More Philosophers Should Run for Office… as Independents (guest post by Jay Geyer)


The following is a guest post* by Jay Geyer. Mr. Geyer is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, working on moral uncertainty. He has recently declared his candidacy for the Colorado House of Representatives.

More Philosophers Should Run for Office… as Independents
by Jay Geyer

As the slow-motion train wreck that was the 2016 presidential election unfolded, a permanent sense of unease bordering on dread settled on me. Our body politic seemed to be suffering a terrible disease, one from which it was increasingly doubtful that it would recover. It was a disease whose symptoms included astonishing levels of dysfunction in our nation’s and states’ legislatures, and an alarming susceptibility on the part of the electorate to buy into the divisive rhetoric of a nativist demagogue. The causes of the disease were many—decades of increasingly heated political tribalism, encouraged by the parties and amplified by the echo chambers of social media and partisan news outlets; lobbyists and special interest money enforcing an uncompromising approach from legislators on their pet issues; and gerrymandered seats keeping elected officials accountable to only the most partisan voters in their district. What was perhaps most alarming was the realization that there was no help on the horizon. The leadership of both major parties recognized that they had too much to gain from their zero sum approach to governance to abandon it—the 2016 election was not an aberration, but the continuation of a trend. If someone was going to push back against this tide of cynical partisanship and dysfunction, they would have to do it from outside the two party system.

For this reason, I decided to run for public office as an independent. Philosophy is a noble profession, and one that I really enjoy. But as much social good as philosophers provide (and I believe that now more than ever a philosophically educated electorate is a desperately needed public good), I felt that I could be doing more. And I believe that, just maybe, you could be too. I hope to persuade you of two claims: First, that the greatest problem we face as a society is partisan dysfunction. And second, that your philosophical training may uniquely qualify you to make a tremendous impact on this problem should you choose to put those skills to work in a political career.

The argument for the first claim is pretty straightforward. Whichever pressing current problem you take to be most dire, there is no hope of successfully addressing it in the current polarized political environment. Both parties are perpetually focused on the next election and both are now committed to winning that next election by, shall we say, less than noble means. Instead of attempting to persuade voters of the merits of their platform or their effectiveness as elected officials, both parties have relied on stoking partisan outrage to turn out the vote.

But this strategy does not depend on good ideas or good governance. In fact, good ideas and good governance undermine this strategy. Good ideas are often new ideas, and it is hard rally the party faithful around ideas than need to be explained first. Good governance requires extending at least a minimal amount of respect toward those in our democracy with whom we disagree, by at least listening in good faith to their ideas, if not actively seeking compromise positions with them. But doing this would undermine the narrative that the other side is rotten to the core and must be resisted at all costs, in the legislature and at the ballot box. For this reason, every pressing issue has been sorted into the partisan binary, and if one side is for it, the other must be against it. Under this arrangement, no progress is possible.

Some partisans hold out hope for the ignoble strategy in the form of an electoral wave or series of waves, in which their side makes progress by taking over all of the significant levers of governmental power. But this is a dangerous pipe dream. The tribal split in this country is roughly even, and that is not going to change soon enough to address the most pressing issues we face. Moreover, electoral trends are cyclical and even if one party briefly seizes control, the party-line legislation they pass will simply be reversed at the next available opportunity by the other party. We see this in what Republicans are doing now and what Democrats are vowing to do as soon as they get the chance.

If the most pressing problem is partisan dysfunction, then the solution cannot come from within the two parties. The parties have fully committed to the strategy of zero sum partisanship. I don’t mean to suggest that the two parties are equally guilty of partisan games. But whether their culpability for the present mess is exactly equal is irrelevant to the question of what to do now. And the present reality is that both parties have trained their core supporters to view compromise as a betrayal, the established special interests on both sides will not tolerate moderation, and neither side will flinch while the other side continues to play the zero sum strategy.

Instead the hope lies in the ever-growing number of Americans who identify neither as Republican nor as Democrat, but as Independent. There is an unprecedented opportunity for consensus-oriented independents to win office – recent polls in Colorado, for example, indicate extremely high dissatisfaction with both parties, with a strong majority of voters, including among those registered with the two parties, saying they are willing to vote for an independent.

Once in office, these independents can wield outsized influence as swing voters and liaisons between two parties who are unwilling to work together. This has been the experience of recently elected independents in the Maine and Alaska legislatures. And even a small number of independents would be enough in many legislatures to deny either party a majority, which would force the parties to compromise and empower the moderate voices in each caucus.

But these independents cannot play the game the same way. Instead of stoking partisan anger, they will need to employ the lost art of persuasion. Without a base to turn out or party brand recognition to exploit, they must appeal to voters on the merits of their position.

This is where my second point comes in—more philosophers should run for office. The fight to save our democracy will require clever, articulate, intellectually honest, and morally courageous individuals to jump in. Philosophers may not be especially morally courageous as a group—some of us are sanctimonious blowhards who can talk a good game, but have no interest in putting skin in the game. (See, for example, Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust’s recent work.) And some of us are not intellectually honest—we espouse views that we do not really hold, or hold slippery views for personally convenient, but epistemically dubious reasons. (Right about now you may be thinking, ‘what the heck, I thought this part of the post was going to be a pep talk!’)

BUT philosophers are plausibly better than most at recognizing when they’re being intellectually dishonest. And I boldly claim that most of us are in fact intellectually honest. Most of us are articulate, and all of us are pretty clever (even if not quite as clever as we imagine ourselves to be). So I appeal to that subset of philosophers who possess all four traits in abundance—consider how much more good you could do in politics than in academia.

You are uniquely qualified to make a difference in politics. You may not have money. But what you do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills that you have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make you a nightmare for people like party bosses and lobbyists. First, you are good at reading and comprehending dense and lengthy documents. It is a common complaint that many of our current legislators often don’t understand the bills they vote on, even if the lobbyists who helped write them do. Second, you are good at analyzing difficult, abstract problems and coming up with creative solutions. Our current political debates have often calcified into decades-old talking points—we need some new ideas if we’re to make progress. Third, you are quick on our feet in thoughtfully responding to opposing viewpoints. Think of all of the times some student has tried to stump you and you turned it into a valuable teaching opportunity. Now imagine an elected official responding to a reporter or a potential voter with that level of attentive intellectual honesty.

I’m not suggesting that these skills are some kind of substitute for real life experience in the political world. What I am suggesting is that many of you are uniquely qualified to begin acquiring that experience. None of you may be qualified to run for U.S. Senate. But many of you are qualified to run for state house, or city council, or school board.

If I have persuaded you that partisan dysfunction is the single biggest threat to the future of our democracy, then do something about it! Vote for a moderate in your party’s primary. Better still, vote for a consensus-oriented independent in the general election this November, if you have one on your ballot. In the meantime, support an independent candidate, whether you can vote for them or not. And if you happen to be a philosopher who is not only clever, but also articulate, intellectually honest, and morally courageous, think about running as an independent yourself!

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Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
3 years ago

Google Duverger’s Law.

Then read *The Rationalizing Voter* by Taber and Lodge.

Then run as a Democrat or Republican instead.Report

Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

I certainly agree with you that there are both structural barriers, like the current plurality-based voting system, and psychological barriers to winning as an independent. But neither of these are insurmountable and as long as we continue treating them as such we will never address the divisive partisanship that is devastating our political culture and threatening our future safety and prosperity. If we ever want to move to a more intelligent and representative voting system, we’ll need people in office to champion it who aren’t beholden to the two party structure that benefits from the current system. And I’m not so fatalistic about the competence and rationality of voters to think that they will just mindlessly stay loyal to parties regardless of the outcomes. Voters are unsatisfied with the two parties. We see that in the upheaval happening right now in both caucuses. Unfortunately, they haven’t seen themselves as having genuine alternatives due to the fecklessness of third party and independent candidates to date. But this is a unique time. Independents are getting organized just as voters are running out of patience with the parties. There well-funded and well-organized independents running for state wide office in Kansas, Missouri, Maine and Alaska. In Colorado, there is a slate of independent candidates, including myself, running for the state legislature. The more viability and success voters see in independents, the less sway those structural and psychological barriers will hold. Given the severity of the problem and lack of better alternatives, the time has come to back independents. And maybe run as one yourself.Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Jay Geyer
3 years ago

“Who aren’t beholden to the two party structure”

The problem with this argument is that the two-party structure is not artificial in the way you seem to be implying it is. It’s not a product of psychology, although manipulative efforts have been made to capitalize on that, no argument there. The two party system exists because of our voting methodology. It is a natural and predictable consequence of first past the post voting. Saying we should just choose to have a third party when there is a systemically enforced paradigm at work is the same sort of logical fallacy as “pray away the gay”.

Running for a third party, which is what “independent” means in the US political system, is a guaranteed vote for the person on the two big tickets who is LEAST sympathetic to your political ends. It’s not because we didn’t BELIEVE!!!!!! enough. It’s because you tried to use a drill like a sump pump and predictably got ridiculous results.

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David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Two observations:

1) Jay Geyer writes: “there are both structural barriers, like the current plurality-based voting system, and psychological barriers to winning as an independent. But neither of these are insurmountable”. Why think the structural barriers aren’t insurmountable? There seems to be overwhelming historical evidence, along with pretty powerful theoretical arguments, that parties are a robust emergent consequence of modern-era democracies. I don’t know a single case of a recognizably democratic state where the political system isn’t overwhelmingly dominated by parties. (Sometimes one party is replaced by another, but Geyer is encouraging people to run as independents, not to form a new party – not that I think that’s a good idea in the US either.)

2) Geyer’s analysis treats the major parties as closed systems, and the polarization of those major parties as an unalterable fact. But US political parties are pretty permeable. What’s the argument for running as an independent, rather than identifying whichever main party is closest to your views, joining and working to influence it from inside, and in due course running in a primary for one of its seats?

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Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

To be clear, I’m not opposed to political parties in principle. I’m opposed to the current practices of *these* two parties in as much as they continue to exacerbate what I take to be the most dire problem we face as a country.

You are right of course that the parties are not closed systems. It is possible to change the parties from within, but that strikes me as much less promising than running as an independent, if the goal is to end partisan dysfunction. First of all, it is in the parties’ short term interests to continue to exacerbate the problem of partisan dysfunction, and party bosses will only tolerate so much independence from their junior members before they sanction them. Because everything passes on party lines now, dissenters are especially threatening to the aims of the party.

Second, the parties are both well-established brands. Their positions may shift, but they command a degree of brand loyalty from voters who in turn have certain expectations of anyone with a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to their name. Because both parties have encouraged their supporters to see the other side as irredeemably bad and a threat to the nation, it’s unsurprising that independent-minded, consensus-seeking Democrats or Republicans are typically viewed by the party faithful as traitors (think of the righteous indignation that attended RINO hunts by the tea party, or the current animosity felt by many toward centrist incumbent Democrats).

An independent candidate doesn’t carry any of that baggage. They can appeal to voters unapologetically as someone who is willing to work with both sides. In doing so, they can also appeal to the large and growing demographic of voters who do not identify as either Republicans or Democrats – a demographic that has been largely neglected by the two parties of late.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jay Geyer
3 years ago

“[P]arty bosses will only tolerate so much independence from their junior members before they sanction them.”

That’s an odd observation in a period where Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination against the near-lockstep opposition of most of the Republican establishment, and where Bernie Sanders made a surprisingly strong challenge to Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination against fairly similar levels of opposition. If anything, I’d have thought the problems you’re identifying are caused more by the weakness rather than the strength of “party bosses”.

“Because both parties have encouraged their supporters to see the other side as irredeemably bad and a threat to the nation, it’s unsurprising that independent-minded, consensus-seeking Democrats or Republicans are typically viewed by the party faithful as traitors (think of the righteous indignation that attended RINO hunts by the tea party, or the current animosity felt by many toward centrist incumbent Democrats). ”

Part of my concern is that this trend is going to be exacerbated if smart, motivated moderates start deserting the major parties rather than trying to influence them.

“An independent candidate … can also appeal to the large and growing demographic of voters who do not identify as either Republicans or Democrats – a demographic that has been largely neglected by the two parties of late.”

My understanding, second hand from my imperfect understanding of the political-science literature, is that (across the US as a whole, I don’t know anything much about Coloradan politics), (I) “independent” is by no means identical with “centrist”, and (ii) the great majority of so-called “independents” function de facto as members of one party or another.

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Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

The dynamics of party power are different in a presidential election, especially when two candidates have tapped into voter frustration in the way Trump and Sanders did, and even more so when one of them is a famous billionaire. I’ve talked to former state legislators who have assured me that there are punishments delivered from on high for bucking party line votes, and I’m sure the same is true in U.S. congress. If party leadership were using that clout to push their members toward consensus-building and bi-partisanship, then that might be fine. But they’re not.

I think the parties are pretty much irredeemable on the issue of polarization and partisanship at this point. The momentum in both parties is toward the extremes and I haven’t seen the faintest indication that this is going to reverse anytime soon. It’s time to create a new locus of political influence in this country. As the parties have moved to the extremes, they’ve left a lot of people in the middle.

Of course, not all unaffiliated voters are in the middle. But many are. There are also many registered Republicans and Democrats who are feeling increasingly alienated from their parties who would also have more in common with a moderate independent. A recent poll in Colorado indicates that over 80% of voters in both parties are willing to vote for an independent (I know Colorado may be an outlier nationally). So, there’s a pretty clear path to victory here that’s uniquely available to a consensus-seeking independent.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jay Geyer
3 years ago

Of course I’ll defer to you on Coloradan politics! I’m still unconvinced by the overall argument but I haven’t a lot more to add. Good luck in your election.Report

Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Thank you! I’d be happy to be wrong about the two parties being irredeemable, but I’ll settle for being right about independents having a chance.Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

In response to your first point, I’d like to say two things. The first is that in the US campaign strategies “independents” are using absolutely do mirror those of third parties, which is why people regard them that way. The second is the disgracefully common misconception that “independents” are swing voters. The data that exists says exactly the opposite. In fact, what we see is that, somewhat strangely, independent voters actually vote along partisan lines MORE than registered party members! A conservative independent is far more likely to block-vote Republican than a registered Republican!

In response to your second point, there is merit in running third party or “independent” campaigns for the purposes of putting political pressure on the main parties. Consider the tea party movement. Their original goal was to become their own political organization, a competing party. The system we use to vote in this nation precludes that from really happening systemically, so it naturally because an offshoot of the party which most closely resembled it, the Republicans. This worked out to their ends as the Republican party today FAR more closely represents Tea Party ideology than anything Reagan or Nixon would have recognized. It failed to become its own party, but it utterly transformed Republicanism, effectively replacing it. They kept the old monikers, but in reality, Republicanism as we once understood it is as dead as the Whigs from whence they came. The Sanders movement may yet make similar inroads in the Democratic party. There is strong reason to believe that it is in the Democrats’ best interest to lurch to the left, as opposed to trying to split the ideological difference with moderate politics as it more traditionally has done since the end of the Carter Administration. That course correction may well come from those who worked in Sanders’ campaign, and the voters who were depely disenfranchised by the procedural manipulations of the Clinton campaign. The way most groups try to peddle third party politics today is simply not workable. Again, the two party system is a natural consequence of the voting laws, and not an artifical political manipulation (and again, with the acknowledgement that there ARE those who have exploited this through the legislative branch). But with an eye to the future, and more careful cultivation, “third party” politics can absolutely be a potent weapon to groom the two parties into a form that would be more sympathetic to changing those voting laws in time.

But time is the key word there, and I’ve seen little to suggest that the average voter understands civics even half as well as they would need to in order to have the necessary patience. Purity tests and selfish ideology pandering is as far as we’ve gotten in this conversation as a culture. The instant-oatmeal, all or nothing expectations of this generation may well be its undoing.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

There are tons of people fed up with the Rs and Ds who aren’t remotely centrist. There are tons of socialist students and profs who deplore the Dems as “neo-liberal”, and increasing numbers of those on the right who see Republicans as largely co-opted by donors who don’t share the right-wing views of the base.

Why not simply think that the gridlock is caused by increased political polarization? Politicians who want to stick around must respond to these trends. It seems to me that, in most cases, if politicians were to make a habit of compromising in the way you suggest they’d be voted out in a hurry.Report

Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I agree that the causes of political polarization extends beyond the actions of the two parties. I have no doubt that the parties’ strategy is partly a reaction to forces outside of their control, like the effects of partisan media and social media echo chambers on the attitudes of the electorate. But their response has been to pour gasoline on the problem to see if they can turn it to their own short term political advantage. For example, neither party has been serious about ending partisan gerrymandering, at least not when they’re in a position to draw the maps. Both parties are happy to stoke the partisan anger on social media and partisan media. Perhaps the parties were reacting rationally to the changing national mood, but they were not acting morally courageously. And there’s no reason to think that they’re suddenly going to change.Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I agree with what you said, but I think you maybe oversimplify it. Take the Republican party as an example. When the tea party movement struck, it failed to become its own separate entity but was instead absorbed by the Republican party. This created a powerful new camp within that party that wasn’t sympathetic to traditional republicanism at all. This created an internal war. By inference, I understand that you know all of this, but you also need to understand that this is merely one example! This happens CONSTANTLY now, though not usually on as dramatic a scale as with the tea party. How is any politician to respond to these trends when both parties are essentially 5 differen’t parties rolled into each package? The way our voting system works doesn’t allow politicians the felxibility to do that, even if you do find one with the ethics and good sense to do so.

This isn’t really a philosophical problem. It’s a systemic one. Our voting laws are deeply antiquated and are responsibile for why things are what they are.Report

Shane
Shane
3 years ago

I’d even go further: tribalism is the last or next to last step in the evolution of dysfunctional dynamics that occur in the absence of ideas and method to implement them. To move this along America ought to be 49pct right thinking and 51pct right doing recognizing thought and action are inseparably entangled. Instead, particularly where Congress has been involved, no substantive progress has been made in any of the major issues over the last four administrations: debt, current account deficits, immigration, gun law, lobbying, and the fact the all real gains in income and wealth have disproportionally occured in the upper 5pct of America. This plus the belief that both the Dems and the republicans have sold out the middle and lower classes to global trade and corporations resulted in Trump. As the systemic problems redouble, the inertia increases and the fear of tackling the problems becomes worse. So as the OP writes, DC is in perpetual election mode playing to their base talking about the cheap symbolism of change in the perpetual future. I am not a philosopher, however, I’d agree that such persons would be better suited in this climate to advance comphrehensive policies instead of single perspective talking points that too often pass for policy. We need to rediscover American ideals for ourselves all over again recalling that political parities are at best proxies for capital T truth. Report

Shane
Shane
3 years ago

To further comment consider the relatively smaller scope of a failing large corporation like IBM in the early 1990s. Beset by high costs especially in mainframes, flagging sales, styfling office politics, and hardware/software that was incompatible with other networks and PCs, the thought from Wall Street was that it should spin off its printer, disk, mainframe, pc, and consulting business because it couldn’t compete anymore. Instead Gerstner changed management and engineering’s relationship to the customer … yes the customer that they were supposed to be satisfying in the first place … and turned things around. This is customer satisfaction in the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award sense. By analogy DC is going to have to address its systemic dysfunction by first re-evaluate, rediscover, and re-dedicate itself to American ideals. That will necessarily combine inclusion and competence two things we sorely need.Report

Matt
Matt
3 years ago

None of this addresses how you plan to use your philosophy degree to speak reason to a populous who has wholesale abandoned the ethical system inherent to our universal agreement that facts matter. These people did not come to their conclusions on a fact-based merit system. They are following their emotions. By definition, you cannot reason with the unreasonable. That’s why the word even exists in the first place.

And your defense of running as an “independent” is rife with “them-too”isms. Yes, both parties have engaged in these poor faith practices, but Republicans are far and away more guilty of it. You don’t have to agree with my political opinions, but you cannot deny that the two-party system itself is not artificial. You speak as though we can simply will it to not be so by repeating the long held libertarian fallacy that “we’ll never make progress on this front so long as we don’t BELIEVE it’s possible to have a third party”.

Pure. Nonsense.

The 2 party system is a direct consequence of our voting methodology. It is unavoidable. You can not have a third party (which is essentially what you’re trying to sell the notion of “independent” as) so long as first past the post voting is how it works in the US. There can be no doubt that people in power exploit this and enacted laws that encourage it, but it is not a product of this. It is not artificial.

Running as an independent absolutey guarantees the vote for the guy LEAST sympathetic to your political positions, and your failure to understand this very elementary political apparatus is actually the very best argument I can make for why, no, philosophers shouldn’t be politicians. POLITICIANS should be politicians. Report

Jay Geyer
Jay Geyer
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

I confess I didn’t completely understand what exactly it was that you were criticizing in the first two paragraphs and so I’m not sure which part of my view you consider deserving of the label ‘pure nonsense’.

I think your fatalism about the obstacles to independents is pretty clearly overstating the problem. If ‘running as an independent absolutely guarantees the vote for the guys least sympathetic to your political positions’, then there would be no independents elected in the United States. But there have been independents elected. A number of them are currently serving in state legislatures and in state-wide offices around the country. Winning as an independent is difficult. It is not impossible.

I don’t believe I’ve failed to understand any ‘elementary political apparatus’. Duverger’s Law is not an inviolable law of nature, nor does it predict that independent or third party candidates *never* win office. It states that plurality based voting systems strongly favor two parties. Nothing I’ve said contradicts this. The aim is for independents to win a few seats, which in a closely divided legislature would grant them an disproportionate amount of influence, and then use that influence to break through gridlock, empower the reasonable voices in each of the major caucuses, and draw public attention to issues that neither party has an interest in addressing, like electoral reform.Report

Dominic Joslin
Dominic Joslin
3 years ago

I agree with the comments posted that point out that a two party system is pretty much inevitable. There is strength in numbers, and ao organisational strength that independents cannot match, despite occasional successes.
I would say that there is more merit in adopting more fully, the Swiss method of government, where Citizens initialed referenda are the populace’s method of keeping politicians on track.Report