In Maine, former Governor Angus King won election to the Senate as an Independent, but had agreed early on to caucus with Democrats, who put up no serious challenger to his candidacy in that now solidly blue state. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, a Socialist who also caucuses with the Democrats, was easily re-elected to the Senate for his second term after more than two decades in the House. Elsewhere in America, there are those Independents who eschewed the party ties on which they were originally elected, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski. In each case, borrowed party machinery, or celebrity name like former Minnesota Independent Governor Jesse Ventura’s, was necessary to overcome serious institutional hurdles. This raises an important question about whether the bar to access elective office is too high, and if so, whether this only exacerbates the growing divide in our country between the governors and the governed.
For it to be credible, independence must be more than the name only. The few independents in Congress today reliably caucus with one of the two parties, and in the cases of King and Sanders that is the Democrats. What voters want, indeed crave, is to declare their independence from the parties, whom they recognize as being culpable for the mess we’re in, and basically out of any new ideas. The victories of Democrats this past November are more attributable to the failure of the Republicans to present themselves as an acceptable alternative, as opposed to anything else, most pundits agree.
It is in the interest of neither party in America to open the playing field to Independents. In my case, I submitted over 70,000 petition signatures to get on the ballot. Ballot access, though, is only the beginning.
At one point during my campaign, I received a joint letter from my Democrat and Republican opponents – on the same letterhead – replying to an offer I had made to buy an hour’s time on a Baltimore television station for a debate (not surprisingly, both shared in efforts to block me from debates such as those which were held in every other state electing a U.S. senator). The parties can agree on at least one thing, this showed: warding off independent challengers.
Only by running myself did I come to appreciate first-hand the peculiar double-standard in our nation’s media about who is and who isn’t serious in politics. If a candidate has a worthy cause, but no money, they are, de facto, not serious and receive no coverage save the bare minimum in voter guides and public access cable stations in communities where political bias has not taken hold. If a candidate self-funds, as I did, his funding becomes the story and the next hurdle to pass is the accusation that one is trying to buy the election. The Democrat incumbent I challenged received more than a million dollars in contributions by alleging he was “under attack” from a – God forbid – self-funded opponent, prompting the party loyalists to open their pocketbooks. This raises the question of whether the money I spent helped me, or my opponent, more.
And even with sufficient resources, the toughest institutional barrier lies with those whom I have come to know as the ‘Guardians of the Establishment.’ In my case, this was The Washington Post. Their editorial board “allowed” me the favor of an interview either out of a forced sense of fair play or simply curiosity as to why this guy was spending so much on what, in their view, was an election I could not win. In any event, when we did meet, I felt as though I’d been beamed into the Star Chamber where I was stared down by five unsympathetic faces each asking, in different words, “how dare you challenge our friend, just who do you think you are?”
The most open minds I encountered were those of the voters themselves. Once I got through, or around, the various obstacles to waging a serious candidacy for statewide office, I found that ordinary citizens were the most interested in what I had to say. From a conspiracy-minded standpoint, this would account for why the major parties and their allies in civic and media groups, seemed so intent on shutting me down when I said the parties are broken and our system is a hostage to special interests. Like the boy in the fable about the Emperor who Wears No Clothes, I had struck upon an inconvenient truth.
The demand for this kind of candor in America today is very strong. A poll I conducted before entering the race showed that nearly two-thirds said they were ready to vote for an independent. As Ross Perot found in 1992; however, voters also need to believe you can win. Exit polls taken after that election showed 40 percent – enough to elect the president in a three-way race – would have voted for Perot if they thought he could win.
On the day of the election, The Wall Street Journal published an article quoting Google co-founder Sergei Brin saying that America has become consumed by a “bonfire of partisanship,” and that the political class should “go independent because it is the biggest contribution you can make today.” Having been raised in Maryland, it seems Brin knows well of what he speaks.
Friends, and even strangers who now approach me in public places, regularly ask whether my admittedly Quixotic attempt to tilt at our partisan system was worth the time, frustration and treasure? A solo campaign against the monolith of one-party rule in Martin O’Malley’s Maryland – perhaps best depicted in HBO’s series “The Wire” – was daunting from the start. Without paying that price, I would not know, as I now do, how profoundly dysfunctional our political process is. This experience is less useful from an academic standpoint, than the more practical one of those who commit themselves to reforming it. On the heels of an election remarkable in America for how little it had to do with change, I would encourage anyone who feels as I still do to challenge our broken system and offer a real alternative. The future of our democracy, and the ideal that our government is of, by and for the people, depends on it.
Sobhani is the chairman of Caspian Holding Group, an energy consultancy, and was recently an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland.