Read “Breaking the partisan duopoly, part I” here.
As I described in part one, this year I ran for a seat in the Washington state Senate as an independent. I lost, but the race gave me an up-close look at the big questions facing our political system. What follows are my observations on the current state of the Republicans, the Democrats, and the nascent attempt to create a new moderate third party.
Like it or not, political parties are central to democracy. They narrow the list of candidates and policies that we, the voters, get to choose from. The number of parties, and the composition and beliefs of those parties, defines a political system.
America has gone through several party systems, beginning with Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists vs. Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Nearly two years ago I argued that the 2020 election completed the realignment to our seventh party system. The seventh party system is binary, with only two major parties, and has produced a 50/50 nation in which neither party can win clear governing majorities. That’s not new. What is new, and dangerous, is the fact that this is the first party system primarily based on race, culture, and religion, not economics.
The Republicans: The Trumpist takeover is complete
As the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2016, I saw the rise of Trump from the inside. Before he became the nominee, Donald Trump had zero support from Republican elites (elected officials, donors, etc.,) or from Republican activists (county chairs, convention delegates.) You rarely saw Trump signs at county conventions or heard speeches for him at Lincoln Day dinners. He was mocked by conservative media. But he had the support of base voters — the voters who decide primary elections. And with that he took over the GOP. And when he won, all his Reaganite critics either bent the knee, left politics, or remained silent.
Now, after a disappointing midterm for Republicans, the elites, the activists, and the media have grown a bit of courage and are again speaking out against Trump. But where is the base? Evidence from the 2022 election makes clear Republican base voters want Trump, or someone who shares his beliefs and attitudes. The Reaganite/establishment empire is not striking back anytime soon.
Primary elections, and only primary elections, decide the direction of an American political party. For decades, relatively moderate Republicans were able to fend off the populist far right, both nationally and here in Washington state, by winning primary elections. We always nominated a Bush, a Dole, a McCain, or a Romney. And here, Senator Slade Gorton always faced right-wing primary challenges, and always prevailed. Even in defeat, Washington state Republicans almost always got moderate, credible candidates for major offices through the primary. No more.
Make no mistake, there are still hundreds or thousands of traditional Reagan/Bush Republicans left, trapped in what is now Donald Trump’s party. During the campaign I talked to Republican consultants and spent time at campaign forums with Republican legislators. Discretely, they would roll their eyes when MAGA types were speaking, and whisper to me how crazy they thought the party had become. But none would say it out loud because they enjoy being in politics, or they need the income politics provides, and they know exactly what would happen if they popped their heads up; the base would chop it off. To survive in the Trump GOP you must either support the new boss or stay silent.
Across the country, with very few exceptions, Trumpist candidates defeated establishment, or at least sane, candidates in Republican primaries, often by wide margins. Liz Cheney got 29 percent of the vote in her primary. Here in Washington state, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump, got only 22 percent of the vote in our wide-open top two primary, and lost to ultra-MAGA, Trump-endorsed Joe Kent. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who also voted to impeach, got only 25 percent in the primary, but barely survived because Trump did not endorse any of the several MAGA candidates in the crowded field. And in the 8th congressional district, the one truly swing district in the state, the Trumpiest of the serious Republican candidates, Matt Larkin, won the primary over more moderate Reagan Dunn, a longtime Republican elected official and the son of a legendary Washington state Republican, Rep. Jennifer Dunn. Predictably, Kent and Larkin lost the general election to Democrats.
And then there is the example I saw up close of state Representative Drew Stokesbary in my district. Stokesbary is an outstanding young Republican legislator. He is the lead Republican on budget issues in the House. Drew Stokesbary should be the next Slade Gorton in Washington state. But Stokesbary has said some mildly critical things about Donald Trump, and he clearly is out of step with MAGA populism, so the base turned on him. The party activists – and my opponent, the incumbent Republican state senator in our district – supported a primary challenger, Brandon Beynon. Beynon’s slogan was, “Let’s Vote Brandon!” Get it? Beynon raised very little money, but his signs were everywhere, and party activists worked hard for him. I think they even had a Trump-like car parade. Stokesbary recognized the threat and sent out six pieces of direct mail, spending at a level Beynon couldn’t come close to matching. Stokesbary survived, but only won the primary 35 percent to 27 percent. If Beynon had had some money Drew Stokesbary may have been another MAGA primary victim.
During meetings in early 2021 I listened to Never Trump former Republican members of Congress argue against creating a new party because they were confident that we could end Trumpism by winning primaries. They were decisively proven wrong in 2022. Now those same establishment types hold out the hope that they can win presidential primaries in 2024. Maybe, maybe Republican voters could be persuaded to move on from Trump personally if a Trump clone like Gov. Ron DeSantis decides to run. But after 2022 it is abundantly clear that anti-Trump legacy Rs can’t win primary elections. And if you don’t win the primary, everything else is just talk. The Trumpist takeover of the Republican party is locked in for the foreseeable future.
The Democrats: Why they can’t decisively defeat the Trump GOP
The narrative around the 2022 election is one of Republican defeat. It’s true the GOP massively underperformed expectations for the opposition party in a midterm election. But they did win the U.S. House, getting more total votes than did the Democrats. They still hold 49 seats in the Senate, and roughly half the governorships and state legislative majorities.
Approval ratings for Donald Trump and his party remain under 40 percent. Independents were appalled by January 6, reject election denialism, and disagree with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. So why can’t the Democratic Party break the gridlock and become a majority governing party? Because, as I heard on doorsteps over and over again, millions of white suburban voters view them as extreme and out of touch on the issues they care about the most, especially crime.
The polling on this is consistent and crystal clear. Democrats David Shor and Ruy Teixeira have written about the problem multiple times. Teixeira states the case forcefully and frankly:
The party is uncompetitive among white working class voters and among voters in exurban, small town and rural America. This puts them at a massive structural disadvantage given an American electoral system that gives disproportionate weight to these voters, especially in Senate and Presidential elections. To add to the problem, Democrats are now hemorrhaging nonwhite working class voters in many areas of country.
The facts must be faced. The Democratic coalition today is not fit for purpose. It cannot beat Republicans consistently in enough areas of the country to achieve dominance and implement its agenda at scale. The Democratic Party may be the party of blue America, especially deep blue metro America, but its bid to be the party of the ordinary American, the common man and woman, is falling short….
The sad fact is that the cultural left in and around the Democratic party has managed to associate the party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter.
Analysts like Teixeira and Shor urge Democrats to “move to the center” on crime, culture, and the economy, just as well-meaning academics used to urge Republicans to move to the center before the idea became laughable. Analysts and academics don’t understand how actual political parties function. There is no command-and-control center where smart people push buttons and the party moves. Base primary voters and party activists make those decisions, and the Democratic party’s base does not want to move to the center.
Many Democratic consultants and legislators I talked to spoke about their party in much the same way that Republican elites talk about the MAGA base. They see the party being pushed to the left, but they fear confronting the base head-on. President Biden is a moderate Democrat, but how long will he define the party? If the new leaders of the Democratic party are perceived as being more liberal than Biden, Democrats will be in real trouble.
None of this implies that Democrats can’t win tough suburban races today; they can. But so can Republicans, and that is the great danger. As long as white working-class suburban voters are unwilling to firmly support Democrats, we will remain a 50/50 nation locked in political trench warfare. Republicans are an existential threat to democracy and the Constitution, but the Democrats aren’t strong enough to be relied upon to defeat them. That is the great danger of the seventh party system.
The new Forward Party: If we build it, will they come?
So…if you want to play a role in the politics of your country and your community, and you know that means that to be effective you need to be a member of a political party, but you are not a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or a Green, what do you do? The obvious answer is you start a new party. That happens in other democracies all the time. Americans, however, have been told repeatedly that it is impossible to start a new party. But is it? After several years of discussion, some of us are determined to try.
Once the election was over, I announced that I was joining the leadership team of the Washington state Forward Party. The creation of the Forward Party, and my involvement in this movement, had been years in the making, largely motivated by the political earthquakes of 2016, which saw Trumpism take over the GOP and Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism nearly capture the Democratic Party.
In 2017, a group of former George W. Bush administration officials founded the Serve America Movement (SAM) as a new centrist political party. At the same time, Unite America was drawing the support of many disaffected Republicans, and the Never Trump movement was spawning several new groups, including the Lincoln Project and Evan McMullin’s Stand Up Republic. SAM fashioned themselves as a party. Unite America’s goal was to elect independents who would then form a party. But other Never Trumpers, including the Lincoln Project, and the various groups created by Bill Kristol, were and are focused on simply beating Trump and other Republicans. The Never Trump movement, unfortunately, has never been united on one long-term goal.
After the 2020 election, McMullin and former Trump administration official Miles Taylor convened a meeting of roughly 150 Republicans and former Republicans to discuss what to do next. Many of us, including me, argued that we should create a new center-right party. Others argued that we should organize a faction within the GOP and seek to return it to sanity. In the end we created the Renew America Movement (RAM) with the mission to “restore or replace” the Republican Party.
In October 2021, Andrew Yang left the Democratic Party and formed the Forward Party with other disaffected Democrats. At the same time, many of us active in the Renew America Movement were concluding that option B, forming a new party, was becoming necessary. The Trump GOP was beyond redemption.
In February I was summoned to a meeting in New York where the leaders of SAM, RAM, and Forward announced to activists from all three groups that the three organizations were merging and creating a new Forward Party. The public rollout of the new party occurred in July.
Forward is attempting something new in American politics: the creation of a durable major party from the bottom up. Every other major party (in that definition I would include the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans/Democrats, National Republicans, Whigs, Republicans, and the Bull Moose Progressives) was built from the top down by established national politicians.
Forward is not focused on the 2024 presidential election, but rather on building a party state by state, holding a national convention next year, and eventually competing at every level. We know this may take a long time.
Other than support for ranked-choice voting and other democratic reforms, Forward has not taken many specific policy positions … yet. But the intent, spelled out in the Washington Post op-ed announcing the launch of the party, is clearly to create a party that stands between the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right and which “reflects the moderate, common-sense majority.”
More Americans than ever before now call themselves independents. Support for the creation of a new party is at an all-time high. And yet the conventional wisdom remains that it can’t be done. But all the structural arguments are easily refuted.
Rather than proportional representation, Great Britain has the same single member/first-past-the-post system we do, but multiple parties win seats in Parliament. And the fact that only Rs and Ds get elected to Congress now is new. From the late Jacksonian era through World War II, it was common for new parties to emerge, and win elections. Ballot access is a problem in some states, but nothing which can’t be overcome. It can happen here.
If Forward fails, it won’t be due to structural obstacles. It will be because of stubborn disbelief in the viability of a major third party. Forward must raise money, recruit good candidates, and enunciate a clear, consistent compelling message. All of that is dependent on whether enough people, especially established politicians, are willing to make the leap of faith and commit to a new party. Only time will tell if that can happen.
Our current two-party system has given us gridlock, extremism, polarization, and noncompetitive one-party rule in my state and in much of America. And as I wrote two years ago, a party system based on tribal identity is inherently unstable and dangerous:
More ominous are the lessons history teaches us about what can happen when politics becomes all about race, religion, and culture. Protestants vs. Catholics, Christians vs. Jews, Moslems vs. Hindus, Hutus vs. Tutsis — North America fortunately has been spared these and other types of sectarian conflict until now.
The base voters of the two major parties continue to offer the rest of us a choice between the lesser of two evils. Having seen our current system up close I can assure you we can’t count on the Republicans or Democrats to save us. It is time to disrupt this duopoly. Our antiquated two-party system is the problem. The path forward is obvious, but will enough people choose to take it?
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