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?”
Goldberg may have been onto more than he realized. Yes, Americans are designing their own politics, just as they are designing their own hyphenated identities online, in the workplace, and in the marketplace. Every sector of modern life outside the dead zone of governance has seen long-entrenched incumbents take a battering, as individuals seize every opportunity to create a personalized, consumer-first interface with the world. Powerful duopolies of yore, as Fujifilm’s onetime dominant rival, Kodak, can surely tell you, are on the run.
Rise of the Libertarians
Since 1987 the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has conducted surveys every six years to determine the various “typologies” within the greater body politic, such as “liberals,” “bystanders,” and “social conservatives.” In May 2011, Pew discovered a new tribe, comprising 9 percent of the electorate, which it christened “libertarians.”
The Pew survey characterized libertarians’ “defining values” like this: “Highly critical of government. Disapprove of social welfare programs. Pro-business and strongly opposed to regulation. Accepting of homosexuality. Moderate views about immigrants compared with other Republican-oriented groups.”
How “Republican-oriented” are Pew’s libertarians? A whole lot, yet not much. Fully 77 percent “lean” toward the GOP, compared to just 11 percent toward Democrats. Yet 67 percent of libertarians self-identify as independents, compared to 28 percent as Republicans and 5 percent as Democrats. “A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse,” Pew concluded. “Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.”
Pew’s findings track with what the Cato Institute found in its 2010 study titled “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” which, using American National Election Series data, estimated the bloc of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters at 14 percent (while noting other methodologies that put the number as high as 59 percent). Authors David Boaz and David Kirby found that libertarians are detaching themselves from the GOP and becoming more of a swing vote. Their margin for Senate Republicans over Democrats dropped from 59 percentage points in 2002 to just 4 points in 2006, for example, then jumped back to 49 points in 2008. Boaz and Kirby also cite the work of UCLA’s Sylvia Friedel, who found that libertarians voted Republican for president 69 percent of the time from 1972 to 1988, but just 46 percent of the time since the end of the Cold War. Young libertarians in particular skew independent, and (unlike older libertarians) preferred Obama to John McCain by a wide margin.
Interestingly, Boaz and Kirby suggest that many libertarian voters do not fully recognize or name their own tendencies. “Why is this substantial and growing libertarian strength not better recognized?” they ask. “Political scientists have taught for more than 50 years that politics is arranged on a liberal-conservative continuum, so we’re all used to that. And indeed, political activists and elected officials do seem to have arranged themselves into those two camps, rather than a more accurate reflection of the total electorate. Because of the constant repetition of the liberal-conservative spectrum, most libertarian-minded voters don’t identify themselves as libertarians, and they aren’t organized in libertarian groups.”
The All-American Backlash
We know that independents are sick of the political status quo, that the libertarians among them want to reduce the size of government, and that both blocs are growing as a share of the electorate. But what about the rest of Americans? Well, they’re pissed.
During the November 2010 election, CNN exit polls found that 74 percent of voters were “dissatisfied” or even “angry” with government. Approval ratings for Congress keep reaching all-time lows. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in January 2010 found that 58 percent of adults generally favored “smaller government with fewer services,” compared with only 38 percent who preferred “larger government with more services”; those numbers were 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in June 2004. A 2009 Ayers-McHenry poll asking the same question showed 69 percent of Americans calling for a smaller government and only 21 percent rooting for a bigger one.
The first Reason-Rupe Poll (see “Cut the Debt By Cutting Government,” page 42), conducted in March and April, revealed a country that is far more radical than its political leaders. An overwhelming 96 percent of respondents deemed reducing the national debt either “important” or “very important,” and the most preferred solution by far was to cut government spending while leaving taxes as they are. Independents and libertarians are arguably the vanguard of American public opinion, an advance scouting party hinting at where and how hard the country as a whole will turn against its leaders.
The numbers put statistics behind what we’ve all seen with our own eyes. Since the very first days of the financial/political crisis in September 2008, there has been a yawning chasm between popular opinion and the actions of politicians. This gap was apparent when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan political elite put down a House of Representatives rebellion against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, when solid majorities of Americans disapproved of Barack Obama’s new health insurance overhaul, and when the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives tried to backpedal from campaign promises to eliminate earmarks and cut spending. When the gap between voter desire and government policy—between the way people actually live their lives and the way government wants them to behave—grows too wide, a situation that looks stable can turn revolutionary overnight.
You do not have to love or even like the Tea Party movement —to cite the latest (though not the last) example of a decentralized network of alienated citizens using technology to overturn the applecart of American politics—to appreciate its tactical success. To our minds, Tea Party loyalists are too inclined to indulge in military intervention, anti-Shariah paranoia (see “Fear of a Muslim America,” page 20), and constitutional amendments to prohibit activities they do not like. But the movement remains potent in large part because it generally has refused to take the bait on divisive social and foreign policy issues, focusing instead with admirable single-mindedness on a fiscal crisis brought on by reckless government spending. Check out the message discipline contained in the Tea Party’s 2010 “Contract From America”:
1. Protect the Constitution
2. Reject Cap & Trade
3. Demand a Balanced Budget
4. Enact Fundamental Tax Reform
5. Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government
6. End Runaway Government Spending
7. Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care
8. Pass an “All-of-the-Above” Energy Policy
9. Stop the Pork
10. Stop the Tax Hikes
You may object to some of those items. (We get the vapors when the phrase all-of-the-above is mentioned anywhere near policy.) But there is no doubt about the overall philosophy: It’s the spending (and the Constitution), stupid.
Although unquestionably a right-of-center movement that overlaps to a large extent with the GOP, the Tea Parties have been able to pursue this focused agenda by showing a willingness to take on and even sabotage the Republican Party. Any GOP incumbent deemed soft on spending was fair game for a Tea Party–backed primary challenge in 2010, even if it required backing such not-ready-for-general-election candidates as Alaska’s Joe Miller, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. Most terrifying for the party regulars, Tea Party activists demonstrated early on—in a special House election in upstate New York—a willingness to back a third-party candidate even at the cost of giving the election to a Democrat. Nothing shakes a major party to its core more than when the refrain of “yeah, but the other team might win” no longer works.
Such independence has tactical value that is surely not lost on what remains of the anti-war movement on the left. Having followed their original champion, Howard Dean, into the bosom of the Democratic Party, where they overwhelmingly backed an allegedly anti-war presidential candidate, anti-war progressives now have no organizational infrastructure to challenge Obama’s new wars.
Where will the next political smart mob, the next online swarm, come from? Look wherever there is too broad a gap between the two major political parties and their bases. One good short-term bet is the issue of rolling back the drug war, which professional Democrats from the president on down openly mock while a growing number of Republicans (such as presidential candidates Ron Paul and Gary Johnson) gain surprising support by uttering the unspeakable. Other swarms will likely be much more hostile to libertarian policy aims (free trade is forever open to populist attack, and attempts to reform Medicare are likely to draw anger from across the political spectrum), but each new wave will succeed at doing to two-party politics what technology has done to the rest of the economy: undermine the gatekeepers who want to control your life.
Political independence has individual virtues as well. Thinking for yourself requires much more work than setting your compass by the direction of the tribe, but, oh, the liberation. Suddenly the political bully boys look a good deal more ridiculous, tawdry, and intellectually beatable. There are other hyphenated weirdos, just over there, who have genuinely interesting things to say. Voters free from the affiliation of party membership are more inclined to view political claims with the skepticism they richly deserve, to hear the atavistic dog whistle of partisan politics as a deliberate attack on the senses rather than a rousing call to productive action. By refusing to confer legitimacy on the two accepted forms of political organization and discourse, independents (especially of the libertarian flavor) hint strongly that another form—something unpredictable, fantastical, liberating—is gathering to take their place.
Matt Welch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason and Nick Gillespie (email@example.com) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv. They are the co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs), from which this essay was adapted. This column first appeared at Reason.com.