Independents Are the Answer

By Charles Wheelan on May 03, 2016

America's political system is going to change. The last nine months have been the political equivalent of Pearl Harbor. Voters are still in shock and denial, but we know something very different must lie ahead.

When the great American political realignment begins – and, to underscore my key point here, it will begin – Greg Orman will be part of it. Orman is the Kansas businessman who ran for the U.S. Senate in Kansas as an independent in 2014 and nearly beat Republican incumbent Pat Roberts. (Major disclosure: I supported Orman in that race and will continue to work with him to recruit and support independent candidates going forward.)

Greg Orman has just written an important book, "A Declaration of Independents," arguing that the only hope for real political change lies with more independent candidates. I hope this will be the first shot in a sustained assault on the broken two-party system. Orman is not a political scientist hunkered down in the Ivory Tower. Nor is he a vapid politician with good hair (though, truth be told, he does have good hair). He's a guy who ran a U.S. Senate campaign that nearly upended the political system. (If he had won, it would have changed American politics forever, as I wrote at the time.)

Lots of us have pointed out that 43 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independent. Orman was running a campaign to empower that underrepresented group, not just in Kansas but as a centrist voice in the U.S. Senate. Sound sensible and easy? It may be sensible; it ain't easy. Orman's book is written from the unique vantage point of someone who had the audacity to take on both political parties at the same time. (He lost.)

Orman offers a familiar litany of forces that have created our toxic and ineffectual political environment: a corrupt campaign finance system; ridiculously gerrymandered Congressional districts; a primary system that excludes moderate voters; lazy, partisan media outlets in search of ratings and profits; the demise of New England Republicans and Southern Democrats; and so on. It's a comprehensive, if sad, cataloguing of our electoral woes.

But there are three crucial insights in Orman's book that go beyond the usual handwringing. First, our political system works just fine for the incumbents in it. Throughout the book, Orman uses terms like "duopoly" and "collusion" to describe the chokehold that Republicans and Democrats exert on our politics. Orman writes, "In some ways, duopolies can be worse than monopolies. Although they create the illusion of competition, duopolies compete against one another while working together to suppress outside competition. They define the parameters of the game – and then rig the rules of that game to keep others out."

The pathetic reality is that over 90 percent of members of the House of Representatives are re-elected. When politicians do leave office, they typically take lucrative jobs lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of whoever is willing to pay their steep fees. The whole thing is like pro-wrestling – lots of staged conflict, but the participants are really cooperating to make sure the show goes on.

To Orman, a lifelong entrepreneur, the answer is more competition. Republicans and Democrats are like those rude taxi drivers who abused us decade after decade; independent candidates have the potential to be Uber. Orman describes himself as fiscally responsible and socially tolerant, but this is not a policy book. The defining characteristic of independents, he writes, is their commitment to solving problems rather than scoring points for one team or the other.

Second, Orman believes that Americans are not nearly as polarized as the politicians who purport to represent them. This is a contested point in academe. Political scientists like to point out that most independents are really "leaners", meaning that they typically vote Republican or Democrat. Some have used these data to argue smugly that there really is no political center in America.

This is ridiculous. It is the equivalent of pointing out: (1) Most Americans say they like lobster. Yet (2) when they go through the buffet line at a wedding they always pick steak or chicken, so (3) they must not really like lobster.

But there is no lobster in the buffet! The political tribes in America have done everything possible to keep lobster out. Orman offers up ample evidence, both from his campaign and other sources, that Americans are eager and willing to embrace less partisan candidates who are willing to ditch the tired sound bites of the left and right.

Last, Orman implores voters to demand better. We complain a lot about politics while doing very little to force change. The result, Orman explains, is the political equivalent of Stockholm syndrome (when hostages begin to sympathize with their captors). He writes, "Although voters dislike what Republicans and Democrats are doing to our country – especially in Washington – they can't quite envision a world without them in charge. Americans are paralyzed, even when they are presented with an opportunity to escape their captors."

Orman has a compelling personal story (as do most credible U.S. Senate candidates). He came from modest means but ended up at Princeton University and later as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. There was clearly no shortage of ambition along the way. Orman was elected president of Boys Nation as a high school student and was photographed in the Rose Garden with President Ronald Reagan. Political junkies will see a striking similarity to a young Bill Clinton, who was elected to the same Boys Nation post and was famously photographed with President John F. Kennedy.

But this is not a conventional political book. Orman might be in the Senate now if he had taken the easy path and run as a Republican or Democrat. Orman argues, and I believe, that true change will come only with candidates who eschew both parties. Our current political tribalism is incompatible with good governance.

At some point, we will realize that our problem is not chronically disappointing politicians, but rather the system that creates them. When we set about fixing that system, Orman's book will be a must read.

 

Editor’s note: This article, written by Charles Wheelan, originally published on U.S News & World Report