Can Independent Voters Fix Our Broken Political System?

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Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie argue yes in their new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America.
 

Roughly 100 people showed up at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, Monday evening to hear the editors of Reason magazine, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, talk about their new book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. The presentation they gave was much like the one featured in the video at the top of this item.

They argue that although it may seem like we're stuck with two lousy political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, their perverse duopoly, headquartered in Washington, D.C., isn't going to last forever. Disgusted by the status quo, voters are increasingly identifying as independents, and if they team up on certain issues, aided by Internet technology that makes grassroots organizing easier than ever, they can successfully lobby for once unthinkable policy changes.

The work of entertaining writers, the book is refreshing, especially among political tomes, for several reasons: it offers an original but plausible take on recent history, doesn't blame a partisan enemy for all that ails America, and advances an argument too complicated to fully convey in a review -- hence its critical success in a genre where many titles run out of ideas at the end of the subtitle.

This book is full of ideas, many of them quirky: there are anecdotes about the role of protest rock in spreading political freedom, homages to innovative CEOs and home brewers, even an extended analogy involving Pop Tarts. In letting their freak flags fly, Welch and Gillespie are underscoring their assertion that there is great variety among Americans. A surprising range of Pop Tart flavors are at our disposal. Why wouldn't we rebel against a political order that forces us to pick between two unsatisfying choices, now that coordinating mini-rebellions is so doable?

The future, as they predict it, includes always changing coalitions of motivated citizens who are loyal to neither party, and thus better able to pressure politicians, tea party style, to support them on single issues, whether spending cuts or gay marriage or legalizing marijuana or ending a war -- or to pay the consequences come the next election. As George Will wrote in his sales boosting column about the book, "America is moving in the libertarians' direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous. This has, however, opened minds to the libertarians' argument."

Lest you doubt that the U.S. is moving in a libertarian direction, given the post-9/11 security state and inconsistencies of the tea party when it comes to championing liberty, zoom out a bit: over the last 50 years, we've seen the Civil Rights movement succeed, afforded women economic equality, deregulated airlines, telephones and breweries, gone a long way toward equality for gays, seen rising support for medical marijuana -- so the authors would say, and it's hard to contest that on the whole, American individuals are more free than ever to pursue happiness as they see it.

And I am persuaded by their argument that we'll see single issue groups win libertarian victories in the future. Welch told the Portland audience that he is most optimistic about legalizing marijuana. I expect legal gay marriage to spread through blue and then purple America. And I've no doubt that the combination of more political independents and easier organizing makes possible libertarian victories I can't even anticipate. But I do have one nagging reservation.

In the question and answer session, I put it to the authors. Deregulating the airlines, permitting micro-brews, legalizing marijuana: all those policy changes either made or would make sizable constituencies better off, I said, and it's great that such changes may become easier to effect politically in a nation of newly empowered independents. But what about civil liberties issues where there is no sizable constituency being made worse off -- just a small minority being mistreated by the state? Are independents ever going to organize on behalf of prison inmates being raped or people unjustly put on sex offender registries or Muslims being targeted by law enforcement for no reason other than their religion? Does the book's theory of politics offer any hope on such issues?

Citing a special issue recently published by Reason, Welch argued that among libertarians, there is increasing awareness about criminal justice issues and needed reforms. Gillespie added that when minority groups are mistreated in America, it is often due to a failure of moral imagination -- people don't identify with the victims, or imagine the ways that they themselves might be victimized. But a nation of increasingly independent voters, pursuing happiness in all sorts of quirky ways, are more likely to identify with other people who, for whatever reason, aren't mainstream.

Thus far, it certainly seems like independent-minded people organizing to advance single issues tend to call for increases in liberty, whether the subject is gays or drugs or economic freedom. Truth be told, I am as much an optimist as the authors, and I hope their instinct is right: that independents plus technology equals saner public policy and more freedom. There is, or course, a darker possibility. Independent minded Americans might eschew party loyalty, use the Internet to organize, and effectively demand that the borders be closed to new immigrants or that all mosque construction be halted. It isn't, after all, just libertarian-minded folks who are fed up with the status quo. For libertarians, that means that there is much persuasion yet to be done. As stewards of Reason and Reason.com, Welch and Gillespie are well-positioned to do it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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