I’ve been involved in party politics for most of my life, and one thing I hear over and over is, “I don’t vote for a party, I vote the person.”
This all sounds very good and thoughtful. But in truth, it doesn’t much help solve any of the problems our cities and towns, our states or our nation is facing.
Bernie Sanders is a good case in point. Sanders is a U.S. Senator from Vermont who runs as an independent, and claims to be "An Independent Voice." In his last election, he garnered 65.4 percent of the 262,419 votes cast for U.S. Senate. A lot of Vermonters probably voted for him because of his "independence." Yet once he got to Washington, he was anything but. Bernie Sanders received a 95 percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action for his voting record in the 111th Congress. According to the ADA, Sanders diverged from its official positions on just one out of 20 votes.
Voting for the person didn’t get Vermont – or the U.S. Senate – an independent voice at all.
Same thing happens in our General Assembly, with numerous candidates running as "independent voices." Most of these candidates are Democrats, because the Republicans in Rhode Island by definition present a different point of view. And there is something in the American psyche that desired independence, and values it in a legislator.
But a funny thing happens when elected representatives cross their town line and get to the State House: most lose that vaunted independence and they become just another face on Capitol TV. Big votes are typically party-line votes, with the Senate President or the House Speaker twisting arms and knocking heads to enforce party discipline. There may actually be a few independent voices on Smith Hill, but you wouldn’t know it – the 2012 budget passed the House by a 3-1 margin.
Voting for the person hasn’t changed the huge number of lopsided votes in our General Assembly that go back to the mid-1950s.
Another problem caused by our penchant for the person vs. the party: we get mean. Personalities take over, and we lose sight of the issues – and often, the facts.
“Obama is a Socialist” says nothing about the President’s position on individual programs or pieces of legislation. It might. But we can’t discuss programs or individual pieces of legislation very well from behind the "Socialist" filter. And "Socialist," like so many labels (pick one: Conservative, Radical, Extremist, Moderate, Liberal, Know-Nothing, Communist, etc.) has become relatively meaningless these days in a mixed political economy, one in which legislators of many persuasions have voted yea or nay on one entitlement program or another.
Likewise, tying Mitt Romney to "Job Creator" or "Chief Outsourcer" probably says more about the person making the charge than it does about Romney.
The most typical method of personal assassination is the almighty adjective. Being a Republican is one thing; being an Extreme Republican is another. A Democrat can actually be ok – until he or she is labeled a “Liberal Democrat." Read any news or commentary, and count the adjectives: Wealthy. Extreme. Radical. Liberal. Anti_______. Pro_______. This should tell you something about where the writer is coming from. And it may have nothing to do with the issues at hand.
Labels are dangerous. They almost always work to simplify the issues without shedding any light on them. They distract from the issues. They are often inaccurate, or worse, intentionally misleading. And they are often just mean. There may be some truth in some of them, but the opposite could be true, too. We won’t know without examining things further, or digging deeper. And most of us won’t, or don’t.
In an earlier blog, I pointed to an effort to get Simpson-Bowles – lesser known as National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – back on track. That blog, Looking For Courage In All The Wrong Places, attracted an outpouring of nearly 200 comments from readers – but very few had anything to do with the important issues Simpson-Bowles is attempting to deal with. Instead, we fell into mass labeling – commenters were characterized as Fascists or Marxists or Socialists, others as bigots or haters or war-mongers. Lost in it all was the fact that our national debt is soaring, and on a trend to equal GDP by 2050. We sort of lost sight of that.
My plea would be that we think twice about putting simplistic labels on things. And if we see someone doing it, shout "LABELER!!" at the top of our lungs.
As for the "vote the man, not the party" business, we need to re-think this. No matter how much we might yearn for an Independent Man (or woman), Party politics do matter.
If we accept this, and more of us take on the responsibility to play a role in how these politics play out, we have a chance to change those parties, broaden the playing field, make our politicians (of every stripe) more accountable, and ensure that smaller and smaller groups of committed people do not threaten our national goal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
I do think Taylor Swift is on to something.