While last month Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania showed our two-party system the power one individual can have by switching his allegiance from Republican to Democrat, the system struck back last week when Democrats decided that Specter would not get to keep all of the trappings of seniority he had accumulated over the years.
Why? Because just as he did as a Republican, Specter showed a little independence.
Sen. Specter no longer felt comfortable in the Republican Party. As one of the party’s more moderate members, he was unlikely to win his upcoming primary. With no ideological or political reason to stay in the party, he left. What is unfortunate about his situation was that he felt the need to align with the Democratic Party and not simply declare himself Independent. Because, while in many ways Specter was no longer a Republican, he's not really a Democrat either.
That much was clear when, after his party switch, he revealed that he still held hope that his moderate Republican friend Sen. Norm Coleman would somehow overturn his general election loss. Specter apologized for his faux pas by offering that he had "forgotten what team he was on."
Indeed, he had. Specter had subconsciously assumed that as a statesman of long standing, he was bigger than the party system. Of course, now more than ever, the party system seems quite insistent on showing us that no one man is above the system.
True political independence, whether nominally inside a party or not, seems to be a commodity of declining value. Even as more Americans and Tennesseans say they identify with neither party, parties themselves have become more partisan, demanding lockstep loyalty from their members.
Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in Tennessee. Tennessee has traditionally had very independent politics. While true elected Independents are rare, our majority parties have long shown an ability to handle dissent within their ranks. In Tennessee, we have had very conservative Democrats and very moderate Republicans. Members of each party could work with and even support each other and be respected for doing so. Not so much anymore.
One can hardly observe Arlen Specter's recent maneuvering between the parties and not be reminded of Tennessee's recent victims of partisanship.
Sen. Mike Williams, a veteran Republican member of the legislature, saw his party bonafides questioned after he showed some personal loyalty to Speaker John Wilder by casting his Speaker's vote for the elder statesman. Subsequently alienated from the Republican Party even after another vote for Speaker in which he voted for the GOP nominee, Williams declared himself an independent in 2007. But without a party machinery explicitly behind him, he lost to his former party's nominee, Mike Faulk.
Williams may have 'grown' a bit in office, as they say, but he was not a fundamentally different politician than when he had an "R" next to name. But because he bucked the party, he was boxed out. Mike Williams proved that a man without a party was, very quickly, a man without an office.
Same goes for former Sen. Rosalind Kurita. The state Senator from Clarksville never explicitly declared her independence from the Democratic party, but after her vote for Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey in 2007, she may as well have. For her one vote of conscience, Kurita was rewarded with a primary opponent who was installed as the nominee even after losing an election. Kurita's principles and polices had not changed but because she did not fall into line either party, she found herself in the middle and she paid the price for it.
It will be interesting to see how our two-party system deals with the state's most recent defiant one, Speaker Kent Williams. Seeing Republican House Leader Jason Mumpower as too partisan, Williams decided to collude with members of the opposition party to make himself Speaker instead of Mumpower. Now, very much like Kurita and Williams, he stands as a man without a party. The Republicans don't want him but he's not exactly a Democrat either. He is an independent, de facto or de jure, and recent Tennessee political history has not been kind to politicians like him.
A Tennessee electorate as independent as it claims to be should be holding up politicians who challenge and buck the party system as heroes. Instead, the party system triumphs time and again despite our proclivities, forcing future potential independents to learn an unhealthy lesson: Don't challenge the system. If you intend to serve, you must serve one master, Republican or Democrat. There is no halfway.
Now, if that's the lesson we as voters are teaching our politicians, sooner or later we must stop complaining and admit that the problem with our politics is not that our politicians are not responsive but that we ourselves are communicating the wrong message.