There’s a lot that could be said about Independence Day, however it’s also an election year and the holiday kicks off the campaign’s high season. In the coming weeks nomination periods open for local offices and endorsements are being announced. So, given the holiday and the season, what does it mean to be independent in an election year?
As a candidate, true independence means giving up any chance of winning. There are certainly real independents that enter races at every level, every year and they always lose. The machinery of the American election system requires a candidate to have the backing, support and therefore be under the influence of large groups.
That’s not to say that group association is inherently evil, it’s a natural part of the human experience. Groups, whether they be political, social, religious or economic are formed by individuals who share a common goal and if you’re a member of that group, those goals are probably important to you.
However, groups by their nature are exclusionary of someone. Locally, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has run the table for decades under the auspices of protecting renters. Resident group Residocracy is going to try to run candidates this year with the goal of restricting development. The unions will back candidates either through one of the other groups or with independent endorsements that support labor issues. The moral and ethical value of political groups is entirely dependent on if you’re on the inside or the outside.
When a politician signs up, they give up the ability to really represent both those inside and those outside group boundaries, thereby undercutting true independence.
So, if candidates have to give up independence, it’s of utmost importance that voters retain theirs. In official government-speak, an independent voter is someone who doesn’t register with one of the big political parties, or at least, is rumored to cross those lines in the polling place. While that’s a valid definition, it’s not a complete one. An independent voter should be someone that relies on personal judgement when deciding how to vote.
By all means, use endorsements to get a sense of where the candidate lands, but be aware of the bias that those endorsements bring and ask candidates questions. Ask SMMR candidates why a group that’s spent 30 years advocating for rent control should be evaluating school curriculum. Force slow or no-growth candidates to show their knowledge of other issues such as homelessness, water use or crime rates. Challenge neighborhood advocates to explain how they will represent the city at large.
In some ways, to be independent means to be skeptical to the point of paranoia. Ask yourself if someone is pitching you information to make your life better or to advance their own interests. We live in a world with unprecedented access to information so you have a moral obligation as a voter to educate yourself regarding claims made by and about candidates, particularly if those claims confirm your existing bias.
It’s hard to image that people can be independent of their own motivations, but it’s certainly a valid goal, to aspire to a decision making system that is immune to emotionally powerful but logically suspect arguments. That’s the ideal of the independent voter.