It struck me recently how the word “independent,” once a generic label used to describe candidates with no formal political affiliation, has changed significantly in 2010.
I’ve had the matter on my mind for a while now, ever since a candidate — who shall remain nameless — chastised me for referring to him as an “unenrolled candidate” rather than his preferred title of “independent candidate.”
Before I continue, I should clarify a crucial point: There is no such thing as the “Independent Party.” Ain’t so such animal. Massachusetts recognizes the “Massachusetts Independent Party” and the “American Independent Party” — not to be confused with the “Independent American Party” or the “New American Independent Party” or the various [Insert state name here] Independent Parties — but strictly speaking, there is no national political entity known simply as “The Independent Party.”
To avoid confusion with any of the parties that adopted “Independent” as part of their name, the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office’s official designation for all non-party candidates is “unenrolled,” the same label applied to voters with no chosen party membership (which is not to be confused with “unregistered,” which refers to a resident who is not registered to vote at all).
<sarcasm font> Now that I’ve cleared all that up… </sarcasm font>
The debate between myself and the candidate went back and forth for much longer than it probably should have (I can dig my heels in with the best of them), but along the way I realized that “independent” was now much more than a practical label; it was a selling point, and perhaps that was why he was fighting so hard to convince me to use that in my references to him rather than “unenrolled.”
Until January 2010, “independent” was a very neutral term. It described, simply, people who didn’t belong to any party, big or small. It was utilitarian, benign, even toothless; very few people have been elected to major office as a proud independent (for the record, I don’t count Joe Lieberman. Aside from the fact he ran under the header “Connecticut for Lieberman” and is officially on US Senate rolls as an “Independent Democrat” and is technically still registered as a Democrat, he went indie for one self-serving reason: It was the only way to get his name back on the ballot after voters handed him a defeat in the primary against Ned Lamont).
So what happened? Scott Brown happened.
I know, Tim Cahill was promoting himself as “independent” months earlier, after dumping the Dems for his gubernatorial run, but Brown gave the tag some real oomph. Although a Republican, he pushed hard the idea that he was an independent voice who would follow the wishes of his constituents over party poobahs, and people bought into it.
Now, “independent” has some credibility. It has weight and heft — and yes, it has zazz. In this day of profound dissatisfaction with our elected leaders in both parties — the GOP for their role in creating many of the problems we’re dealing with now and arrogant denial of culpability, and the Democrats for so spectacularly mishandling our recovery while displaying a stunning level of cluelessness as to the wants and needs of their constituents — independent candidates, and party candidates who claim an independent mindset, are a very attractive new(ish) alternative. They promise to cut the imposing Gordian Knot tied tight by two contrasting, often conflicting bodies that seem more intent on proving their way of doing things is the “right” way than in seeking actual solutions. Every major election cycle produces its own set of catchphrases and buzzwords, and “independent” is topping the list of 2010.
But, like every other sloganized campaign pitch, its meaning will be lost as quickly as it was gained as bandwagon candidates disingenuously embrace the sizzle but not the steak, and in 2012 independents will be sooooooooo one mid-term ago and the latest shiny sound bite will captivate the electorate.
Or worse: real and perceived independents will be swept into office in sufficient numbers to warrant their own caucuses. Then they’ll start getting together regularly to discuss issues and tactics. Then they’ll codify their political philosophies into a formal platform to sell to voters and like-minded politicians to entice them under their banner.
Hello, Independent Party.
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