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You Can't Start A New Party
This post, like all De Civ posts prior to November 2021, was originally published at my WordPress blog. The import to Substack did not go great. I recommend reading the original: https://www.jamesjheaney.com/2016/10/19/you-cant-start-a-new-party/
This doesn't work. (Image Credit Brian Green)
When I wrote my May post calling for the formation of a new political party, I had a pretty grand vision in mind. Starting after the November elections, we’d build a nationwide network of powerful activists, win endorsements from sitting Congresspeople, develop some simple yet winning platform, and then start rolling out Congressional candidates to our mailing list of (now) hundreds of thousands of voters across the land, with lasting local organizations finally forming around our successful candidates. I call this the “tree model” of party-building. You plant a seed, you grow a trunk, you branch out.
I’m not the only person thinking along these lines. Ben Domenech’s admirable proposal for a Party of Life seems to envision a party that starts in Washington, from the Washington network of activists, and grows downward. Charles Camosy’s equally admirable push for a party premised on a “consistent ethic” of life is currently grappling with theoretical issues about the platform. (Full disclosure: I’ve exchanged some emails with Prof. Camosy about a new consistent-ethic party.) Heck, judging by my comment feeds, the first thing anybody wants to talk about when it comes to a new party is the platform -- not the concrete plans for winning elections.
I’d be remiss not to mention the kings in this field. Every single time I have mentioned a new party on the blog or elsewhere, some generous reader has taken the time to leave a comment or send an email asking whether I’ve heard about the American Solidarity Party, a minor party founded in 2012 on principles that are broadly pro-human and pro-subsidiarity. The American Solidarity Party has followed largely the same path I first envisioned for my new party: assemble an attractive, centrist platform, develop a network of activists, build the brand, and then, eventually, once firmly established, start rolling out candidates wherever possible -- making sure to get approval from the National Committee for each one (the ASP national committee approves all candidates, even for school board).
...and the American Solidarity Party has been, to this point, an abject failure. I have been extremely hard on the ASP this year, but, I think, for good reason. As I wrote here, in May, the Solidarity Party “does not appear to have meetings, candidates, officers, or elections.” They began operations four years ago with a provocative vision of social conservatism blended with fiscal liberalism -- uniting the Religious Right with the Religious Left -- and stalled out immediately, with a beautiful website hosting a detailed platform, a small network of influential activists supporting it, and no other earthly evidence that the party even existed, much less planned to ever elect a candidate to public office.
I’ve spent a few months reflecting on my New Party proposal, boning up a bit more on the history of new party formation in the United States, and (I admit) paying altogether more attention to the catastrophic 2016 election than it deserves. I’ve come to the conclusion is that the American Solidarity Party’s problems aren’t particular to the American Solidarity Party. The whole concept of starting a new national political party is flawed. You can’t start a new political party.
You have to start a thousand.
When the Republican Party started, there weren’t a few people in Washington who decided there had to be a new party and willed it into existence. It didn’t start with the 1850s version of Ben Domenech and Charles Camosy and Mike Maturen. The birthing process was far messier than that.
The movement that became the GOP started years before the Whigs collapsed, with the single-issue Free Soil party (which won a number of seats in Congress from 1848-1852). When the formation of the Republican Party finally began in earnest, it happened in a hundred different places almost simultaneously, starting, not in a Washington salon, but in a rural Wisconsin schoolhouse. There were dozens, then hundreds, of small, local political parties that shared broadly similar aims but no unifying structure. Some of these parties called themselves “Republicans,” yes... but others called themselves “the People’s Party” (which took control of Indiana). Many didn’t call themselves anything in particular. They didn’t share a name, much less a platform. Although three dozen of them won seats in Congress in the first elections, the coalition was so loose that historians are forced to refer to it by vague terms like “the Northern Opposition” or “the anti-Nebraska movement.” The only state party with any legs was in Indiana; there was no national party at all.
Where so many top-down political startups (like the Bull Moose Party of 1912) have failed, the bottom-up Northern Opposition succeeded. The Bull Moose was never able to translate its strong national committee into long-lasting state and local organizations (and died almost immediately), but the Northern Opposition did manage to coalesce its hundreds of local organizations into a single national party that has dominated American politics since the Civil War. I no longer think that’s a coincidence: the Republicans successfully emerged because they went from the bottom up: first they formed local organizations, then they ran winning candidates, and only years later did they manage to merge those many disparate organizations into a single party with a single name and a single platform. The Republican Party did not come into being because somebody planted a tree; the Republican Party exists because thousands of people planted seeds that grew together into a forest.
This makes sense. Every state, every city, every neighborhood in this great country has its own concerns, its own culture, and its own way of doing politics. Every political subdivision in the land has its own challenges -- and its own opportunities. A new political party faces a daunting task: it must quickly assemble a coalition that represents a plurality or near-plurality of voters in as many communities as possible. And -- no surprise here -- a plurality of voters in Belmont looks very different from a plurality of voters in Fishtown, with different customs and priorities. In order to win this level of support in a great many jurisdictions without the advantages of the incumbent major parties, a new party must be nimble and ideologically flexible, embracing only a few rock-solid core issues while bringing together people who disagree on many others. We’ve talked before about how important it is to have an appealing but narrow platform in order to aid this flexibility.
But a narrow platform is not enough. New parties need to be able to react in real time to new opportunities that emerge on the ground. They can’t be tied down to larger organizations until they’ve survived and established themselves locally. (And, besides, larger organizations aren’t going to be any use in the early stages of new party formation anyway.) Nor can new parties afford to be tied down in complex theoretical concerns about (for example) how to make a pro-life party that’s appealing everywhere from Anchorage to Ypsilanti. Forget it: have the pro-lifers in Anchorage start one party that works for them, have the pro-lifers in Ypsilanti start one that works for them, and we’ll sort out the merger later, once we have actual political power instead of a bunch of online essays about political theory. In these early days, it’s all about small groups in small communities -- that’s you, by the way -- getting out and recruiting voters and candidates, building small organizations. I’ll be working on a new party in St. Paul, MN; you’ll be working on your own local new parties in Austin, TX, or Ely, MN, or even Washington, DC.
We may consider one another allies, we may help each other out, we may even be friends -- I hope so! -- but my dream of personally creating a New Party and leading it into the Glorious Future was, well, silly. If Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t pull it off, I sure can’t. Heck, I couldn’t even decide on a name! As the saying goes, “One man cannot summon the future.”
So, there’s not going to be a New Party after all. There’s going to be a lot more new parties than that.
I hope our mailing list is a nucleus for some of them… but I also hope to see Ben Domenech’s Party of Life come alive and start building pluralities where it makes sense. And I hope to see Charles Camosy’s Consistent Ethic Party take shape in places where it makes sense. I’ll do my best to chronicle and promote all these efforts. Given the political facts on the ground where you live, maybe going out with your friends and starting a brand new local party to rival the Republicans and/or Democrats on your own doesn’t make sense… but at least one of these emergent options ought to. I know it may not be clear to you how to do that, but, in the coming months, I’m going to try to figure it out alongside you.
So let’s plant our forest. The Republicans and Democrats won’t know what hit them in 2018.
Yeah, just like that. (Image Credit: Matt 5727)
Tonight, I myself am taking the first step into a future that still seems very unclear, by doing something that would have shocked me just a couple months ago: I’m attending a meeting of the newly formed American Solidarity Party of Minnesota. Yes, the very same American Solidarity Party I bashed just a few paragraphs ago. The Minnesota chapter has just started up, and I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of energy around it -- tonight’s meeting, for example, has already exceeded its expected attendance by a factor of two, and I have reason to believe that future meetings will grow even more quickly.
Most importantly, ASP-MN seems like it wants to build an organization that can win elections on broadly pro-life principles. It may not be what I would have built for myself in the perfect theoretical world where I control politics… but it’s what we have right here, right now. Here in St. Paul, MN, the ASP-MN seems to me like the best opportunity for starting a new party. (No doubt the opportunities are quite different in your town, but rest assured that there are opportunities.) I can either accept that and start trying to build up ASP-MN, give up and go sulking back to the Republican Party of Donald Trump, or start a new-party turf war that neither I nor the ASP-MN would benefit from.
Once I put it that way, it was really no choice at all. Off to the ASP I go. UPDATE Oct 19 2016 2:30 AM: ASP-MN's planning meeting went fairly well. We face daunting challenges, but considerable opportunities. I'm the party secretary now. More later; I have to finish writing up the meeting minutes!