The Independent Party of Oregon (IPO) is getting a lot of attention lately, not least because IPO Secretary Sal Peralta suggested that donations were required if candidates were to earn the party's favor. (He hastily walked back from those comments.) Thanks to a new fusion voting law, candidates can run under the banner of more than one party, and everyone wants to have that word "Independent" appear after their name. And why not? It's great branding, like hardy, trustworthy, and true. Everyone considers themselves an "independent." But herein lies the trouble--what exactly is an Independent?
We're at a particular moment in American politics that appears once every few decades. Eras are defined by governing philosophies, and no matter which party is in power, deference is offered to them. We had the great progressive era of the three-initial presidents (FDR, JFK, LBJ) which ushered in enormous gains in civil rights and social justice. This led to a conservative era of Reagan, defined by a reliance on market solutions and antagonism toward government. In between eras are periods of transition, marked by confusion and flamboyance. In the 60s and 70s, the liberals were the ones who were getting all the attention with their radical politics, marches, and minor acts of terrorism. George McGovern was the candidate who defined a generation--yet he suffered one of the worst losses in American presidential history. Liberals misread the signs and they doubled down on ideological orthodoxy, leading to 40 years of failure.
The current era of transition began after the 2006 election and looks quite a bit like the one during the 60s and 70s. Conservatives are the ones engaging in radical politics, marches, and minor acts of terrorism. The response is the same--seeking greater ideological purity. Sarah Palin may be the McGovern of this generation. Confusion is the rule, and it breeds lots of interesting responses. The Tea Party movement is one, but Oregon's Independent Party is another one.
In comments to a BlueOregon post last week, Jonathan Poisner observed that has "no unifying theory or interest holding it together." As far as I can tell, he's exactly right. Nothing on the website suggests core beliefs. Wrong, said Peralta:
If you want a unifying theme of the IPO, here it is: We want less partisanship, less special interest control over the legislative process, greater transparency in government, and more input from people who identify themselves as political Independents, regardless of whether they are members of the IPO.
I don't doubt that these are Peralta's goals, but they're not ones a political party is well-suited to address. Parties are useful at pulling together coalitions of like-minded groups to pass legislation beneficial to them. Lower regulations on business, for example, or greater funding for schools. The goals Peralta identifies are gauzy, feel-good ideas that everyone agrees with in the abstract, but which no group is pushing for. Less partisanship? How does a political party help? More input from people, greater transparency in government--nice, but again, who's going to rally around these? The one policy-based issue he cites, special interests, is a constant theme in American politics--but not a particularly potent one. In a recent Pew poll of voter priorities, lobbying finished 19th out of 21 priorities. Fixing the economy and providing jobs, that's what Americans want. About these issues the Independent Party is silent.
America has entered a time where politics and governing philosophies have gotten scrambled. Various groups are charging into the chaos in an effort to give it meaning. An Independent Party could thrive in Oregon--lots of voters have indicated they're not happy with the Democratic or Republican Parties. But these voters didn't abandon their party because it wasn't transparent enough or was too partisan--they abandoned it because it wasn't effective. Independents in Oregon run the spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and they don't form a natural constituency. If the IPO is going to become anything more than an election-year bauble candidates affix to their name, it's going to have to figure out how to knit some of these people together. With real ideas to address real issues. Until then, it's just a slogan.