Americans Elect — the much-bruited, Internet-based third party — has announced its failure to attract a viable presidential candidate, thus ending another effort to challenge the major-party duopoly by organizing a party of the center.
Its demise was sad but inevitable. If a third party ever achieves success, it won't be by occupying some vague, bipartisan middle ground.
A self-defined party of the center automatically cedes the initiative to the major parties. As the existing parties define where the center is, a centrist party must constantly tack with the prevailing winds. What's needed is a third party that sets its own course — a bold course, independent of the existing duopoly.
Americans should study the history of the two third parties that seriously challenged the major-party establishment in the past — the Lincoln Republicans and the early-20th-century Progressives.
For example, the Republicans — so far the only third party to become a major party — offer these instructive lessons:
First, define success not as winning the next election but as changing the terms of the national debate. Lincoln's Republican Party — and its forerunners, the Liberty and Free-Soil parties — initially focused less on winning elections than on compelling Americans to confront the issue of slavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, slavery was the great issue. But this issue presented both an insoluble dilemma and, in Secretary of State William Seward's phrase, "an irrepressible conflict."
In the interests of national and party unity, leaders of the Democratic and Whig parties did their best to distract public attention from this issue. The insurgent Republicans insisted on confronting the slavery issue.
In today's America, a successful third party might, in similar fashion, challenge the major parties' refusal to confront a cluster of thorny issues concerning our responsibility to future generations. This involves a whole nexus of issues, including global climate change, the decline of public education, the rising costs of health and elder care, our dependence on foreign and exhaustible energy sources, and the burgeoning federal debt.
While these issues often are addressed separately, viewed together they represent the stark failure of America's mature generations to provide for those who will follow — thus raising a question of moral responsibility comparable with that of pre-Civil War America.
Second, logically connect the new party's moral imperative with a forward-looking vision of how future generations of Americans will earn their livings.
Lincoln's Republicans insisted on the centrality of slavery, but their analysis connected that issue with a bold vision for the economic and geographical future of the nation. Slavery was seen not only as a moral wrong, but also as a system of labor and land ownership in direct competition with the agrarian vision of a nation of small, family farms spreading to the Pacific.
Today, the cluster of generational failures, which might be termed "neglecting our future," likewise can be addressed in terms of a new vision for America. Our problems are the direct result of a failure of self-discipline, prudence and thrift — consequences of an economic system based upon consumerism.
The consumption-driven economy of the 20th century — sensible when Americans made the goods they consumed — has become a self-destructive addiction. Insatiable consumerism has given rise to a political psychology based on individual and group entitlements rather than the common good. A narcissistic insistence on instant gratification has put the health of the planetary ecosystem at risk, and brought our country to the brink of economic and fiscal collapse.
A new, third party might offer an alternative vision for the future, including such elements as:
• Aggressive environmental policies carried out through volunteer policing and thoughtful modifications of markets — in preference to new regulatory machinery.
• Nurturing small enterprise, rather than slavishly serving the interests of large corporations.
• Creating viable markets for locally grown, healthy foods, locally generated, sustainable-source energy, and products made from recycled materials.
Third, embrace policies designed to reform, fundamentally, a broken political system.
Implicit in the Lincoln Republicans' demand that westward expansion result in the creation of only free states was a seismic shift in the congressional balance of power. The creation of new, free states, no longer balanced by the creation of slave states, would curtail the ability of the underpopulated South to play an equal role in setting national policy.
Today, the political reforms available for adoption by a third party also include correcting the undue influence of a minority — in this case, the very wealthy.
A modern third party should embrace political reforms such as ending the ability of any entity, other than an individual American, to contribute to political campaigns and requiring the House of Representatives, state and local legislative constituencies be formed by nonpartisan redistricting or proportional representation. The changes also should include restoring the fundamental right of people to organize to petition for redress of grievances by granting to significant third parties the same ballot access enjoyed by major parties.
These essentials — defining success in terms of changing the debate, embracing a new moral and economic vision based on sustainability and entrepreneurialism, and challenging the rules that uphold the two-party duopoly — are the keys to a successful third party.
No one needs a party of the center. What's needed is a party of the future. S
'Rick Gray taught history at Midlothian High School and the Appomattox Regional Governor's School, and writes a column for the Village News in Chester.
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