The time has come, as the fall elections approach, for political “independents” to shed that self-identifying label.

“I’m an independent,” non-affiliated voters will likely say proudly, and this surely reflects a need we all share to think that we take positions rationally, unencumbered by predilections and personality. While this notion of free will, exercised in the voting booth, has surely been in some measure delusional all along, it holds up to scrutiny even less now. To be roughly equally disposed presently to vote Republican or Democrat lacks, shall we say, political clarity.

The polarity between the two major parties is starker than at any other time in our memory, including 1964, when the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, but had in its ranks liberals and moderates who didn’t question the legitimacy of — or seek, disguisedly, to dismantle — Social Security and the New Deal regulatory architecture, and who helped push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act that Goldwater opposed.

In their recent book, It’s Even Worse than It Looks, the authors, scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, cite a National Journal article by Ronald Brownstein, stating that “for the first time in modern history” the “most conservative Democrat” in each house of Congress is “slightly more liberal than the most liberal Republican.”

So is this a choice between two extremes, with both parties having drifted equally distant to the left and right respectively? Mann and Ornstein don’t think so. They write that the Republican Party “has become … ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, author of the book End this Depression Now!, put it more succinctly in a recent BBC “Hardtalk” interview, calling the Republican Party “stark-raving mad.”

But what about the Democrats? The conservative myth-makers would have us believe that the choice is between their traditional position and our President’s extremism. When Newt Gringrich, Ph.D. in history and a former college professor, exited the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination he called President Obama “The most radical leftist president in American history.”

The fact that the quote is Gingrich’s goes a long way to discrediting it. It is utter demagogic nonsense. In his Inaugural Address, President Obama said the following: “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”

This is what a liberal says, not a socialist. A “radical leftist” does not admiringly tout the wealth-generating, freedom-expanding capacity of capitalism and there is nothing that Obama has proposed that, in any fundamental sense, threatens the system of private property and private enterprise, or that seriously erodes the predominant value of conservatives — that being the “freedom” and “liberty” to amass personal wealth.

On a recent ABC Sunday talk show, conservative commentator George Will described the Democrats’ agenda in much more measured terms than Gingrich’s, calling it, dismissively, “capitalism without casualties.” Will, ideologically, expects casualties. But “capitalism without casualties” is not radical. Rather, it is a moderate, centrist-liberal goal, fully within the spirit of FDR’s “New Deal” and LBJ’s “Great Society.”

So, independents, there is a stark choice this November, created by the Republican Party’s qualitative leap to the right. The choice is between a centrist-liberal point of view — represented by the Democratic Party, whose adherents have already made the grand theoretical compromise between socialism on the left and laissez-faire capitalism on the right — and the extreme right position of the present Republican Party.

How anyone even mildly engaged in our politics can remain “independent” in the face of these trends is beyond comprehension.

Gregg Mumm, a resident of Oak Park since 1992, describes himself as a Democrat/liberal.

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