I haven’t blogged in months, because I haven’t quite known what to say.
In May 2016, I wrote a pretty radical piece calling for the formation of a new political party in the wake of the Trump candidacy (now presidency). I had several follow-ups throughout the year, encouraging voters in “safe” states to vote for third-party candidates and talking about the early goings of the new party I happened to join, the American Solidarity Party — among other things. I received quite a lot of kind and supportive mail from readers, many of whom indicated that you were ready to pick up a flag and follow me. Thank you for that.
And yet, while American politics are somehow even more obviously dysfunctional than they were this time last year, it’s obvious to everyone that the viable New Party I called for and predicted has not actually emerged. The Republicans and Democrats are still the only game in town, and (unless somebody with a lot of money has a BIG trick up his sleeve) they’ll still be the only viable parties on Election Day 2018. I felt I couldn’t continue this blog until I had come to grips with that. I owed some explanation to all of you who supported me.
So what happened?
Back in the original post, I listed nine things that needed to happen in order for a new party to emerge. Let’s go through those items, one-by-one, to see why it didn’t:
1. A new party must draw sizable numbers of voters from both existing political parties.
I was counting on anti-Trump Republicans coming together with blue-collar Democrats to form a new coalition that can draw votes from both sides and thus avoid playing the spoiler. I said last year that there’s enormous potential for a coalition like this, and that’s held up better than anything else I said in that post.
Although polls report Republicans still have high approval ratings for Donald Trump, what the polls are underemphasizing is that the number of Republicans has fallen rapidly in the Trump Era. Trump isn’t keeping the loyalty of Republican voters; his odious behavior is driving out Republican voters by the truckload. This allows his polling numbers “among Republicans” to stay high: practically the only people still self-identifying as Republicans in polls are Trump loyalists or converts.
Meanwhile, Democrats are riven by internal conflicts about whether pro-lifers are allowed to be Democrats. They simply ignore the fact that more than 30% of Democratic voters want to impose severe restrictions on abortion, while more modest restrictions like ending partial-birth abortion are popular even among the more liberal wing.
So there are a lot of people out there who might be willing to join a new coalition. But they haven’t been activated, because…
2. A new party starts at the grassroots.
The Republican Party was born when the most active voters in the Whigs and the Democrats reached a breaking point and stormed out. The 1850s were, in many ways, a more democratic time (also, not coincidentally, a more republican time). More Americans were more engaged in politics and more willing to join drastic political upheavals. Any new party today is bound to face more inertia than the politically active antebellum generation did.
But we don’t seem to be dealing with mere inertia here. I think the word is ennervation. Abolitionist Whigs in 1854 demanded their party change or die. Conservative Republicans in 2017 have asked their party politely to change and more or less gone along with it when it didn’t. I cannot count the number of friends I have who opposed Trump with every fiber of their being during the primary, cast a vote for him only as a desperate last resort to stop the even-more-nightmarish Clinton presidency… and yet now defend Trump on everything from North Korea to James Comey.
I am not one of these progressives who think the only way to join #TheResistance is to oppose absolutely everything Trump does simply because it’s Trump doing it. But I also don’t think that the President’s dishonesty, open misogyny, recklessness, and inconstancy can be casually chalked up to “all politicians are imperfect, so why worry about it?”
Whether or not you personally agree or disagree with me, most of the people I was counting on to join the new coalition thought the very same thing… at least until Trump actually won. Now the people I was counting on to storm out of the party are, by and large, serving as President Trump’s Facebook Defense Counsel in the matter of Russia v. United States Election Integrity. Yes, I strongly agree that Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court saved this country, and deserves our highest praise. Gorsuch covers a multitude of Trump’s sins… but not those of the Republican Party that vomited him up.
The few activists who did leave in protest don’t seem to be enough to sustain a movement. Many others who dropped out simply became too dispirited to continue operating in politics at all. No surprise, after watching so many friends get aboard the Trump Train. Which makes it really problematic when we come to…
3. A new party needs major support from existing elites.
You think Paul Ryan doesn’t stay up late at night dreaming of giving Donald Trump the finger and storming off to form a new low-tax “compassionate conservative” party with Ryan reinventing himself as a more budget-conscious George W. Bush? You think T. Boone Pickens isn’t pining for the dreams of a lost Jeb!, while Mitt Romney wonders what Trump had that he didn’t? Of course they’d love to cut loose the Trump rump.
But they can’t. The boldest anti-Trump Republican in Congress, Sen. Ben Sasse, was extremely critical of Trump throughout the campaign, often in downright unfriendly terms. Now Trump is President, and elements of the Nebraska GOP have threatened Sasse with a primary challenge if he doesn’t cool his jets and support the Republican President. He and others have gotten the message. Ted Cruz walked back his non-endorsement of Trump and now works with Trump as productively as he can. Politicians are basically crowd-surfers, trying to ride popular sentiment to keep them off the ground. Since the grassroots haven’t formed a good conservative anti-Trump mob, any politician who jumps in that direction will break his neck. I said in my piece that a new party would need support from a Ryan or a Sasse within 12 months to survive, but neither Ryan nor Sasse are politically suicidal.
This seems to be true all the way down the ranks.
When I was a Republican, I served in some very low-ranking positions, the elbow-grease jobs you work in for years before the party trusts you with anything policy-related. I was a precinct vice-chair, a precinct chair, and a member of a local GOP “rebranding” committee after the 2012 defeat. In other words, I was a nobody, slowly learning the actual craft of politics from the kind veterans who took me under their wing.
Then I defected to the American Solidarity Party of Minnesota. I have been there for nearly a year now, and I remain the highest-ranking defection from either current political party. They made me statewide Secretary, a position I hoped would be temporary once we got actual experienced people in the door… but it looks now like I’m serving out my full two-year term.
That dog just won’t hunt. My modest experience with Robert’s Rules is nice, but we need organizers, pamphleters, door-knockers, event planners, web designers, experienced parliamentarians, committeemen, lawyers, bureaucrats. We need people who know how to recruit candidates because they’ve done it before. We need people who’ve raised a million dollars for the Republicans (or the Democrats) and have the connections to help us do the same.
Otherwise, we’re not a political party. We’re a debating society with delusions of grandeur.
4. The new party must be animated by a massively appealing central issue (or two) which the two existing major parties have given short shrift.
I think there are still one or two pretty key issues that are popular enough to rally an American coalition around them: Americans love the social safety net and Americans love the unborn. Stick ’em together, win elections. But this isn’t happening. Could be because of the failures I described above. Or it could be because these issues aren’t as appealing as I’ve argued. (My friend David Riehm argued the latter in these pages a few months ago.)
5. The new party must remain flexible on most everything other than its central issues.
One of the things I’ve learned in my months as Treasurer of the American Solidarity Party of Minnesota is that people who are new to politics love platforms. Winning elections is hard, but writing a platform is easy. Politicians are always flawed, but a platform can be chiseled and sanded to glittering perfection. Legislation is always a painful compromise, but a platform can be a bold and comprehensive vision of a new future that uplifts the spirits of everybody in the party.
The problem is that those “comprehensive” platforms alienate everybody outside the party. You can often gather together people from across party lines who agree on four or five issues and are willing to compromise on two or three more… but the American Solidarity Party’s ridiculous new platform has 149 separate bullet points in it, demanding everything from a higher minimum wage to changing the way every American votes to demanding greater “input of indigenous populations in land-use deliberations.” The only people who support this entire platform are already paid-up members of the American Solidarity Party. You can afford to do that when you’re a behemoth like the Republican Party with tens of millions of members across every state–voters don’t have much choice but to pick the least painful of the two major parties, so they do–but when there’s only a few hundred of you, a comprehensive platform is a good way to make uncommitted voters (and wealthy donors) look elsewhere.
And yet, this was not a close vote. Despite the best efforts of myself and others, the ASP’s new platform passed in online convention with something like 95% support.
Anyone with even a tiny amount of experience in actual electoral politics knows that platforms are inert hot air at best, dangerous minefields at worst, and that no actual politician in America today pays any attention to his party’s platform. Insiders deploy the platform and the platform committee strategically to suck up the energy of rubes and newbies who they want kept away from the levers of real power.
But, when the most experienced political operative in your organization is the ex-vice chair of a non-competitive precinct in a state of the opposite color, nobody recognizes that. They go ahead and suck up all their own energy producing a document that can only hurt the party. Mine is not the only nascent party that has killed itself this way.
I would like to put in a good word for the Federalist Party here. They’re another new party that has a lot of deficiencies (they appear to be exclusively right-wing, so I can’t see how they become a governing majority), but they have evidently attracted a few more experienced players from Washington, and their platform takes the eminently sensible position that (aside from a few vague principles) there’s no point in putting down specifics without a strong organization and accountability for their candidates.
The Federalists may be the first and only new party of the 21st century to get this.
6. The new party will not just emerge one night; it is born of many long discussions with all sorts of people and careful measurement of the electorate.
From my original post:
The man who led all those officials into a schoolhouse to birth the GOP, Alvan Bovay, had been talking to other people around the country about a new party for a while. He wasn’t alone. Although the mass defections from the Whigs were spontaneous, that energy was able to be harnessed into a new party thanks to years of quiet discussion, in which politically-minded people across the country gauged what might and might not work in a new party. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act finally came to light the fire, people around the country were ready with the bold Republican answer to widespread Whig dissatisfaction.
This didn’t happen.
Maybe it’s happening now, in some quarters, but most of what I’m seeing on my Twitter feed is retrenchment, not reaching out. The most common response to Ben Sasse attacking Donald Trump for (e.g.) Trump’s opposition to the First Amendment is not “thank you, and let me join your cause.” It’s either, “You’re a traitor for not supporting OUR president!” or (especially on Twitter) “You’re a fraud who postures opposition to Trump while supporting his agenda.” As if #Resistance to Trump meant rejecting every single thing about Republicanism or conservatism.
In short, if there’s a common ground, it hasn’t yet been located and, if there is a foundation on which a new political movement could be built, it hasn’t been laid yet.
7. The new party can only emerge in a time of political instability, when dissatisfaction in both parties is running very high.
This remains true, and the instability in our political system — which is somehow still increasing here in 2017 — is going to keep the window open for a new political party for the foreseeable future. It’s just that nobody’s climbing in that window right now.
8. The new party must show regional strength before it can be seen as nationally viable.
So many things have to happen before this is even relevant. For starters, a new party needs to elect someone — anyone! — to public office.
9. The new party’s ascent to power isn’t going to be clean.
So, taking all this into account, why didn’t a new party happen this year?
While there are enough disaffected voters to support one, the minor party apparatchiks and grassroots voters who are the bone and sinew of any political movement did not walk away from 2016 thinking a new party is necessary. They doubled down on their partisan commitments, with many of those who had considered themselves anti-Trump gradually becoming pro-Trump (while something similar happened with Sanders voters on the other side). This meant that the voters who did defect turned out to be largely extreme ideologues (hi) who were, as a whole, either too purist or too inexperienced to create viable alternative power structures, while party elites and elected officials who might otherwise be inclined to jump ship had nowhere to land.
So, if you want to blame somebody for the lack of a new party this year, go find the name of your local Republican and Democratic precinct and district chairs, who once hated Trump (and/or Clinton), but who made their peace in the name of the greater good. Now they retweet hardline press releases from their Twitter accounts, refuse to criticize their own side sincerely, and work hard to convince themselves that nothing’s really changed in the wake of the 2016 primaries — that the familiar bad guys are still the bad guys and the good guys are all still good. As long as they are loyal, the Sixth Party System will never die.
A new party requires a precise mixture of ingredients to explode into the body politic, and a key ingredient weren’t there this year. As our politics worsens, there will be more and more opportunities for a new party to form, but 2016-17 wasn’t the year for it. We must hope that, eventually, Americans crack this nut, because the most likely alternative would seem to be civil war.
I plan to continue serving in my role as Secretary of the Solidarity Party of Minnesota until the end of my term, partly so that, when the time does come, there’s a chance of there being some viable institutions already up and running… but mostly because I promised I would.
If I wrote more, I’d just get more depressing and cynical, so I’ll stop here. I’m not certain my explanation of 2016-17 is right, but it is at least thorough. Any questions or comments, write them in the combox. Thank you again for all the support you’ve given me these past fifteen months.