Surveying the independent politicians on today’s scene, from Michael Bloomberg to current South Dakota Senate candidate Larry Pressler, Michael Kazin waxes nostalgic for when the term meant more than press-pleasing moderation:
“Independent” wasn’t always a synonym for vapid. In the early decades of the last century, independent politicians played a far more serious and largely beneficial role. Stalwart “progressives,” they advocated open primaries instead of closed party caucuses, non-partisan elections for city government, replacing partisan hacks in the federal bureaucracy with dedicated civil servants, banning corporate spending on campaigns, and giving voters a chance to initiate their own laws or turn down ones passed by often corrupt state legislatures. Figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Fiorello La Guardia left their party, temporarily or for good, to speak out for ideas that were later converted into policy. “There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people,” TR told his followers in the independent new Progressive Party in 1912. “In the present day, the limitation … of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.”
Not everything such bygone independents did or tried to do lived up to their ambitions.
Big businesses and other “special interests” learned how to hijack the making of ballot initiatives, spending millions on measures designed to boost their profits and power. “Good government” mayors sometimes governed in a bloodless fashion, emphasizing tax-cutting and efficient administration instead of the better housing and health protection which city dwellers badly needed. And, of course, the major parties adapted and endured—and passed laws on the state level that made it difficult for third parties to gain a foothold or to fuse, for any given election, with the Democrats or Republicans.
But the pressure of principled independents and the friendly journalists who covered them did help create a more effective and more professional national state, which legitimated the idea that social programs should serve “the public interest” rather than just the followers of one big party or the other.
(Image: “Theodore Roosevelt Hotel Allen 1914” by Unknown Photographer, Lehigh County Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons)