A growing share of America's voters consider themselves Independents. However, it would be a mistake to judge that these voters find themselves in-between the Democrats and Republicans on the political spectrum of liberal to conservative.
Are the Democrats too "liberal?" I do not think the party that bailed out Wall Street while sanctioning drone strikes on civilians can be accused of excessive leftward leanings.
Are the Republicans "too conservative?" A party committed to privatizing Medicare and Social Security while rolling back the rights earned generations ago is probably interested in conserving nothing more than their backers' bank accounts.
The Independent voters do not find themselves in the middle of an ideological chasm. Instead, they find themselves faced with two parties who have historically ignored the people's preferences completely (and a corporate news media establishment that has largely failed to help). As dark as things seem in the political world, I believe this election cycle gives us substantial reason to be hopeful about the future.
Ignoring the circus that is the Republican primary circuit, both major candidates have begun to speak a bit more than ever to the disenchanted American voter. We see this particularly in the realms of taxes, health care, and civil rights.
Mitt Romney's tax plan is suspicious at best. He claims that he will cut taxes across the board, and pay for this cut by eliminating loopholes. Romney also claims that the wealthy will not pay a smaller share of the tax burden under his plan. But the kinds of loopholes that favor the very wealthy — like the carried interest loophole that allows hedge fund billionaires to pay a 15% rate — Romney and his Republican cohorts strongly support. Romney's critics suspect, with good reason, that he will protect his own class of blue blooded millionaires and billionaires first. However, he knows the electorate won't stomach his trickle-down ideas. What I care about is not so much what Romney would do (since I think he will most likely lose), but what he says. Romney's refusal to pony up on his tax plan reflects an electorate that is done with any support for the kind of supply-side economics that have dominated Republican thinking for years.
One needs not look too far back to find a time when the GOP's environment allowed it to publicly support trickle-down theory. Reagan's maxim that "a rising tide lifts all boats" comes to mind. Of course, public opinion has always supported a more equal society and tax code. But now, much to the Republicans' chagrin, Americans are truly demanding change.
Obama's health care reform is far more industry friendly than the kinds of proposals that were popular when Obama entered office. But with all the reactionary cries of "death panels!" having subsided, Americans have come to find that coverage for preexisting conditions, among other provisions of the Obamacare, are more than palatable. Americans are so happy with the popular components of health care reform that they have forced Mitt Romney to assert wildly, "My plan covers preexisting conditions!" in the first presidential debate.
How Romney will actually act on the substantial problems still plaguing the health care system is difficult to determine. More affordable and accessible health care has always been preferred by the majority of Americans. But Romney's promises reflect the fact that the national electorate is through hearing of plans to move away from public and employer-based health care and towards a system of vouchers, credits, and individual health savings accounts, like the one George W. Bush espoused as recently as 2004.
National polls indicate that a significant majority of Americans support marriage equality for gays and lesbians. But even Democrats have been slow to express strong support for, and take significant action on, defending the rights of gay Americans. But President Obama broke ground when he announced in May of 2012 that he personally believes that same sex couples should be able to get married. He's also ordered an end to federal enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act (passed by fellow Democrat Bill Clinton) and worked to repeal the military's draconian "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.
Even in 2004, John Kerry voiced support only for civil "partnership rights," and qualified even that with his avowal that he personally believe marriage is between a man and a woman. To their great credit, the public has moved the national dialogue to a place where it is not just acceptable, but politically beneficial to support equal rights for all Americans.
So why did Democrats and Republicans begin to change their tone on some of the issues that matter most to Americans? Did voters use their power at the ballot box to change things?
That's hard when two (almost) equally unsatisfactory parties dominate the political scene with their ability to raise astronomical amounts of money from wealthy corporations and individuals. Instead independent grassroots activism has moved the dialogue along. Dedicated activists like those in the Occupy Wall Street Movement helped change the tone of Democrats and Republicans alike on taxes and the economy. Progressive health care agitators did much to push for a single payer or public option reform, but were forced to settle on the still important Affordable Care Act. Hard-working embers of the gay community, with the help of their progressive allies, helped to make same-sex marriage a real issue.
We need to continue this hope-inspiring trend. There is still much to be done, in these areas and others. Drone strikes, environmental degradation, education reform, and more need to become meaningful campaign issues. We can't be the change we want to see in the world but working for it one day every two or four years. We need to continue to fight in the streets for the things that matter in America. And today, we can make a difference by voting for a candidate who stands for real change, whether that's Jill Stein with the Green Party (who will be receiving my vote), Rocky Anderson with the Justice Party, or Gary Johnson with the Libertarians. Let's show the Democrats and Republicans that we're not easy to please, and they need to earn our vote.