Centrism from the Bottom up

One of the more difficult aspects of maintaining a consistent critique of two-party politics is not allowing oneself to fall back into the frames and categories that reproduce duopoly ideology, and hence exclude the very subjects you intend to broach, precisely because these are the frames and categories that comprise our political discourse and commentary in the context of the present two-party state. In a post at No Quarter, Steve Cowell asks whether a centrist party could mount a viable run against both Republican and Democratic incumbents, in effect creating a national three-party system. Yet his operative assumptions for the theoretical movement are thoroughly grounded within and beholden to the order of the duopoly: "In order to compete effectively, a third major political party is going to have to draw both its constituency and its leadership from the two existing political powerhouses." Though Cowell does not deny that a viable centrist party could be formed on the basis of these assumptions, I see no reason to limit any given third party strategy in this way.

If a centrist third party campaign were led by candidates drawn only from the pool of professional duopolists, it would likely lose a significant amount of credibility in the eyes of justifiably cynical moderates and independents who would see in it nothing more than a weak attempt at top-down bipartisanship. This, perhaps, is the lesson of the ill-fated Unity '08 campaign. On the other hand, if its base of support were drawn only from the constituencies of the duopoly parties, then it would defeat a primary objective of any third party movement worthy of the name: to expand political representation and encourage renewed civic activism and involvement. As the Jacksonian Party has persuasively argued, and as maintained here before, a successful centrist campaign "must peel off disaffected supporters from the duopoly parties and reach out to potential voters who feel disenfranchised from the system as a whole."

When dismissing third party activism out of hand, apologists of the duopoly are quick to argue that third party (and, by extension, independent) campaigns have almost no chance of winning the highest offices in the next election cycle and thus are an exercise in futility. The unreasonableness of such an expectation is matched only by the fatalism inherent in its presuppositions. Like any sound edifice, a viable third party will have to be built from the bottom up, and that takes time.


Michael said...

"I see no reason to limit any given third party strategy in this way."

I agree wholeheartedly. The one thing that I've heard consistently from those intimately involved in either party is that my attempt to operate out of their perception of how to get elected and govern simply can't be done, unless I incorporate elements of what they currently do.

I'm out to try to disprove some of that with my candidacy. To create a new paradigm, you have to shed the old one, not start with it. I'm as interested in the outcome as anyone else.

Samuel Wilson said...

Isn't the very term "centrist" a symptom of duopolist thinking, as it presumes the reality of "right" and "left" as categories that implicitly exclude any option but a "center" that is itself inescapably trapped between a "right" and "left" that define the entire universe of possibilities? Would "moderate" be any better a label?

As for impatience with grass-roots growth, people with some sense of history are probably spoiled by the zero-to-White House-in-six-years growth of the Republican party in the 1850s. The GOP benefited from and outcompeted the nativists to occupy the vacuum created by the collapse of the Whigs. The riddle of the American Bipolarchy isn't so much why it's so hard for third parties but why the two major parties don't collapse.

d.eris said...

Good luck to you Michael. Keep us informed on how you're faring.

Sam, that's the problem of trying to undermine duopoly discourse and ideology, it always smuggles itself back into the critique and undermines it. The funny thing is that activist 'moderates' and 'centrists' out to create a third party are by that very fact fringe radicals!

A Jacksonian said...

From my perspective the venues a third party must go to are the ones where the people are: those that don't vote. Any ability to attract even a small coterie of non-voters back into the process and having them not aligned to the current system then starts the process of changing the system. That percentage does not need to be much, a mere 10% of those not voting (5% of the overall voting age population) can start to shift political views. As these are people completely turned off by the current two parties (they don't vote) the message to be crafted for them is one that demonstrates allegiance to something other than the current system which is rife with corruption.

We have seen striking demonstrations of the understanding that we cannot spend our way to solvency, that government cannot do everything, and America has a long-standing breech between centralizers from cities and de-centralizers from the area now starting at suburbs and reaching into rural areas. Thus geography and demography point away from urban areas and into suburban ones all the way to rural venues. Traditionally this is where the Republican party was built and where the Democratic party got its major support in the early 19th century.

Themes that play well in those zones include: fiscal conservatism, 'leave me alone'-ism/get government out of my life, and support for the only trusted part of the US Government which is now the armed forces (which eclipsed the Supreme Court in the last two years, particularly post-Raich). That is a social conception that is understood as I looked at elsewhere.

After the disaffected in general must come the disaffected of the two parties: they must have a place to go TO before they will leave their current parties. That is then an appeal to Traditionalist conservatives and 'Blue Dog'/PUMA Democrats. That then creates three cohesive groups formed around the older style of US politics: tell it like it is, back it up by what you do and mean it. That may seem simplistic, but is in reality a very complex way of viewing the world as it does not try to reach simplistic ends, only simple means.

The platform for such a party becomes its uniting factor (as of old) but now ranges very close to cities due to demographics. As we now have the technology to create a 'flat' party structure, this removes the older structures as viable: competition now shifts from 'elites' to across-the-board support and equalizes views and discussions. This must be done to demonstrate that any third party is NOT going to repeat the structure that invites corruption as the other two parties do.

To have a different party it must actually be different, not only in what it views as vital but how it functions.

d.eris said...

A Jacksonian, thanks for the substantive comment. I thoroughly agree with the necessity of a two-pronged outreach effort to the unaffiliated and the disaffected. Interestingly, your point that "to have a different party it must actually be different, not only in what it views as vital but how it functions" is one which Sam Wilson of Think 3 has made in a number of comments here before. This practical aspect of any third party organizational strategy cannot be overemphasized.