A Millennial Declaration of Independence: It’s not me, it’s you

Feeling abandoned by political parties—and the two party system as we presently know it—young people largely lean independent (as do an increasing number of Americans). Desperate in the face of dwindling affiliation, some party activists’ method of appealing to us is by way of ridicule and hurling blame.

This morning I was reminded of why I identify as an independent, un-enrolled voter. In the wake of the primaries, Democratic activist and commentator Cynthia Dill tweeted “How long until ‘independent’ Maine voters (who stayed home yesterday) complain about ‘extreme’ partisan candidates?” and tagged me to ensure that I caught her condescending opinion. I was reminded that party identification falls by the year in part because parties, their staffs and their activists can be so blindly obtuse and narcissistic that they see any problem that they are implicit in creating as the fault of everybody else. Until they stop to look within, and until they stop attempting to place blame externally, there will continue to be no change in this tendency. Enrollment numbers will dwindle. Dinosaurs will die.

Good riddance.

Despite the fact that skepticism of political factions is as old as our nation itself—President Washington warned about the dangers of the formation of political parties—some party activists can’t help themselves from ridiculing those wary of party affiliation.

Dill and I see eye to eye on a good many issues, and I will always attempt to work with people and groups that organize action around issues close to my heart. A party, though, is an abstract, multi-billion dollar politics cartel, and I have no interest in being identified by one or another. I have worked for the Democratic Party, where I was surrounded by well-intended, good-hearted people bound by inane loyalties and insane fundraising goals. They felt at home because they enjoyed playing that game for some reason, and were able to cry on cue, which is a talent I am happy to live without.

Like most millennials, I am a progressive and am likely to vote Democratic (or Green) but I am continuously disappointed by the Democrats. I don’t believe in the extra-judicial killing of Americans, but the party implicitly supports it. I don’t believe in secret drone wars and kill lists, but the party is down with that. I don’t believe in excessive surveillance, which Democrats welcome, apparently, unless they are kept honest by outside forces and or being spied on themselves. I believe that we as a nation should have a robust and in depth conversation about accountability for bankers and free-wheeling corporations, the role of guns in our society, and immigration. As long as it is an election year and it is convenient for them to care about these things, the Democrats do too, but they are clearly unwilling to fight to make it happen on any other occasion. I am strongly in favor of a separation between corporate money and our political system, and thanks to the work of the Sunlight Foundation, we can all see that both parties are very heavily reliant on heavy doses highly corruptible, corporate financing.

Like the drunk who—when his drinking problem is brought to his attention—exempts his behavior by blaming everyone around him, the parties appear ignorant to their own role in declining retention. For the Democrats in particular, it is the 70% of the population that doesn’t find affiliation with it appealing that is to blame for the woes facing our nation, not the party itself. They somehow think it is the fault of those who have had their stomachs turned by these realities that are at fault for the way things are now. It can’t be the Democrats, of course, the party that denounced war, torture, indefinite detention, and unwarranted surveillance when Bush was in office, but appear awfully cavalier when it comes to taking action against these ills today.

Why aren’t more people enrolling? It’s their fault this country is going down the toilet! Can they not comprehend our greatness? Goddamn philistines.

Young people are suspect of party affiliation because, among many other reasons, parties breed this brand of entitled, navel-gazing condescension. We are suspect because we have heard the Democrats’ anti war, anti-spying, pro-health care rhetoric for years, but we have not seen actual, bold, voluntary action. When it came to health care reform, the party started the conversation around a right wing articulation of the law and moved further right in the process of finding a sad sack compromise. Democrats will tell you that they had to go in willing to compromise—that they had no choice—but they really have no idea because it has long been their approach to start from the middle and be willing to move right in order to win. No matter how the American right tries to posture, the Democrats are not socialists. They’re not even liberal anymore. We have a moderate-conservative party on the so-called left and a borderline nationalist right wing party in perpetual opposition to it. It is no wonder so many, particularly those born in the past 30 years, are calling it quits on this system.

Us Millennials, the most sizable, inherently left-leaning generation to come along since the progressive era nearly 100 years ago, look at the parties and see no representation. On the far right, we see the party of no—a grouchy faction that has spent the past 20 years giving up on the pragmatic compromises it was once celebrated for in exchange for perpetual protest. It has adopted policies that ignore changing priorities and demographics, and has become the de facto party of straight, white, angry people. The party to the “left” of that is nothing but a collective of reflexive opportunists feigning a passion for progress while also collecting checks from those sectors that need to be reformed. Is it the parties or the system itself that makes for this reality? Is it both? Whichever it may be, the picture this paints is off-putting, and the best some outspoken party activists can do is to blame those who know better than to engage it.

Supper is bad because you have eyes, taste buds and a nose, you dreadful plebe, not because our inept kitchen staff made it with spoiled ingredients.

While I am not an Eliot Cutler supporter, I was happy to see the gubernatorial candidate humor discussions about election reform. Like some, I am cynical about the reasons why his campaign brought the topic to the fore, but at least the topic is getting attention. If there is one thing one learns from looking in on this rotten system, it is that righteous causes rarely find themselves the focus of attention because of the righteous intentions of those who rally behind them. Perhaps the specific reforms Cutler hints at are not the cures themselves, but he is talking about reform. Period. And that is imperative. It was not going to be, after all, the parties that would bring the need for reform into the conversation. Here in Maine the Republican Party was the most recent beneficiary of a broken electoral system when they secured for themselves a bumbling executive elected by a minority of the electorate, and not long beforehand the Democrats were on the receiving end of a similar bounty in exchange for the same lackluster support. With the exception of an activist representative within the party, the Democrats have never shown convincing interest in changing the system to be more inclusive, as they so strongly believe that their proverbial excrement doesn’t stink that they can’t imagine that a system that considers them relevant can possibly be broken.

(I should note, of course, occasional exceptions to the rule within the parties—U.S. Congressional candidate Shenna Bellows comes to mind—though it does not help that these exceptions occur in spite of every single one of their respective party’s best efforts.)

When I suggested to Dill that ridicule is not the best way for a party activist and advocate to woo otherwise off-put independents, she asked, “Ridicule or fair? How effective is it to be on the sidelines? Dems and GOP need more voices. Elections need more voters.” Dill is right that not enough people participate in our system, but that is likely because we came to the field to play a game or two of football and the parties appear hell bent on engaging in a hybrid of rugby, a demolition derby, The Deer Hunter style Russian Roulette and Armageddon in which the rules are constantly re-written in favor of the system itself. Her snarky response conveniently overlooks the legitimate reasons for why many of us are angry and put off. It is, by the way, the fact that there is party and system that allows for so myopic an outlook on the behalf of so public a spokesperson that is part of what turns many of us away from partisan political engagement in the first place.

I know a number of people—great, admirable, hardworking people—who suck from the teat of one of the big two parties in one way or another. They feel about the parties and system the way I do, but won’t speak to it publicly because didn’t anybody to teach you not to bite the hand that feeds you? (Besides, even when parties are self-critical, they are incapable of taking their own advice.)
As an independent, I don’t like that meal—in fact, I don’t like the whole damn restaurant. I have seen their messy kitchens, and in foregoing the feeding I will speak as freely about it as I please. Party activists and supporters should free to engage by choosing whichever people they want to represent their parties in the primary and I will engage by publicly calling bullshit on everything these parties stand for, directly, implicitly or by looking the other way. If no one is doing so internally, somebody has got to do it on their behalf.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.