Much has gotten lost amidst the squalling catfight that our national politics have become. Respect for differing views has all but vanished, along with most efforts at constructive change. So has faith in the mass media, which has itself fractured along ideological and party lines.
The overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t even involved in this brawl. Instead, they are just sitting in the bleachers watching things unravel.
I know a fair number of people due to my many years of working for a newspaper. I think I can safely say that none of them are white supremacists, Antifa warriors, or followers of QAnon. Yet these are the extreme voices that are shouting down everyone else.
In this election year, the Republicans and the Democrats appear to focus their message on being against something. But what are they for?
More than ever, it can be argued that we need another political party — at least one, and probably more. Now that politics has bifurcated into “reds” and “blues,” more fringe groups have picked sides and jumped into the fray. The extremism in politics is making it even more unlikely that compromise can happen.
New parties don’t rise and flourish overnight, however, and their track record is not good. Some have been based on a single issue with limited mass appeal. Others attempting to join the game on the presidential-election level were ultimately thwarted by blockades thrown up by the two “majors.”
No matter how much some voters might resonate with Greens or Libertarians, they also believe that voting for them would be a futile gesture. The next “fresh” party would need a much broader base to be successful.
So let’s imagine a political party in waiting. For lack of a better term, call it the Unity Party, or maybe the Civility Party.
This party would have no laundry list of positions binding all of its members. It would understand that candidates in Alabama or Texas might see some issues differently than those in New York or Illinois. The only requirement would be a commitment to hear and consider opposing points of view, as well as an openness to compromise. Extremists, those espousing violence, or conspiracy theorists would not be welcomed.
Establishing such a party would take patience because it would need time to establish itself. Obviously, it would be initially driven by volunteers.
This would all start at the local level. The first step would be to advertise for these volunteers, spreading the word in as many American communities as possible. Make it clear that both Republicans and Democrats are welcome, along with independents and minority party followers.
Local government officials might make good recruits, especially in places where most of them run as independents. High school and college students could bring enthusiasm to the cause, while their teachers might provide specific areas of expertise. Retirees would add wisdom and perspective. Diversity, obviously, would be a goal.
After that, set aside at least a year to take the community’s political pulse, initially avoiding intrusive tactics like randomly knocking on doors or making cold calls by phone. Put up a website for each locality and invite anyone to share their opinion on issues that may have been lost in the dust due to today’s fiercely competitive politics. Make connections with local groups of all kinds and offer to meet with them to hear their concerns. Leave the door open for one-on-one chats.
At this stage, the goal would be more to become known than to firm up a platform. With luck, local issues will emerge that are relatively apolitical, such as a shortage of family physicians or a dangerously worn bridge. The new party would find problems that a local politician might rectify and avoid taking rigid positions on hot button national issues like gun reform or abortion rights. They would be saying: “Right now, we’re just listening.”
Everyone likes to be listened to, but many current “representatives” obviously tune out those who didn’t vote for them. This new party would listen to everyone without promising support for anything. That comes later.
After this initial meet and greet stage, gather as a group to discuss crafting a locally based agenda and ways to raise the new party’s profile. If possible, find ways to offer help to those who need it.
After the first year, or even two, put up some candidates in local government elections. Since voters tend to choose people they know on that level, it will test how well the introductory stage has gone. If it fails, try to find out why, and take those lessons into the next election.
Have meetings between party volunteers from different communities in the same state or congressional district. Find out what common issues emerged, and brainstorm ways to work together.
Continue listening to as many different voices in a community as possible, and begin to search for potential areas of compromise. Tell people that you will never lie to them, you will commit to campaigning without negative ads, and you will listen to voters on all sides of an issue.
At some point, probably on the state level, the new party will reach a crossroads when contentious issues must be confronted. The age-old dilemma comes down to this: What if the majority of voters in your area seem to be taking a stance that runs counter to what your conscience is telling you? Does being their representative mean they can tell you how to vote and govern?
One solution is to agree to vote with the majority, after first attempting to change their minds. With luck, the candidate’s positions on other issues may trump a divergent opinion on that one. It might also be possible to dissect an issue to make it less monolithic. For example, a candidate might promise to vote for new regulations on assault weapons while also supporting Second Amendment protections.
Again, such a party will grow slowly. Initially, the best that can hoped for is that the information gathering process might lead some voters to look at the major party candidates more skeptically and think more about their choices. In some places, the new party might gain a quick advantage on the local level, if only because of name recognition. After a couple of terms, those individuals would have sufficient credibility to run for state office, allowing others to participate locally.
Money, of course, would always be an issue. Turning away cash from wealthy special interest groups would not be a problem, because they won’t be offering any to the runts of the litter. On the other hand, the party’s commitment to the principles mentioned above could attract a steady individual donation flow. Eventually, some of the party’s elected officials on the state level might gain seats in Congress. It wouldn’t take a majority to make a difference there, because the two main parties are so evenly matched that three or four outsiders could be enough to swing a vote.
If nothing else, such a community-based, primarily volunteer party would get more people off the sidelines and into the process.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."