Politically, I self-describe as a “Radical Independent.” This means, in brief, that I’m skeptical of parties, and that I don’t believe in any political spectrum or well-ordered political taxonomy. What my radical independence doesn’t mean, in the slightest, is that I’m a centrist. Centrism, for one, doesn’t eschew the political spectrum. Quite the opposite. Centrism embraces the spectrum more than any other affiliation; it gives centrism its name, its coherence, and even its brocade of reasonableness. The Radical Independent believes that a political spectrum is either incoherent or has a misleading or manufactured coherence. A few spectrums loom in modern political life, but most dominant is the one running from the Left to the Right. I understand this to be a vestige of the French Revolution, representing the seating arrangements of the National Assembly, with revolutionaries sitting to the left of the president and monarchists to his right. Already, here, I’m astonished that the appellations of 18th century political turmoil— disputed even at that time— are thought to fit the contemporary political landscape so adequately. The term survived into the 19th century of course but really hit a highwater mark in the 20th, during which it was considered perfectly reasonable that, as members of the Left or the Right, everyone should enlist as apologists for one of two globally competing forms of domination. The political spectrum purports to “display” the coordinates of political ideology. In reality, these coordinate systems are themselves articles of ideology, images of the political imagination mired in the trenches of political expediency.
In the latter half of the 20th century, scientists discovered more political dimensions, and expanded the coordinate system to two or three crossing axes. Above is the Nolan Chart. In this updated version, rather than forcing you to sit along a line going from Left to Right, the Nolan Chart opens into a plane formed by the measure of “social freedom” sitting perpendicular to “economic freedom.” What shouldn’t surprise you is that the Nolan Chart was drafted by one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, David Nolan, in 1971. Its purpose is clear. Readers follow the infographic with their fingers, well aware that “freedom” is a social good. Other political positions, they hope to make obvious, will suffer some admixture of unfreedom. But Libertarians will make no such bargain: they are defenders, heralds, maximizers of Freedom. It’s all there in the graph. Some charts helpfully include notches marking off fifty or seventy “units” of social or economic freedom. What is this even supposed to mean? “More” or “less” social or economic freedom? Freedom for and from whom? By what means? Under what conditions? Most any new law, policy, or economic arrangement will grant powers and freedoms to some, and in particular ways, as they curtail powers and freedoms of others, in particular ways, usually unamenable to quantification. And pace the libertarian worldview, the State is certainly not the only entity capable of curtailing liberty. But the success of any political phraseology is in the highlighting. Graphics like the Nolan Chart accomplish this with deceptive simplicity: politics should not be that easily visualized.
These charts are often defended as doxagraphical, mere maps of political leanings or doxa. In polls and questionnaires, respondents can usually “find themselves” on the political coordinate system without too much confusion. But such maps, along with the polls, questionnaires, and headlines that supply them, are not merely reports of but equally interventions in the political process. They create as much as discover political opinion. In itself, this is not a bad thing: politics is not a descriptive endeavor. In fact, it’s about as prescriptive as an endeavor can get. The problem comes with the pretense of description, that forges political identities in bad faith, and usually via a tug-of-war of political partisanship that pushes these identities as one term within a political binary. More or less. For or against. Us or them. It’s bad enough that political distinctions devolve so easily into sports teams (and political analysis into ESPN), but the structural pressures of steep political competition further collapse them into two all-conscripting megateams, locked in a feud falsely advertised as a collision of principles.
For example, the popular discourse of the United States often figures the Left-Right coordinate system around the question of the wisest mixture of public and private sector, again placed in strictly Manichean terms. Popularly, one half worries about the size of the private sector; the other half, of the public sector. The question usually revolves around “how much” as if the public and private sector were ingredients in a cake, with each ingredient neutralizing the other. When what we should be after is a good public sector and a good private sector, according to highly qualitative and contestable evaluations. Likewise, these are not necessarily adversarial forces summing to zero. The size of the private sector is not necessarily inversely proportional to the size of the public sector. In fact, historically, they are often directly proportional, hand in hand, with one’s growth dependent on the other, and any successful system of checks and balances requiring great public engagement and vigilance. We could have Big Government and Big Business— together at the same time— and it could be a civil nightmare or a model society, depending on whether that government is responsive to the demands of its citizens and whether business fulfills its productive and distributive roles to society. We could have any other combo— Big Gov-Small Biz, Big Biz-Small Gov, Small Gov-Small Biz— each with its own dystopian and utopian variants. You can imagine an easygoing Micronesian island society and a contemporary North African anarchy with the same quantities but very different qualities of governance and economic life.
Even if you’ve decided “how much” state and industry you’d like to order from the menu, you’ve yet to articulate any thing close to a political vision, especially if your position is anywhere near as ahistorical as the Nolan chart. If it can be called a position, it’s a position without platform, and certainly without political imagination. Politics many times forms around wedge issues that require an aye versus nay, and an ensuing agon that simply budges our institutions in one direction or another. In so far as real political progress can be made, however, and in so far as our political leaders have a role beyond strict statistical representation of their constituencies, it is through the political imagination that can wholly reconfigure conflict away from stalemates, even staler political scripts, and the constitution of political subjecthood through the friend-enemy distinction. This does not always take the form of compromise, which assumes that we’re meeting in the middle and that there is a middle to begin with: that we’re just averaging our political positions. It does not have to take the form of a greyish and capitulating Third Way. Instead, the political imagination reconfigures those positions and coordinate systems altogether, and the way it does so marks the difference between progress and barbarism.
Political taxonomies are not the same as parties. The public tends to be slightly more nominalist about parties, though I have definitely heard and read people suffering from a kind of institutional realism with regards to parties— or what has been described as “particratic thinking.” I hear Republicans refer to themselves with a straightface as the “Party of Lincoln,” despite being the home of all Confederates and hardened anti-federal sic semper tyrannis sentiments. I read commentary decrying people for not being “real Democrats” when what they really mean is diverging from the New Democrats of the last quarter century. However, on the whole, I’d like to believe the public understands— or could understand— parties for what they are: largely the symptom of elections, necessary expediencies for fundraising and wide coalition-building, only incidentally and temporarily correlating with anything like a political philosophy. However, getting beyond parties is not enough. We inflict nearly as much damage when we look upon relatively lasting attitudes, such as “liberalism” and “conservatism,” as positions rather than ongoing and highly heterogeneous conversations. Our beliefs on the death penalty do not imply our beliefs on progressive taxation, and vice versa. Our metaphysical belief in God does not necessarily imply our attitude toward corporate malfeasance, and vice versa. The thought that there could be some nameable and widespread worldview, like “conservatism” that logically determines our attitudes on abortion, toll roads, deforestation, and ISIS is laughable yet oddly deathless in our national conversations. At best, “conservatism” could be conceived of as an ideological arena where the likes of Burke, Buckley, Filmer, Le Pen, Theresa May, Rumsfeld, Rove, Trump, Ron Paul, the Koch Brothers, Jerry Falwell, Francisco Franco, and countless others, compete for the mantle. Only when we move to strains within (Christian traditionalism, nativism, market fundamentalism, neoconservative foreign policy, love of hierarchy and authority, suspicion of federal powers) or better yet to specific topics (estate taxes, the South China Sea, homosexuality, judicial review) do we approach anything like coherence. The same is true, only twice as bad, when it comes to “liberalism.”
A Radical Independent, like me, wants line-item veto on their own political philosophy. This may be a personality thing. I can’t agree with any political group for more than a few sentences in a row, and I am on nobody’s team, which is why I’m more comfortable with the idea of concurrence than either solidarity or consensus. Solidarity is supposed to counter the social atomization that the powerful few use against the greater public, and I get that. However, there comes a point at which solidarity sacrifices too much to organizational energy or group self-definition, or is merely the symptom of politics forced into a zero-sum sport rather than dialogue and negotiation directed toward the public good. Here, concurrence breaks the ice by allowing heterogeneous belief formation around each topic, through a welcome diversity of justifications. In the same turn, it eats away at the calcified bonds holding together political megateams, exposes their inner contradictions, and permits a healthier reconfiguration by the political imagination. Again, not to find a middle or third way, free of contention, but by moving the contention into a coherent and actionable space, less governed by totalizing identities and political totems. Radical independence is “radical” precisely in its aversion to such limits upon the political imagination.