It’s fitting that the first senator to become an independent in more than thirty years hails from Vermont, the state with the most advanced independent politics in the nation. Vermont gave maverick Republican John McCain a solid victory in the 2000 presidential primary–nearly half those voting were self-described independents, and one in seven said that campaign finance reform was their top concern. The Vermont Progressive Party, which has tenaciously focused on the needs and interests of average people, is firmly entrenched in Burlington, the state’s largest city, and its gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Pollina, got 10 percent of the vote last year in a hard-fought three-way race.
Thus, Senator Jim Jeffords’s decision was helped enormously by the political space for an independent path that had already been created back home and by the steady pressure from the state’s Progressives, which kept the local center of gravity far to the left of the Bush-Gore mainstream. Says Pollina, “Jeffords is a smart politician, and he recognizes that Vermonters are really fed up with politics-as-usual, big-money-driven, major-party politics.” Indeed, two-thirds of Vermonters polled said they approved of Jeffords’s move, and his approval rating topped President Bush’s by almost twenty-five points.
The question of the moment is whether more independents are about to come out of the Senate cloakroom. Conditions for such surprises are favorable and getting more so by the year. Since 1990 we’ve seen a remarkable proliferation of these free birds. Not only has Vermont’s Representative Bernie Sanders become a Congressional institution, independents and third-party candidates have been elected governor in four states–Maine, Alaska, Connecticut and, most spectacularly, in Minnesota. After Ross Perot got nearly 20 million votes in 1992 as an independent, press speculation about the possibility of other maverick candidacies has become a fixture of pre-primary presidential coverage. Recall the fuss over Colin Powell in the fall of 1995 and the hyperventilating over Jesse Ventura, Warren Beatty, Donald Trump et al. in the fall of 1999. There’s a market for outside-the-box politics, and demand is rising while supply is tight.
Even with all the barriers imposed by the two-party duopoly–discriminatory access to the ballot, unequal campaign financing, closed debates–public support for Congressional outsiders ticked upward throughout the 1990s. In his indispensable newsletter, Ballot Access News, Richard Winger reports that the vote for non-major party candidates for Congress rose to more than 4 percent of the popular vote in 2000, a level not seen since 1992, when anti-incumbent sentiment last peaked. Before that, you have to go back to 1938, when strong third parties in a few states skewed the total higher, to find such a strong expression of discontent with the duopoly.
Between 1990 and 1998 the proportion of voters registered as independents or third party increased more than 50 percent, while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans fell. Voter statements of their political preference–a looser definition than party registration–show the same trend. About 35 percent of the electorate identifies as independent, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies. Anecdotal evidence from the implementation of the motor-voter law suggests that a higher proportion of new voters are registering as independents, and the tilt is most pronounced among people under 30.
These are all signs of turbulence in the electorate. The Democratic and Republican parties are not as solid, or dominant, as they seem. Their ties to average voters through local political clubs and chapters have almost disappeared, replaced by manipulative TV ads driven by consultants and expensive market research. Add the weakness of their current leaders–their inability to articulate a clear philosophy or to govern effectively on behalf of anyone but the well-off, their petty feuds, negative attacks and their subservience to special interest campaign contributors–and you can see why there’s widespread disenchantment among voters and a yearning for authentically democratic representation and strong, honest leadership. As more politicians see that there is less to be lost and more to be gained from maverick behavior, there will be more eruptions of independents.