Monday, July 12, 2010

Bad Metaphor Alert?

Well, perhaps, but I'm not actually sure.  It's from Jennifer Steinhauer in the Week in Review section, on the Governator:
[I]ndependents are to politics what diets are to eating. Everyone loves what they promise, but then dislike them intensely when they actually have to live with them. 
See, my problem is that I don't know if it's a bad metaphor, because I'm not sure I know what diets are supposed to represent.   If the idea is that diets are generally useless fads that are invariably worse for you than just eating sensibly and exercising, then I'm OK with the metaphor.  If what she means is that diets are the real way to lose weight, and that people don't like the process even thought the like the results...well, then we have a problem.  Because, of course, there's no evidence at all that independents are particularly good at governing, or are even good at attacking long-term problems that party politicians ignore.

Of course, the other problem here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't actually an independent: he's an unorthodox Republican, which is a very different thing.  And he's not the only one that Steinhauer identifies, well, oddly:
It is an experience others who claim independence know well: the candidate Barack Obama, who won plaudits for promising to work in the spirit of compromise, but is now taking a beating from both parties; Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who won election three times while inspiring anger across the political spectrum; John McCain, who made his name as a maverick but never found love with fellow Republicans in his own state, and now, in the face of a far-right challenge, has abandoned many of his old ideals. 
Bloomberg is an independent, at least now.  He inspired "anger across the political spectrum."  Really?  A Mayor of New York City is a target of rage?  Moving on...McCain, of course, is a Republican, not an independent.  He "never found love with fellow Republicans in his own state."  Really?  They keep nominating him for everything he wants, and he did far better in Arizona than he did in somewhat similar states in the region.  And he moved right five or six years ago, not in response to his primary challenge this year.  As for Barack Obama, yes, he promised to work with Republicans, but that's a far cry from being an independent, or even an unorthodox Democrat.  In fact, Obama seems to be about as much of a mainstream Dem as possible..he's very popular among Democrats, although as with all presidents there are critics farther to the extreme (that is, Reagan and both Bushes were attacked by conservatives as not conservative enough, and Obama and Clinton were attacked by liberals as not liberal enough). 

I think I'm losing focus here...but I guess that really gets to the problem: "independent" is thrown around a lot by people who seem to think that it's an inherently good idea, even if they don't really know what they mean by it.

I disagree.  Party politicians who respond to groups and factions within their party are a perfectly phenomenon.  Or, as the political scientist E.E Schattschneider said, "Political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties."  That doesn't mean (at least to me...Schattschneider is a different story) that negotiating with the other party is terrible, or that parties should have monolithic views, or that pols should never think for themselves.  What it does mean is that the only democracy we have, the only democracy that large nations have ever had, functions through political parties.  Anything else is not only fantasy, but it's apt to be less democratic than the party democracy that we do have.  So, fine, have your Jesse Venturas once in a while; they're mostly harmless as the occasional sideshow -- American politics is big enough to handle all sorts of hiccups like that.  Real democratic politics, however, the kind that both solves serious problems and stays democratic: you're going to need healthy political parties for that.  And it would be nice if reporters at publications such the New York Times and the Washington Post could stop praising independents and save a little love for the party politicians.


  1. McCain did move to the right as he was eyeing 2008, but he also moved further this year on immigration. In 2005-2006, he was trying to be somewhat moderate on immigration. The 2010 version wants to finish the dang fence.

    As for loving our parties, good luck with that. You'd think with both of our states requiring Intro courses at our state schools that we'd be exposing a rather significant chunk of the population to the wisdom of political science. I might be convincing them that the system is designed to be slow, but it doesn't seem like we're making much headway convincing people to love parties.

  2. Doesn't the very word 'independent' carry a strong positive bias? What could be more American?

    Has this term always been used for people who didn't claim a party identity? I have an impression that they once merely 'undeclared' voters, or 'decline to state' as in California. I also remember getting the vague impression from 1960s era high school social studies that being an independent was supposed to be good citizenship. (Though I became and stayed a partisan anyway.)

    The sort of Broderism you refer to at the NYT and WashPo seems like a holdover of the same idea, which I'd guess flourished around midcentury.

  3. Yes, I think that many citizen "independents" have some sense of being superior citizens but really most just don't know enough or care enough to take sides. The politician "independents" just don't know how to play well with others and than doesn't work very long.

    Politics is a team sport and your pick-up group isn't going to stand a chance against the team that has been practicing and playing together for years -- even if their forward and the goalie can't stand each other off the field.


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