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Interview with Charles Wheelan: Let’s Get More Independents in American Politics

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“You cited the race between Romney and Obama and that the Independents seemed to choose one or the other. My question for the political scientists would be: ‘Who was the Independent in that race?'”

On May 24th, 2018, Professor Charles Wheelan joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his commitment to centrist politics in the age of polarization. Professor Wheelan, who currently teaches at Dartmouth, is an economist and author, as well as the founder of Unite America, formerly-called the Centrist Project. The organization aims to bring more Independent candidates into the American political system. In this interview, Mr. Wheelan discusses his work with Unite America, possible solutions to growing polarization in the United States, and his steadfast belief that more and more Americans are looking for an alternative to a polarized two-party system.

Thank you for joining me. So to begin, I asked the libertarian economist Larry Reed this same question in an interview last month, and I’ll ask it to you as well. You ran for Congress in Illinois in 2009. There is some precedent for academics and economists seeking political office. Larry Reed, as I mentioned, is one. William F. Buckley was, of course, more a writer than an economist, but he ran for mayor of New York City. Eric Cantor was unseated in his primary challenge by an economist Dave Brat. What is there to be said for academics seeking political office? Is there a pattern we can expect?

I’d like to see more. I don’t know if it’s a pattern. The folks you described stretch back quite a ways. I lament actually the lack of involvement of public intellectuals in the political space. I think we see too little of it. The fact is that you can point to those folks in some ways, and they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I fear—as somebody who spends my days on a college campus but also does a lot of work on the political front—that our people of ideas are too divorced from the world of politics, and, conversely, the world of politics is too separated from the world of ideas.

You mentioned your political involvement, and you’re the founder of the organization Unite America. This was founded, I understand, following the publication of your book The Centrist Manifesto in 2013. How have the goals of the organization shifted from its founding to today? Polarization is arguably more pronounced now than in 2013, so your goals may have become all the more relevant with passing time.

It’s demonstrably more relevant. One of the sadly ironic things is that I finished the book in about 2012, and it came out in 2013. That was The Centrist Manifesto, and I was persuaded that we had hit bottom when the Simpson-Bowles budget reduction, budget deficit reduction process, collapsed. I thought, “Well that is a signal that our political system just isn’t working, and it probably can’t get much worse.” But, clearly, that was not bottom.

That problem, which you alluded to: the polarization which is not just disagreement. We’ve disagreed historically as a country since Adams and Jefferson disagreed. The problem is that the polarization has led to an inability to govern. We can’t reconcile these different views into some constructive path forward. That I think is worse than in the past, so that hasn’t changed. It’s gotten worse since I wrote the book, but the same problem exists. In the book, I describe creating a third party of the middle, actually, a political party. But we’ve decided for myriad legal and other reasons not to do that. Instead [we wanted] to create a movement that supports independent candidates of the center. But it’s still the same basic idea, which is that we need to somehow re-empower the political middle so that our government can work again.

I’m wondering if you have an explanation, or a favorite among the proposed explanations, for polarization. I remember John Boehner talking about more and more people getting their news from partisan outlets. We had an interview with Congressman Jason Altmire, the well-known centrist Democrat, talking about the role of closed primary systems in states like Pennsylvania, encouraging more ideologically extreme voters to come out. In North Carolina and Pennsylvania, people have been citing recent court rulings about gerrymandering as helpful steps towards combating polarization. Of these various explanations, do you find one particularly persuasive?

I think what’s happening is that they are all correct. And that’s what makes the situation so dangerous. None of those forces, by the way, with perhaps the exception of the courts reining in gerrymandering, are likely to move in the right direction. So I believe that the primaries contribute significantly. I think Congressman Altmire is right; primary voters are the most extreme. It actually interacts with gerrymandering, so if you create a district that is safely all Republican or all Democrats, your only likely challenger is somebody coming from the flank.

If you’re a Democrat from the left or if you’re Republican from the right, you protect that flank, which is a disincentive to work across the aisle. I think we’ve sorted ourselves residentially. You didn’t mention that. We’re picking our news, but we’re also living around people who look a lot like us and often share our views. So we’re in a bubble where we live, and then we turn on the T.V., and we’re still in the bubble, which wasn’t true necessarily in the past. Campaign finance is just an accelerant to all of this. How do you raise money? [You do it] by appealing to the most partisan folks in your own party. So sadly, I think all of these forces are moving us farther apart and making the political system more polarized. All the while, I don’t believe that the American electorate itself has become more polarized.

You mention the self-selecting of people in terms of where they live, and I recall seeing a recent Pew study suggesting that there is evidence that having friends from the other party makes you see people from the other part less “coldly.” I’m wondering if this is something your organization deals with, trying to not only influence things at the elite political level—but also encouraging people to get together with others, who might see the world differently. Would this cause us to see our opponents more as fellow people rather than just rivals?

That’s a great point. I don’t think frankly that we’ve done enough of that as an organization, in part because we’ve been focused on our candidates. There are other organizations that we’re loosely aligned with—such Living Room Conversations—that are trying to do this, and I do believe that is part of the solution. I would add that it’s kind of sad that we actually have to make an effort to do this: that in the course of our normal lives where we live, where we work, how we interact, that it’s not happening often enough. But I do think there’s a role because a lot of this is just empathy. It’s understanding why people on the other side of the aisle are thinking what they’re thinking, what their motivation is on these issues, what matters to them, what values they hold dear. And the more you understand those things, the more likely you are to find common ground.

This might be similar to how, at the international level, in the 1950s, President Eisenhower formed the organization People to People with the founding idea that: if you get to know people and see them as people, it’s harder to fight a war with them. Maybe on the more domestic front, if you get to know people who think differently, it’s harder to, as the Pew study put it, see them “coldly.”

If you look at other deeply divided places, whether it’s Northern Ireland with the Catholics and Protestants, whether it’s in the Middle East with Israelis and Palestinians, they will often tell you when you go there—because I’ve taken students to those conflict areas—how infrequently they interact with the people who are perceived to be their enemy. They’ll also tell you, when they do have these encounters, they often change their minds about the nature of the conflict. They don’t necessarily surrender their position, but they’re more amenable to what the other side might think.

One other telling metric I want to ask you about—when it comes to the natural impediment of the effort to bridge the divide—is this analogy of these red and blue tinted glasses. If I’m a Republican, I see the world through these red glasses. If I’m a Democrats, I’m looking out from behind through blue ones. And one of the most telling figures is the number of strong Democrats, who cite the inflation rate as higher under Reagan than Carter. So these partisan biases can help distort how we see hard facts, figures, and numbers. Is there anything we can do about encouraging people to step out from behind this red or blue tinted glass, if you go with my analogy a little bit?

I think it’s a really important point. I don’t have a great answer for it, but I do subscribe to this notion that we cannot have our own set of facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said famously, “You’re entitled to your opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” And increasingly, people are using their own facts, and sometimes they’re just demonstrably wrong. Or they’re looking at it in a way that’s totally misleading. I think both sides, for those folks who are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, a first step has got to be a pledge to be intellectually honest.

This means saying, “I’m going to do my very best to diagnose the situation, whether it’s inflation, whether it’s melting polar ice caps, whether it’s the unemployment rate, what have you. I’m going to do my very best to try and come up with an intellectually honest measure of what’s going on here.” I’ll give you an example; the Republicans lately—I don’t know if the Democrats have joined them—have been very hostile towards the Congressional Budget Office, particularly after the tax deal because the Congressional Budget Office rated it and said, “Okay. It’s going to increase the deficit.”

The Republicans didn’t like that. The Congressional Budget Office is a very important, nonpartisan, well-respected institution. They are the ones who come up with the numbers. They’re the ones who told the Obama administration, “Hey, if you do the Affordable Care Act, there are going to be a whole bunch of people who are going to leave the workforce because they no longer need to keep working for the insurance. That’s just something you’ve got to accept.” They’re the ones who told the Republicans, “These tax cuts are not going to pay for themselves.” As a first step, I would say any assaults on the Congressional Budget Office, or other institutions like that that have historically provided us with this common set of facts, should not be tolerated.

I want to ask you about what some political scientists call “the myth of the independent voter.” As the reasoning goes, a lot of people like to say that they’re independent because perhaps it’s good to think of yourself as intellectually-autonomous and such. But, in reality, a lot of people “lean” towards a particular party and regularly vote that way. In the case of 2012, for example, 90% of Democratic-leaning “Independents” supported President Obama, while 70% percent of their Republican-leaning counterparts backed Governor Romney. I’m wondering if you think there is weight to that claim: that people might like to call themselves “Independents,” but when they get to the ballot box, they potentially act like partisans.

I think that is one of the most asinine things that political scientists say, and they say a lot of asinine things. You cited the race between Romney and Obama and that the Independents seemed to choose one or the other. My question for the political scientists would be: “Who was the Independent in that race?”

So it’s like saying the majority of Americans say they love lobster. And yet when they go through a buffet, they take chicken or steak. Well, that’s because there was no lobster in the buffet. In a system where Independents are systematically kept off the ballot, find it hard to raise money, hard to campaign, can’t get in the presidential debates, the two parties have systematically made the rules to advantage themselves. In most races, there is not a credible Independent candidate. So then to say that people who describe themselves as “Independent” vote for the Republican or Democrat instead, is simply not a refutation of the fact that these people might prefer a strong candidate who is not a self-declared Republican or Democrat.

Do you think that this rumored potential fusion ticket between Governor Kasich and Governor Hickenlooper would be a step in the right direction?

Maybe. The problem is that the presidency is not the place I would start because the Electoral College really complicates things. If you give us a three-way race for the presidential election, it’s unlikely that any of them will get a majority of the electoral votes. Therefore, it goes to the House, where there are no independents that I know of right now, so it’s unlikely even if a fusion ticket were to win the popular vote. But without the majority of electoral votes, it is unlikely that the House would then pick them as president [and vice president]. So, I much prefer, for example, if there were a fusion ticket in Alaska for governor, where Bill Walker, who was an Independent, teamed up with a Democrat as his lieutenant governor, and they won. And that’s in a deep red state. So I think we tend to look to the presidency for fixes when in fact it’s much easier to elect independents to the Senate because there’s no gerrymandering or gubernatorial races. The presidency may be a step too far at this point.

But your organization would rather target something like governorships, federal House or Senate races, rather than at the level of the state legislature?

We’re doing both, actually. The book originally laid out the idea of electing Senators because we have the fulcrum strategy, which is that if you have just two or three U.S. Senators who are independents, and the rest the Senate is divided, say 49 Republicans and 48 Democrats, those three independents would be the fulcrum. They would dictate who is the majority leader in the Senate. They could dictate the rules of the Senate. They would be the power brokers, kind of like Anthony Kennedy has been in the Supreme Court: that swing vote. We’re doing the same thing at the state level because there are a number of state legislatures that are as closely divided as the U.S. Senate. So just electing a couple of Independents would use that fulcrum at the state level too. So we’re working on state legislative races. We’re working on statewide races: governors and senators. We are not at present working on anything at the presidential level.

We do have two Independents at the Senate: Angus King from Maine and Bernie Sanders from Vermont. Are they truly independent, or are they acting more like partisans?

A little bit of both. So just to do the math: about 42-43% of Americans say they’re Independent. My supposition is that they’re a bell curve. Some will lean right, some lean left, but they’re probably conservative across the spectrum. So just as a matter of math, we should probably have 42 or 43 Independent Senators in the United States Senate. We don’t, so right away, there’s some mismatch between what people say they want, and what they’re getting. I think it’s systemic. I would describe Bernie Sanders as not what we’re talking about. He describes himself as a socialist, left of the Democrats on many issues. We’re typically talking about centrist Independents. Angus King probably is. He has a voting record that doesn’t align strictly to the Democrats, but he has chosen to caucus with the Democrats. And he really hasn’t made himself a voice of Independent politicians.

But he is more centrist than most Democrats and could be a bridge to the Republicans. We believe that if there were a couple more centrist Independents, then Angus King might choose to caucus with them instead and would feel more empowered as an Independent. So I would say Angus King is close to what we’re talking about, and Bernie Sanders is not.

To switch gears for my last question, I wanted to ask you about a point from your book Naked Economics, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed. One point that stuck with me was this idea of adverse selection, and you brought it up in the context of the Bill Clinton Hope Scholarships. Could you talk a little bit about that idea and if there are other more contemporary examples of this phenomenon in government today?

It’s the idea that when you have some kind of voluntary transaction, and one party knows more than the other. By choosing to enter into this agreement, or not entering into this agreement, you can kind of doom the institution. That’s a long-winded way of saying that in the case of the HOPE Scholarships, Clinton had proposed that: “Look, college loans are really expensive and onerous. How about if people can choose to repay their loans with a percentage of their future income? We’re not going to make everybody do this, but, if you want, you can choose this instead of the regular way where you just pay back the loan with interest.”

The adverse selection comes in because people have some idea, not perfect, but some idea of how much money they’re likely to make out of graduation because they know what their interests are. You have a pretty good idea whether you want to be a hedge fund manager or a nurse. As a result, the people who expect their future earnings to be lower than average, people who want to be educators, for example, or even professors, are going to opt for this part of the plan where they pay back a percentage of their income. People who expect huge incomes are going to say, “No, I just want to pay back the loan with interest. I don’t want someone taking one percent of my billion dollars.” As a result, you’re going to get a very skewed pool of people, who sign up for this, and it’s possible, or even likely, that the repayments will not be sufficient enough to keep the program going.

How similar is this to a certain criticism levied against Obamacare about younger people opting out?

Well, it’s highly relevant, but it’s not fair to criticize Obama [on these grounds] because the mandate was designed to prevent this. In the absence of the mandate, then people don’t sign up. Adverse selection is crucial to understanding health insurance. If you allow people to buy insurance—and do not exclude people with pre-existing conditions and offer them the same rate as everybody else—you guarantee people insurance when you want to buy it, without higher rates for people who are already sick. Then you’re going to have a huge adverse selection problem in that the only people who buy insurance are those who get sick.

Imagine that you’ve got a preexisting condition: I can’t keep you out of my insurance pool, so the only logical time to buy insurance is after you’ve been hit by a car on your bicycle. In the ambulance, you call Aetna and say, “Hey, I really need insurance.” And they, by law, can’t turn you down. This was never too well-explained, but it’s the reason there was a mandate. And this is true of both Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts and later Obamacare. The mandate is to overcome that problem, so you’ve got to buy insurance while you’re healthy. Then the pool doesn’t become so overly skewed towards people who are already sick or are otherwise too expensive to care for. Now the criticism of Obamacare that probably is legitimate is that there wasn’t a sufficient penalty if you didn’t buy insurance, so many young people opted instead just to pay the penalty. Then they could just buy insurance when they needed it.

Professor Wheelan, thank you for your time today.

Thank you.


Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.