I don’t talk about this much because, well – I don’t see the point in beating a horse that is not only dead, but has been dead for nearly 170 years, as the Whig Party has been. But one of the Modern Whig Party’s most active proponents asked, and it tied in with in a guest post by Mike Wallach a couple weeks back, that I promised I’d respond to, so here we are. –SK
Not Critiquing the Right-Leaning to Centrist Modern Whig Party
I’ll preface this by pointing out that I’m not critiquing the Modern Whigs here, or the center-right in general, but rather just responding to a question and another blog post.
Do I have strategic constructive criticism for the Modern Whig Party organization? Sure, and maybe I’ll get into that some other time, but this conversation is about a big picture idea – namely:
Where a centrist party wants to pitch it’s political tent on the American political spectrum, and why.
I initially had the question in question (that’s just fun to say) embedded below, but apparently Whig activist Dan Smith deleted the tweet. Coincidentally, while I was looking for that deleted tweet, I came across another by a Modern Whig Party gentleman, which is an even better illustrative example of some of the issues I discuss below:
Hello @n_centristparty and thanks for following me. I already identify with the @ModernWhigs and they are actively supporting moderate candidates. I would like to see all centrist movements merge into the Whigs, because they have a compelling owl logo.
— Anthony Alfidi ?? (@tonyalfidi) March 4, 2018
The problem here is that Mr. Alfidi prioritizes the Modern Whig Party over the formation of a national centrist / moderate party, rather than the other way around. If that’s all your goal is, then we’re not working toward the same end. The goal is to build a national party that represents the underrepresented center of the American political spectrum – not promote any single party.
We Need to Prioritize #CountryOverParty & Do What’s Best for the Centrist Big Tent
So, if you care more about party than the country, then you’re not in the right place, and the following does not apply to you, but if you care more about centrists and moderates being fairly represented in government than you do about your tribe, then let’s discuss what the best place to pitch our proverbial tent on the American political spectrum would be.
The important thing here is building a party that will grow to be the organized political force needed to win elections and get centrists and moderates into office, so our views are fairly represented in Washington. It’s not about rallying around a particular banner. If you’re fixated on details like the name or logo – that’s an extremely counterproductive mindset, if your goal genuinely is to build a national centrist party.
Mr. Alfidi’s tweet may have been in jest, but it didn’t seem like it. It’s strange argument to make the choice of a party be about a good logo, which can be replaced with some brainstorming and some work from a talented graphic designer(s). That’s just not a sound reason, and an even weaker argument for other of what he called ‘centrist movements’.
He may well have meant centrist parties, as there aren’t any centrist movements currently, but the idea that they should all merge under one of the least well organized centrist/moderate parties in the country just doesn’t make sense (though I do think the owl as a mascot is one of the best, though their name is one of the worst).
But let’s switch gears a bit and take a step back.
No Room for Ego in Forming a National Centrist Party
If we are going to see a national centrist party come together, then all who share that goal need to leave all of our egos at the door and focus on what matters – bringing all of the centrist/moderate parties together.
I’m positive that, within a handful of election cycles, there will be a gathering of smaller, newer and/or less organized party groups (including most of the following: the Modern Whig Party, the Reform Party, United Utah Party, the Unity Party, the American Party of South Carolina and the new Party of the Center in Kansas) and more well organized and/or medium-sized centrist parties like the Independence Party of Minnesota, the American Party of South Carolina and the Independent Party of Oregon.
This could potentially include the Save America Movement, which is an organization claiming to be focused toward building a moderate party, and is legally structured in a way that could easily morph into a party. They could also take a role similar to Uniters.org on this subject, stay an organization and help the wider centrist party effort from the outside of the party tent, as an ally.
Talks about this have been going on between a few of them for a few years already, but there just isn’t much of a reason for it to happen… yet. Right now, they should all be focused >99% on building up in their states, and turning into professionally run organizations. Most are currently run by amateurs who treat it like it’s a hobby, which is one of the biggest problems impeding their growth. We need them to start treating it as a part-time job at the very least, or they need to make way for people who treat their position with the proper level of seriousness and commitment.
One thing that should be a requirement – a ‘cost of entry’, of sorts – of said future gathering of centrist parties – is that the various contingents from the different parties all sign a legally binding agreement that decisions like names and branding be left until after the core organizational decisions have already been decided on, and said legally binding merger would brings all of the agreeing parties’ resources together.
Note: This wouldn’t apply to individual members. After the merger, the new national party would reach out to all of them individually and see if they’d like to stay involved or be taken off of our lists.
The New National Centrist Party Has to be Transparent
I’d also argue that decisions like that not be made behind closed doors, and the full membership of all of the merging centrist parties be allowed to vote on top-line issues like naming, mascots and other such decisions – using an online system of some sort. I’d even be happy to set that up, in conjunction with at least a few other techies from different parties, so nobody could complain about foul play.
This system would verify identities of those voting at a distance, and that the person in question is genuinely a registered member of said party, or at least signed up as a member (for parties that aren’t qualified to have people registered with them) and not a registered member of any other party.
If the Modern Whig Party wants to be a part of that, they’d just have to leave attachments to their name and logo at the door – same as everyone else involved. If they want other groups to consider their name and logo, then it’s only fair that they do the same, and they’d be free to make their case at the end, after all of the important things were decided and all of the groups involved have pooled their resources.
Realistic Options for the Center-Right Moderate Parties
There are really three main scenarios I see playing out for right-leaning moderate party groups like the Modern Whigs (and United Utah), in the near to medium-term future:
- If the centrist to center-right elements of Modern Whig Party chooses to be, the could form the core of the right-leaning caucus of said national centrist party. They’d just have to part ways with their conservative wing, as there is no chance that a centrist party that spanned the country could keep conservatives and the center-left in the same tent.
- They could stick with their current tack, aligning with conservative independents, not be a part of the national centrist party and wait the ~15-20+ years it’ll take before the Republican party falls apart (assuming it does) to the point where most conservatives become open to a third party, allowing that faction to grow large enough to potentially challenge Democrats.
- If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see a mix of both – not just with the Whigs, but with people unusually attached to either one side or the other, or to specific branding. Many will eventually come around, but some will stick it out, keep banging their heads agaist the wall until the GOP crumbles and keep slowly slogging without most centrists.
One example of how center-right parties aren’t compatible with what a national centrist party would look like is how the United Utah Party has been open about it’s interest in having Mitt Romney run under their banner. Mitt Romney is nowhere near a centrist, has been moving farther right and any party whose tent goes that far right will lose a lot of centrists (myself included – I’d never be in the same party as someone like Romney), as well as virtually all center-left / left leaning moderates.
The same is true about Evan McMullin, who has been even more consistently ideologically conservative than Mitt Romney. I like McMullin, and I think we could work with him, but a centrist or moderate he is not. The only sense that he’s a moderate is personality wise – on the issues, which is what determines where you are on a political spectrum, he is squarely on the right.
You Don’t Hit a Moving Centrist Target by Aiming Behind It
These right-leaning moderate parties are aiming roughly at where the target was back during Ross Perot’s peak of popularity, rather than where the heart of the opening is now.
The gaping, growing void between the major parties is naturally where you’d want to aim if your goal is to build a national centrist party, and these right-leaning groups would cut out a good half of that, to pursue a segment of the political spectrum that is not up for grabs, and wont be for some time.
There are three main segments of the political spectrum that will be up for grabs in the next decade or two, and the Modern Whigs are cutting out at least one of them.
The three segments of the electorate that are mostly up for grabs now, or will be in the near future are:
- Centrists / Mostly Independents – I’m not talking the ‘centrist big tent’ here, but rather those who really don’t lean much one way or the other. These are within arms reach of the very center – like I am, and the vast majority of us are already independents. Some are dubious of parties, but if given an alternative that baked anti-corruption, transparency and genuine centrist policy ideas (not ideas foisted upon us by those claiming to be centrists), then most would either join willingly or come around eventually.
- Center-Right / Moderate Conservatives – These are those who are in the vein of Susan Collins, Charlie Dent, Mike Castle, Olympia Snowe, Dick Lugar and groups like the Tuesday Group caucus or the old label ‘Rockefeller Republicans’ – as well as the core of the Modern Whig Party, United Utah and older elements of the Reform Party. Most right-leaning moderates have been shown the door of the GOP tent – more every election cycle, and this is speeding up, as the right wing elements and Trump’s populist faction drives more centrist leaning moderate conservatives away.
- Center-Left / Moderate Liberals – These are those in the vein of Claire McCaskill, Evan Bayh, Heath Shuler, Jason Altmire, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin and groups like the Blue Dog Coalition (a House Caucus). Most have also been shown the door in Washington, but more are still in the party than with the GOP, as while the Dems are moving farther left, they haven’t gone as far from center as the GOP has. But things are heading down the same path, and moderate left leaners have been streaming out of the party as progressives have gained more power in the Dem tent.
Keeping all three of those segments together will be a difficult task, but it’s necessary. A tent that big is far larger than either major party is now, but it’s how big they used to be, and there is no chance that you could cram a fourth major segment in without losing the group on the opposite end of the tent – and that’s not something we can afford to do.
We need all three to be able to compete with the much better organized and financed major parties.
We need the numbers of the whole ‘Centrist Big Tent’.
The fact of the matter is that, if you’re a liberal or conservative, and you want to start a new party, you’re just not likely to be successful for a decade or two – at least. The two major parties have a stranglehold on the lion’s share of the left and right, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, so pitching a political tent that trades a group that is up for grabs, for a group that you might – at best – get a marginal amount from, is a recipe for losing.
Weak Arguments About Exceptions to Rules Don’t Make This Any Less True
Parties are made up of individuals, but do not act or work like individuals. While there are a great many people who are flexible ideologically, and might, for instance, lean left on the issues, but still vote for a non-flaming conservative like Evan McMullin, or Sanders primary voters who voted for Trump in the general election, you can’t build a stable coalition – which is what a party is – around exceptions and flukes.
They don’t rally around names. If you swapped the Democratic and Republican Party names, colors (as they once were flipped, in some old TV news maps) and mascots, they’d still be the same party, because the foundation of a party is the beliefs it is built to see translated into law.
Parties rally around coalitions of people with similar enough views to stay together for the long term. That’s why parties have platforms. That’s why a new centrist party needs to pitch it’s tent on in the middle of the American political spectrum, where the biggest number of underrepresented voters stand, and not waste its time fighting a losing battle with an exponentially stronger opponent for voters we aren’t likely to win over, and at the same time push voters easily within reach on the other side of our tent.
On Centrist Third Parties, and Undercutting Legacy Parties
This is essentially why I think that Mike Wallach’s post on centrist party-related subjects, which argues that calling a new party a ‘third party’ is a bad idea, makes a hill into a mountain. I do think there is something there – just not as much as he does. I agree that it’s a good idea to keep that mostly out of party messaging, but not so important that I’d make it a point to avoid it in conversation.
Later in that post, Wallach noted that, in order for a centrist party to become a major party, it probably needs to supplant one of the current major parties. I agree, but I part ways with him a bit on where he takes this argument next – namely that we should actively undercut one major party in particular, in order to make their fall happen faster and steal their voters.
I agree with the first part – that we should work to undercut the rotten elements of the Republican Party, but we’d be making a massive mistake if we didn’t also work to undercut the rotten elements of the Democratic Party, for reasons I discussed earlier – the center-left is the natural third group to go after, as their connection with the Democratic tent is far weaker than conservatives with the GOP.
His contention is similar to that above, which is why I have it included here, in saying that we should go after, essentially, #NeverTrump conservatives. Again, this is a recipe for losing.
Instead of going after voters with weak ties to their party, we’d be wasting what tiny amount of resources we’ll have, fighting over a segment of the population that is the most attached to a party out of any segment on the entire political spectrum. Even with Trump badly tarnishing the GOP name, all but a small minority of conservatives still identify as Republicans, and all it would take is a single standard bearer who isn’t such a circus side show for a large portion of even that small faction to come back into the fold.
Yet again – this is a recipe for losing.
How a Centrist Party Properly Aims at Its Target Audience
Wallach has some great ideas in his post, but they’re most effective if not focused on any specific party. They’d work better if they stood on principle, and are used against anyone – left, right or centrist – not selectively applied. Selective use will only open us up to a completely fair line of criticism – that’s we’re not the centrist party we claim to be.
Centrists would be making that argument as well, and I’d be among the loudest.
Wallach brings up the issue of fiscal responsibility, but again – that’s an issue most effectively used to undercut both the left and right, and would help pull in moderates on both sides, not just undercut the right.
Polls have made it very clear that most on the right have been convinced of a range of ideological / partisan fairy tales about tax cuts magically paying for themselves, and there just plain is no realistic path to that problem being solved anytime soon. As that issue is worked on over the long-term, in the meantime, said new national centrist party could be banging its head against that wall, or growing by going after centrists, the center-left and center-right that are already up for grabs.
That pattern holds with the other points Wallach makes. He’s just dead wrong that we could combine the core of the moderate No Labels’ ‘Problem Solvers Caucus’ with hard core conservatives like Ben Sasse, mainstream conservative Republicans like Flake and Rubio, or independents who are just as conservative as Republicans – like Evan McMullin.
If you tried, you wouldn’t even be able to keep me in that tent, much less the center-left – for the reason I brought up above. You just can’t build, grow and hold together a party with a tent that includes people with mostly conflicting stances on the biggest issues.
The ‘Centrist Big Tent’ is Our Base – Center-Left, Center-Right & Everyone Between
We both need to take consistent, principled stances on issues, and use those stances as the tent poles of our centrist big tent party, while being sensible about who is genuinely up for grabs in the next several election cycles, and who isn’t. Most of the Republicans Wallach mentioned are not, in any reasonable assessment, up for grabs – he even mentioned Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse – two of the top five most conservative members of congress… really undercutting the seriousness of his argument.
If your plan is to keep losing for the next 20-30 years, then the way to go is to abandon one of the core segments I mentioned above, and go after either mainstream liberals or conservatives. If your goal is to focus on building our foundation, while the differentiating ourselves with the left and right on principles, then building a national centrist big tent party is the way to go.