Long-term loyalty loses to free agency

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

On television, the Talking Heads have declared the official end of the rebellion. The coup d'etat was put down by the establishment on Super Tuesday. The dauphins have now been awarded their place on the thrones of their parties.

We're in a post-party depression, says one Talking Head. It's back to politics as usual says another. What, oh what will become of the independents? they ask each other on assorted cable channels. They talk about this minority of voters as if they were lost sheep in search of a shepherd. Where will they go, where will they find shelter?

But as an outsider to the land of the Talking Heads, I can't help protesting this image. The much-polled ``independents'' are no more a flock than they are a party.

Independent? The word itself carries dated connotations of a Western frontiersman riding through the wilderness, or Perot under the famous car hood. I prefer to give these voters a new name: free agents.

Free agents are the denizens of the new economy, the players up for grabs, the voters who have trouble with commitment, the Netizens always ready to move on to the next promising candidate as if he were a Web site.

In the primary season, free agents were the McCain liberals, the Bradley brigades. They were the voters who changed direction with each shift in the campaign, from Bob Jones to attack ads. They were the 40 percent of the McCain voters who told the exit polltakers they'd vote for Gore in November against Bush.

They were, in short, a minority of Super Tuesday voters, but the leading edge of a population permanently removed from party affiliation. Indeed from any affiliation.

We live increasingly in a world of free agents. I don't just mean sports, though that is a pretty good place to begin. These days, stars don't stick. They move from place to place as if their stadium were a virtual world and fans were attracted by excellence, not geography. The new prototype is Tiger Woods, forever on tour, a hero who needs no hometown.

In the workplace, the company man has become a free agent as well. A friend who describes herself as the last person in America to have worked for the same employer for 34 years, has a twentysomething son who has changed jobs four times and careers twice. Career counselors now warn us all to prepare our own resumes, be in charge of our own careers, stay ready to jump.

If loyalty is a liability in the workplace, brand loyalty is a fading reality in the marketplace. The older folks may stay with Crest but the younger generation is up for grabs. Our elders may have family doctors; our kids have a rotating cast of HMO M.D.s.

In e-commerce too, a customer doesn't build a relationship with a Web page. She points and clicks for the best deals. The dot-com companies that rise on a good deal may crash the moment the roving, unattached free agent consumer finds a better deal.

And in my home, I watch the Talking Heads on a television that once had three channels and now has a hundred. When one panelist annoys me and another goes to a commercial, I click away without a second thought.

What does this rise of the free-agent attitude mean for politics? Everything.

James Carville writes about ``Stickin','' about loyalty as a political virtue. But a free-agent citizenry is used to having more choices and making fewer compromises.

Free agents travel light, with little more than a mouse. They are inclined to search the ``web'' of candidates, attracted to one and then the other.

The biography of McCain, the experience of Gore, the intellect of Bradley, the promise of Bush. They look at candidates sometimes as if politics were a computer game of Dress Up Barbie and they should be able to create the perfect president out of all the available parts. But they move on at the first disappointment. Point and click.

The millennium fact is that parties have lost their brand-name luster and politicians have lost their brand-name loyalty. But it's also true that the political consumer/customer/Netizen no longer sees the value in making a lasting connection.

So we move into the next phase of presidential politics. The more free agents there are - call them fickle or call them volatile - the more unpredictable the races will become.

The Talking Heads tell us that the candidates have moved to the center. But these days, the center doesn't hold.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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