In a season marked by sour voters and bitter campaigns, independent candidates hold out the promise of sweet transcendence. South Dakota independent candidate Larry Pressler pledges to break up the “lobbyist-controlled spending and taxing cycle [and] poisonous partisan fights” if elected to the Senate. In Kansas, Senate hopeful Greg Orman styles himself as a “pragmatic, effective problem solver who knows how to bring people together to find common-sense solutions.” In Maine, independent Elliot Cutler stumps for governor with a “plan” which he says “needs to be smart and to stand on the facts. It needs to protect and to create opportunities for each Maine citizen to reach his or her greatest potential.” But what all these candidates are offering is closer to the political equivalent of empty calories. This is the politics of “none-of-the-above,” an alternative that is no more than a jumble of well-meaning clichés.

“Independent” wasn’t always a synonym for vapid. In the early decades of the last century, independent politicians played a far more serious and largely beneficial role. Stalwart “progressives,” they advocated open primaries instead of closed party caucuses, non-partisan elections for city government, replacing partisan hacks in the federal bureaucracy with dedicated civil servants, banning corporate spending on campaigns, and giving voters a chance to initiate their own laws or turn down ones passed by often corrupt state legislatures. Figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Fiorello La Guardia left their party, temporarily or for good, to speak out for ideas that were later converted into policy. “There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people,” TR told his followers in the independent new Progressive Party in 1912. “In the present day, the limitation … of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.”

Not everything such bygone independents did or tried to do lived up to their ambitions. Big businesses and other “special interests” learned how to hijack the making of ballot initiatives, spending millions on measures designed to boost their profits and power. “Good government” mayors sometimes governed in a bloodless fashion, emphasizing tax-cutting and efficient administration instead of the better housing and health protection which city dwellers badly needed. And, of course, the major parties adapted and endured—and passed laws on the state level that made it difficult for third parties to gain a foothold or to fuse, for any given election, with the Democrats or Republicans. But the pressure of principled independents and the friendly journalists who covered them did help create a more effective and more professional national state, which legitimated the idea that social programs should serve “the public interest” rather than just the followers of one big party or the other.

Could a similar outcome occur today? The widespread, if inchoate, desire certainly exists. “There is an Independent movement afoot in America and South Dakota—many people are unhappy with the direction our country is going,” declares Larry Pressler’s website. “There is hope: many authorities say that an increase in the number of independent Senators could change America.” Most voters say they are disgusted with partisanship, mistrust the President, and despise Congress. In a recent Gallup survey, 42 percent describe themselves as independents—the largest number ever polled. 

But if elected in normally Republican states, would Pressler or Orman unite with their fellow non-partisans in the upper house—the socialist Bernie Sanders and independent Angus King, a strong exponent for gun control and a skeptic about fracking—who represent states that nearly always vote blue?

The unlikelihood of this happening is due to the absence of any true “movement” to infuse the independent impulse with meaningful demands or a strategy to turn them into policies. There is no shortage of elite groups, like Third Way and the Peterson Foundation, that yearn to advance a “moderate” platform. Not to mention Michael Bloomberg, who is spending up to $25 million on TV ads to elect a handful of candidates from both parties whom, according to his spokesman, he deems “are open and actually inclined to work with people across the aisle.” Skillful at pleasing pundits and raising funds, these groups have no clue and little real interest in inspiring activists or voters. Unless that changes, today’s independent candidates will be able, at most, to nudge the discourse of the two parties a bit further toward some muddled middle than to become the prophets of a new era of reform.