Can Anyone Be Truly ‘Independent’ In Today’s Polarized Politics?

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tags: politics, independent



Beverly Gage is a professor of American political history at Yale. She is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror” and is currently writing a biography of the former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

... Given the parade of scandals and lies emanating from the Trump White House, the prospect of finding one independent soul among our thousands of partisan warriors holds an obvious political appeal. But what does it mean to be truly “independent” in the hyperpartisan 21st century, when nearly everything in American life seems to end up as a mark on the political scorecard — pro or con, win or loss, Republican or Democrat? ...

In colonial America, “independence” meant something relatively simple: freedom from economic dependence, or the ownership of land and wealth. By the 18th century, though, the word had acquired a more explicit political meaning: Men needed to be “independent” in order to think clearly about the common good and thus to rule themselves. For the founders, this came with many limitations of race, gender and class. As a political vision, though, it communicated a higher purpose: Officeholders would have to reject the temptations of partisanship and personal interest lest, as George Washington warned in his farewell speech, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” use the white-hot animosities of party politics to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

Today many Americans approach the notion of professional, nonpartisan expertise with suspicion, seeing it as mere cover for elite interests and partisan agendas. ...





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