10 Years as an Independent Part two: Herding cats and dead ends

Part two: For ten years now my avocation has been independent politics. I’ve been cheer leading for a more independent election process in Oregon, while maintaining a realistic view of  what can be done to improve our democracy. Here’s some of what I learned along the way, and what I’ve concluded is the only realistic path to saving our failing democracy. 

(See 10 Years as an Independent: Part One: Describing the two party political landscape and independent voters)

Tribalism isn’t limited to tribes

Two types of tribal impulses exist among independent voters. First, many independent voters will have an issue they hold dear. It may be gun rights, or  healthcare. But they are adamant that to hold any other position means you’re a closet Democrat or Republican.

The second is an anti tribalism. A refusal to acknowledge that community action involves working together in some way. Some independents refuse to offer financial support or time commitment as it would soil their “independence”. (Maybe it’s just coincidental that it also doesn’t cost them anything)

These tribal inclinations – that it’s members don’t even recognize or acknowledge sometimes – means figuring out what an “Independent movement” could look like has been more difficult that I expected. There is an old saying that a presiding judge I knew used when it came to leading the Circuit Court Judges in our county and I think it’s applicable to the independent movement.  She’d said it’s like herding cats.

Republican and Democratic Tribalism doesn’t mean just anti other major party. It means anti any non party candidate.

When  I joined the Independent Party my goal was to  help build a structure that could offer alternatives to Democratic and Republican Party State Legislative candidates. Not necessarily, or even primarily, to offer a third option. It was to offer a second option. 90% of Oregon legislative races are safe Democratic or Republican districts due to human caused gerrymandering (Both legislative and self imposed). Safe districts mean primary candidates pander to their party base. We get more partisan elected officials and moderate candidates from the less dominant major party dodn’t stand a chance in safe districts. They don’t survive the primary if they are in the dominant party, and in the general election the moderate candidate from the less dominant party can’t win because there was so little cross over voting.  Today, 90% of our legislative races are either uncontested, or have only nominal opposition.

I believed that running a qualified independent that matched the community profile in safe districts in a one on one match up against the districts dominant major party candidate would create a competitive general election.

But I underestimated the power of tribalism today. Republicans aren’t simply anti Democrat. They are only pro Republican. And the same with Democrats. Independent candidates generate little interest among the non dominant major party supporters, get little financial support and few cross over votes. The non dominant major party voters are just as likely to skip a race where their party doesn’t have a candidate than vote for the Independent. That makes no sense in the two party system where voters are supposed to vote for the “best” viable candidate. But that’s our reality.

Substantive Policy Positions get people excited. Process does not.

Initially the Independent Party leadership believed that it should focus on just a few broadly supported issues. The most important being campaign finance reform and consumer protection. It wanted to avoid “hot button” issues so as to not alienate members and non affiliated voters. To that end, many surveys were performed to widen the party core issues however they still avoided some of the most contentious issues. While the Party did issue statements of position after these surveys, a formal platform was never adopted.

Over time however I found that what fueled the independent movement was a trans partisan and widely held view among independents that “the system” didn’t work. It was rigged so that  widely supported policies were ignored by our elected officials when they conflicted with what the party donor base desired. Special interests are elevated over general interests.

What independents wanted was widely popular policies that the donor bases of the major parties stifled. Democracy Reform I believed would scratch that itch by returning power to the voters. I felt that a better election system would not only be more likely to elect officials who would do the will of the people, but that even voters who didn’t see their favorite candidates win or all of their positions adopted would feel more satisfied if they felt that their vote did matter and they were listened to.

I dug into election reforms such as voter owned elections, ranked choice voting and multi member districts. The Independent Party has a wealth of knowledge on these issues. It became clear that the game was in fact rigged. Insiders and the political industry make the rules. They win by the rules. And they don’t want to change the rules. Special interests like a system where there are few decision makers.

But surprise. It’s hard to get a lot of people excited about multi member districts or ranked choice voting or other process reforms. Even though I believed that would result in what independents desired. Not only that, but many of those that did agree that election reforms were the most effective change we could make couldn’t agree on a unified strategy. You had  FairVote  arguing for ranked choice voting, while Election Science argued for approval voting and now you’ve got an Oregon grown election reform called STAR voting that has come up with what they claim is the best election/voting reform system.

What does motivate and excite independent voters are the end goals of adopting popular policies. But that means reversing the strategy of promoting election reform and downplaying policy differences and instead promote policies, highlight the popular policies that are killed by the donor bases and use reforms as the roadmap to achieve the policies.

That is redefining what being an independent means and is not the same strategy as the better known “centrist” or “independent” groups like the Centrist Project or Bridge Builders use. Those groups are more likely to define the center as a midpoint between the Democratic and Republican leadership positions.

Putting Policies and Election Reforms Together

I believe the Independent Party may have taken a major step forward this year. We’ve documented and adopted policies that people care about and that have wide support but have been stifled by the political insiders, lobbyists and special interests. We’ve then connected those to  political reforms that could counter the power of special interests. It’s not just unrigging the system, it’s explaining why it needs to be unrigged and how we’d get better policies by unrigging it.

The IPO platform identifies current State policies on education, health care, taxes, and the environment  that are counter to the general interests of the voters. People care about these issues, and we will connect the rigged system to the failure of our elected officials to enact the will of the voters.

For example,

  • If qualified candidates were able to get matching taxpayer provided funds for small donations, and agreed to limit their campaign spending, then Democratic candidates wouldn’t be so beholden to public employee unions funding and they could propose education reforms that the Union leadership kills.
  • If we had multi member State House Legislative Districts, the Oregon Legislature would likely have moderate rural Democrats and moderate Republican urban representatives who could work across the aisle to develop reasonable resource protection and wise use taking into consideration the financial crisis in rural areas.
  • If the Legislature quit funding political caucuses with millions of taxpayer dollars and instead hired non partisan staff experts we’d have a more candid and productive discussion about revenue reform.

Still a bit wonkish. Maybe not exactly right yet. But as I said, a work in progress.

Next: Part Three; Elections, the media, and money

Rob Harris is on the Independent Party of Oregon State Council


The Independent Party Platform


     Center for Election Science

Multi Member Districts (great video narrated by Krist Novoselic)



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