A little while ago, aided by the rise of new enabling platforms like WordPress and Substack, I declared myself a sovereign writer: I write what I want, when I want, how I want. To all of my casual and careful readers I’ve shared why I write. The interaction between the author and the reader is thrilling, and over time it helps shape what I write and how I write it, but final editorial decisions will always remain mine as a sovereign writer. (I worked on “Maggie’s Farm” for 13 years and it was useful, but as Hemingway used to say, newspapers can teach you a lot as long as you get out before they ruin you.)
Today, after reading this provocative and disturbing piece by Nate Cohn on the rise of sectarianism in the U.S., I’m troubled. For as long as I remember, certainly since 1984, when I covered the Democratic Convention in San Francisco and saw the machine up close, I’ve identified as an Independent politically. I once stood between Presidents Clinton and Bush (43) for a picture and remarked, “I voted for both of you. Twice.” Which is true. But being Independent is precariously becoming like a third political party, or at least that place where you categorize people who don’t fall into the D or R columns; in other words, a label with some wiggle room.
I think it’s time for something more radical: the rise of the sovereign voter. When, in the course of human events (to borrow a phrase) it becomes necessary to reject political tropes and platitudes, the sovereign voter rises up, enthusiastically declaring the following beliefs:
1. We are beholden to no political party or political ideology.
2. We reject blind party allegiance on either side and reject blanket moral condemnations of party affiliation on either side.
3. We support ideas, not people.
4. We lean toward solutions.
5. We take responsibility for forming our own ideas based on the best assessment of the data; we will not allow other people to think for us.
6. We honor the sacred declaration of Lincoln as the country careened into a Civil War: “We are not enemies, but friends.”
7. As friends, we will always respect an individual’s right to opposing points of view.
8. We operate on the assumption that no matter who we are or where we live, we all want the same things: happiness, security and prosperity.
9. Finding and preserving the “radical center,” the place where compromise and comity coexist, is our North Star.
10. Personal responsibility, trust and respect are sacrosanct.
It’s not a big leap to become a sovereign voter. It’s built on American common sense and pragmatism; a healthy skepticism of entrenched power; and above all the Holy Grail of individual liberty. The biggest barrier to the sovereign voter today is the loud, strident, incessant cacophony of the Political-Media Complex. Eisenhower warned America about the rise of the Military-Industrial Complex in 1961. That rough beast has today slouched into the Political-Media Complex, which clear-cuts any attempts at rational, respectful dialogue. As Hemingway noted — in a slightly different context — if you give in to it, it will ruin you.
This is our challenge today as sovereign voters — to consume all the information we need but to be mindful of the information we’re consuming; to occasionally dive deeper than a headline, chyron, or breaking news bulletin and study a topic deeply and thoroughly; to beware of the weightless bloviation of so-called pundits and their “passionate intensity,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats. The Political-Media Complex runs on impulse and emotion that appeal to base instincts; the sovereign voter leans into our better angels. We live in the real world, so cutting off the Political-Media Complex would be like denying oxygen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t see it for what it is.
This, essentially, is the work of true democracy. Democracy is not passive. It’s not a spectator sport, nor for the faint-of-heart. It requires engagement, deliberation and respect, the antidotes to sectarianism. Democracy is regenerative and replenishing; sectarianism is a self-devouring organism. The sovereign voter sees this distinction with utter clarity and gladly accepts the task at hand — to intentionally engage in realizing the fundamental vision of America, as relevant and vibrant today as it was in 1776 — “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one.