John Avlon, Dennis Miller and Independent Nation

John Avlon, author of Independent Nation, was on Dennis Miller last night and his argument raises some interesting problems. These are both anthropological and political.

Avlon says that a very large group of citizens (as much as 60%) are liberal on social issues and conservative on economic ones.

Let’s suppose this is true. This implies that American voters once “signed on” with a party, and accepted the “party line” on all, or most, other issues. One choice made all the other choices. (Or maybe it ran in the other direction: you made all your individual choices and then looked to see which party matched these most closely). It also suggests that this “aggregating model” is now in trouble.

There are of course several million issues here. I want to raise just a couple.

1. Avlon’s “independent nation” is strictly speaking a prolongation of the old system. Citizens are still grouping. They are in this case actually massing. They may even be making a single decision that makes them appear to run both left and right. (It would take some ethnography to find out if this is so).

This is to say that “independent nation” is not very independent. These people are merely “resplicing” the DNA of the political system. They have found a new logic that lets them choose “a” from one menu and “b” from another. In the process, they have constructed a new “solid body” political choice, and amassed, if Avlon is right, a new and very large political constituency.

2. The next question is this: Is this it? Is this as independent as the American voter ever going to get? Or is there a bigger development here waiting to happen? It might be that if individuals have courage and imagination enough to refuse the old “one choice” model, they may have courage and imagination enough to just keep going.

In this event, citizens would treat all political issues as a matrix and they would make choices from this matrix without regard to party lines, community groups, or the aggregating effects of any larger loyalty. They would, in other words, make every political choice discretely. Where they stood on military spending would tell us absolutely nothing about what they thought about school spending. Where they stood on the death penalty would have no predictive power about where they stood on the United Nations.

This matrix model is the real “independent nation.” Naturally, it strikes us as implausible that the political world could ever and utterly disaggregate in this way. Surely, we suppose, some of these decisions will continue to pool, to school, to run in packs… insert your metaphor for aggregation here. But it is technically possible that a real independent nation could establish itself.

You would have to know more about political science than I ever will to comment on whether this is a foreseeable future or not, but you don’t have to be a political philosopher to see what it means for representative democracy. It makes a hash of it. Representation can only make sense if my choice of Democratic or Republican (or in the Canadian case, NDP, Liberal and Conservative) sets in train a series of choices by my surrogate in the house with which I am likely to agree. In a matrix world, the correspondence between my representative’s choice and my choice will be only a little better than random.

Well, the obvious point to make here is that the old system of representative politics presumed a world that has now passed. We have the technology to poll and eventually poll we shall, issue by issue.

3) And this raises a third point, where these issues come back together. Howard Rheingold gives us a vision of “smart mobs” (and recent events have made this something more than a vision) in which the wishes and the will of the individual has everything to do with the group. He/she will be carried forward by a momentum that marshals suddenly and in many cases fleetingly. Sudden aggregations of opinion come and go, creating sudden group effects that exert tremendous gravitation effects before they disappear without a trace.

Now to play the science fiction card, this might open up the possibility of a political universe in which aggregations as substantial and thoroughgoing as “democrat” and “republican” could form in the dynamic field of political choice, but only for a very brief moment and the aggregations that followed might be altogether discontinuous, drawing on different issues, new cultural logics, an entirely different lens for parsing the cause for action and assembly. In this scenario, the group effect is back in, but it is so sudden and passing that it might as well be individual. It is, if you see what I mean, that discrete. Or to put this another way, the group effect no longer works, as it does now, as a gravitation field that organizes political discourse and gives it consistency and scale. Now the group effect is cause for dynamism and variety.

4) There are many things to think and rethink here, but I thought Dennis Miller might make a useful case in point for closing. First, he has moved apparently from liberal politics to a more conservative position. And this is a little striking. Comics, esp. stand up comics, used to be a domain that belonged to the liberal left (think Mort Saul). The rise of P.J. O’Rourke was at first hard to think. “Wait, you can’t be funny and conservative. Conservatives are supposed to be humorless blow-hards.” That Miller can be a conservative is evidence of a new ideological looseness, a cultural uncoupling, in our culture.

Miller appears to have taken up the liberal-conservative position that Avlon has in mind. So here too he gives us evidence of someone breaking with the old “forms” of politics and exercising a more independent cast of mind than the “lock step” one. Miller is, perhaps, supra-categorical. He encourages the idea that the existing categories cannot hold the new diversity, and perhaps even the larger, much more stunning possibility, that no set of categories can.

But, finally, Miller insists on taking a “My President, right or wrong” position that does not seem to leave him much room for the exercise of independence. This may be his “war footing” and it will be interesting to see what happens here when things are a little less perilous.

In sum, Avlon’s book suggests a reworking of the old system even as it gives some small indication of the possibility of its demise. But even if the group effect is now in decline, we might well see its quite spectacular return in the form of the “smart mob.”