One day before the 1998 election for Senator for the state of Wisconsin, I was conversing about the election with a good friend, a self described “independent” voter. The election was one of those elections that provide the best of democracy in action. Two very intelligent men, Russ Feingold, Democrat, and Mark Neumann, Republican, with absolutely diametrically opposed views and principles on how society should function and government’s role in it, had a run a campaign amazingly free of negativism and attack, and loaded with insightful debate. My friend, a committed voter, a day before an election with the sharpest of contrasts in principle ever offered , lacking the usual associated personal baggage tied to either candidate, found himself unable to make up his mind between the two. Both candidates in his mind had merits, he said; he was finding it difficult to do his usual deciding “gut check”. The two candidates had defined themselves to a razor’s edge, and he could not decide which way to “feel right” about his vote.
I was and am still amazed by his indecisiveness in that most focused of elections, won narrowly by Mr. Feingold by 35,000 votes out of 1.62 million. It started my internal debate, however, on the elements that differentiate my thinking from the so called independent voter. Why didn’t the independent voter of 1998 fail to settle on a single candidate’s vision of the American ideal – the vote separation of 50% to 49% indicates in a state evenly divided by Democrats and Republicans, that the independent voter split right down the middle. What is the value of a “gut check”, when the candidates, both quality individuals, are separated only by their principles? Is it possible to be swayed by both the concept of governmental regulation to guard against damaging outliers and limited government that guards against the suppression of individual incentive? Is it conceivable to support aggressive taxation to promote “fairness” in society, and at the same time, agree that taxes should interfere as little as possible with entrepreneurial spirit and resultant job creation? Can one believe in the avoidance of all foreign military entanglements and at the same time support the troop structure that makes such entanglements possible?
My eventual conclusion regarding the philosophical underpinnings of my friend’s indecision and the independent voter in general, is that a set of priniciples regarding what best serves the future vision of the country takes second place as to whether the current atmosphere “feels right or wrong”. In 2000, the country seemed prosperous and at peace, but had dealt with eight years of clintonian ethical lapses – an indecisive election that after some 103 million votes cast, came down to a few hundred contested votes in Florida. In 2008, the election brought a massive Democrat wave to Washington, providing opposition proof majorities to the house and Senate and a strong Presidential mandate, a reaction to the “wrong direction” aggressive foreign policies of the Bush years. Now in 2010, it appears the independent “swing set” is swinging again toward a “wrong direction” election, looking to remove the very philosophical tenets they voted for in waves in 2008.
The Constitution of the United States brilliantly lead us to this pendulum of philosophy, preventing the extremes of principles of societal philosophy such as communism or fascism from ever taking hold. In modern times however, we are absent that other bedrock concept that drove the founders defining that great document – “we hold these truths to be self evident; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It might do well for the “independents”to subscribe to this little bit of bedrock philosophy in forming their decisions regarding America’s future. Maybe then, we can finally get down to the business of solving our problems in a disciplined fashion, and not equivocate on the basis of a lack of “feeling”.
How did my friend vote in that prinicipled election? It really doesn’t matter; he was bound to change his mind again the next chance he got.