I was talking to a friend last night about the election when I mentioned how badly the independent candidates did. He said I should have expected it, and of course I did, but it frustrated me all the same. He said I should prepare to stay frustrated as long as independents kept doing the same things every time.
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like nominating cranky old men like Nader and Bob Barr who don't really offer any positive ideas for the country. I know you're going to tell me about all the positive things in their platforms, but when you see them they just seem angry and negative. You're not going to get anywhere until there's a third party with younger, more charismatic leadership who can tell voters what they're for instead of what they're against."
"Well, most independents are insurgent in nature. They're running in the first place because they think something's wrong with the system."
"But it sounds like all they ever talk about is what's wrong. I never get a sense from any of them that they actually have different ideas of how to do things. It always sounds like they just want to tear things down -- and listen to yourself. I personally get suspicious whenever people talk about the system--"
"The two-party system," I clarified.
"I understand that, but the first words out of your mouth were the system. When people talk like that, it sounds like conspiracy theory to me, and it probably sounds the same way to most people. It doesn't do anything to win over all the people in the center."
"Well, how do you think they should try to win over the center?"
"They have to concentrate less on complaining about how bad the other two parties are and more on showing how they can do things better. If they have new or different ideas, they should just come forward and explain how they think they would work."
"But do you think anyone will listen to these ideas if the candidates don't have a D or an R after their names? Don't you think people have tried?"
"Look, people aren't as obsessed with parties as you think. They're interested in personalities. There's no reason why a third-party candidate can't be someone like Barack Obama: young, charismatic, with a positive message that gets attention. He didn't start out famous, but people listened to him and liked what they heard. No one two years ago would have thought that he'd beat Hillary in the primaries, but he did it because of his personality and his ideas."
"But someone like Obama starts at the bottom of the Democratic party. Don't you think that makes a difference? Do you think Obama could have gotten where he is today outside the party?"
"Yes, if he gets the attention of the right people."
"But why would someone like Obama become an independent instead of a Democrat? Wouldn't he have to be dissatisfied with the two-party system in the first place, and wouldn't that have to be part of his message. Wouldn't he have to explain why he's an independent?"
"Yes, but the reason should be something like, 'Here's what the Democrats say, here's what the Republicans say, and here's what I would do differently, and this is why I think my ideas would work better.' That's the only way he's going to reach the center."
"Yeah, but the center is where the two parties already are. Most independents want to move the country in one direction or the other. They identify the center with complacency and stagnation."
"And that's their problem. Most people don't want to go too far in either direction, and any extreme is just a bad idea. They don't want to hear about an ideology or some conspiracy theory. They want practical solutions. You're only going to attract the mass of people if you claim the center and show that the other two parties are the extremists whose partisanship is harming the national interest."
"You realize that a lot of independents think the two parties are basically on the same side. They're either both on the right, if you're a leftist, or both on the left, if you're a right-winger, or else they sit in the middle and prevent any meaningful debate between the real right and the real left."
"Okay, you can believe that if you like, but I'm telling you you're never going to reach a majority of Americans with that message, and if you really think that's how the system works you might as well start planning a violent revolution because that's the only way you're ever going to change it."
"Come on, don't you think there's something wrong with the fact that these same two parties have controlled the country for the past 150 years? Don't you think it's foolish to punish one party when they screw up by voting for the other one, just to go right back to them four years or eight years later when they screw up?"
"They don't stay the same, though. They adapt. Their messages change. And personalities matter. Not all Democrats are the same. Obama is different from Clinton. Most Americans are voting for people, not parties. That's why they keep going back and forth -- and that's also why they would respond to an independent who had the same qualities as Obama."
"But that brings us back to why someone like that isn't a Democrat or a Republican. Wouldn't the party have to have rejected their ideas?"
"Maybe, but then you don't act disgruntled and complain about the system, but you go to the people, if you really believe your ideas are better, and talk about the ideas instead of all your grievances. That may not be what you really want to do, but that's the only approach that'll work"
This could have gone on all night, but we knew we weren't going to convince each other that a positive message or a charismatic candidate could overcome all obstacles, on one hand, or that there was a system that suppressed certain ideas and had to be combated as such, on the other -- and in any event, the election was over, so we changed the subject and moved on.