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?”