in overwhelmingly large numbers "I want smaller government and for taxes to stay roughly where they're at", they also say, in poll after poll, "smaller government shall not include the reduction or elimination of (1) social security, (2) medicare, (3) veteran's benefits or (4) defense." In other words, don't touch the very government programs that are bankrupting us (and find the money some place other than my own pocket to pay for those programs.) It's a fundamental conundrum,~~

    That's not necessarily true, unless of course the poll question was, "would you like to see these 'programs' eliminated?' We still have plenty or room for cutting back on those programs without the elimination.
    Polls are Not accurate. The questions are asked in the form of positive or negative thinking. There is no in-between.
    Hence, the division of people and political forecasts.

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  • ||

    I have read, and enjoyed, your book. I was gratified that it so closely paralled my thoughts which produced the following plan. Should you read it I'd appreciate your comments.

    1. All persons residing in the U.S. shall come together in “tax units”. Members need not be related, need not reside together, and a tax unit may consist of as few as one person.
    2. Each year congress shall set a "minimum wage" and a "tax rate".
    3. The following shall not be subject to taxation:
    • An amount equal to a year's earnings (2000 hours) at the minimum wage, for each adult (age 20-65), decreasing 10% per year to 50% at age 15, and increasing 10% per year to 150% at age 70.
    • All payments for necessary health care including medical care, pharmaceuticals prescribed by a health care professional, vision and hearing aids, and fees for health-enhancing entities such as gyms. Health care insurance premiums may be deducted but not health care expense paid for by such insurance.
    • All educational expenses including day care for children or legally incompetent persons, the portion of state and local taxes used for education, and tuition, fees and educational materials for private school education, including that portion of parochial school tuition and other expenses going for non-sectarian education.
    • All income saved into an account for investments; withdrawals from this account for the benefit of any member of the tax unit shall be reported as income.
    4. The "tax rate" shall be applied to any income greater than the deductions listed above, regardless of amount.
    5. Any municipality having greater than 100,000 inhabitants or any state may impose on their citizens a surtax which shall be applied the same as the Federal tax.
    6. Tax units whose deductions exceed income, shall be paid a sum equal to the tax rate multiplied by the shortfall in income.
    7. There shall be no federal tax on corporations or other business entities.
    8. The Office of Management and Budget shall compute revenues to be expected using the newly set tax rate and minimum wage, applied to the previous year's reported incomes. No expenses in excess of that amount may be made without approval by 75% of each house of Congress. This tax shall be the only source of revenue for the federal government.

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