Cohen: What about the moderates?


Julia Cohen, Columnist

In 2012, I worked in the New York headquarters of Organizing for America, the Democratic community-organizing group tasked with re-electing president Barack Obama. Just a year later, I called my hippie-liberal mother in tears telling her that I was a Republican and I felt as if my whole life had been a lie. In 2014, I met Rick Santorum and unloaded the history of my political views and identity crisis to the 56-year-old former senator whom I had only seen before on television.

“I want to be a good Republican,” I said. “I want to be able to go into politics and fight for strong foreign policy and lower taxes, but I think that marriage builds strong families no matter what gender you chose to spend your life with.”  He respectfully — or as respectfully as a man whose homophobia has its own Wikipedia page — disagreed with my last statement, but what he said next is what really got me thinking about my place in politics: “You seem like a smart, passionate girl,” he said. “But it’s hard to get your name in a party when you disagree with one of its central values.”

Maybe in the future, same-sex marriage won’t be a defining feature of the Republican Party, but beyond the specifics, Santorum brought up a good point. The two-party system dominates federal politics, and if you’re straddling red and blue, there aren’t many paths to the Capitol building.

The United States has a partisan-industrial complex, and it keeps a lot of intelligent people out of politics. Political consulting firms can be seen on every corner in DC, and they all have a partisan undertone. There is a lot of money to be made in a firm that specializes in getting members of a certain party elected. One liberal firm, Waterfront Strategies, made $42 million in the 2014 election cycle. This specialization delivers skills, connections and — most importantly — results to political candidates. Even if image does not affect what policies are passed once a candidate is actually in office, it does influence the perception of the American people. Democrats are painted as bottom-up success stories coming back to defend where they came from. Republicans are wholesome family men and women who are living the American Dream, and they want you to as well.

If independent candidates were to run for office, this system falls apart. The hard-and-fast philosophies of whom to campaign to based on demographic-party relationships would fall apart. This isn’t to say that political consulting would become obsolete, but its methods would change. Such a huge change is something that already-established multi-million-dollar firms are not likely to embrace.

It’s not in the interest of the groups that support party politics to give funding and publicity to independent candidates, and without the financial backing these candidates have no chance at winning an election. As a result, a lot of qualified people are kept out of office.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 39 percent of Americans consider themselves independents. I do not know where the future of politics for moderates, independents, libertarians and other political oddities lies. Maybe if someone else finds a senator to tell his or her life story, we’ll be closer to an answer. In my brief meltdown to Santorum, he mentioned a lot of people who did not fit into a party found their places studying specific issues behind the scenes. This makes sense, and it definitely gives people outlets to create meaningful changes, but it can never be the same as voting on the Senate or House floor.

Julia Cohen is a SESP sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].