It appears clear at this point that there will be a new anti-plutocratic electoral party launched in the United States this election cycle. The question is not whether there will be one. The question is how many there will be and what they’ll look like.
I am not going to bother making the case for the general idea of starting a new party. If you love plutocracy, you don’t need a new party and you probably won’t continue reading this article, unless you’re doing opposition research. If you’re still on board with the Democrats after the last two years and aren’t hot to find something better, stay with the Democrats. You deserve each other. If you think the Greens are the answer, work with them for a while (been there, done that, myself). I’ll still sign your ballot access petition. If you think the Libertarians can be steered toward the tradition of Thomas Paine rather than Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, have at it. If you’ve abandoned voting altogether due to the provable rigging of our elections, I can’t really blame you. But if you want a new party, I’m talking to you.
If you want to start an electoral party and have it succeed and make a difference:
Make up your mind what you’re building. If what you want is an electoral vehicle, be clear about that from the outset. Structure your organization with that purpose in mind. Don’t start a pressure group or a cultural movement or a religion and then try to turn it into an electoral political party.
Read the rulebook before you design the vehicle. Study election laws. Study ballot access laws. These are different in every state and you can’t learn all of them. However, you need to become as conversant with them as you can. The earlier you do this, and the more you do this, the better.
Know your limitations. Understand what you do and do not control when you found a party. Founders control what the party is called, what its bylaws start out as, and who is initially approached to get involved. Unlike most other democracies, in the US a party does not start with a comprehensive manifesto. Founders do not control the platform, the messaging, or even the choice of nominees, at least not beyond the earliest stages of the party’s existence. Below the national level, a party cannot define who is a member, cannot expel a member, and consequently cannot hold its members to a platform, campaign financing requirements, or much of anything else. Therefore, founders of a party must not promise to supporters that the party will be different from existing ones in these respects.
Decide how to decide. Your first decision, or a very early one, needs to be how you make decisions as a body when you are not able to reach unanimity. Even a provisional or exploratory leadership group needs to resolve this at the outset.
Don’t look for a messiah. Do not fall prey to the myth that successful parties are started by leaders or celebrities with an existing following. History actually shows the exact opposite. Starting a political party around a celebrated political figure is the road to a flash in the pan for that person, followed by organizational collapse. Lasting political parties form around an issue position or small set of issue positions which have a proven constituency that existing parties are ignoring or suppressing.
This point could be the subject of an entire article by itself, or even a book, but a few examples should serve to support the assertion. The following parties formed around a single established and widely recognized politician, and all failed to endure for any length of time or elect significant numbers of officeholders:
- 1860 People’s Party, formed as a vehicle for presidential candidacy of Sam Houston
- 1864 National Union Party, formed as a vehicle for Lincoln’s second presidential run after the Republicans refused to re-nominate him; Lincoln won, but that was the party’s only success and it promptly dissolved.
- 1912 Progressive Party, formed as a vehicle for Teddy Roosevelt’s third presidential run; a real party, with many down-ballot candidates in 1912, but it collapsed despite this when Roosevelt declined its nomination in 1916.
- 1924 Progressive Party, formed as a vehicle for the presidential candidacy of Senator Robert La Follette Sr.
- 1948 Progressive Party, formed as a vehicle for the presidential candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace.
In contrast, the two most successful efforts at starting parties since 1850, the Republican Party and the 1892 People’s Party, were not formed around a single star politician, nor were they vehicles for a predetermined presidential nominee. Contrary to a common misconception, the Republican Party did not form around Abraham Lincoln at all. It formed around an issue: abolition of slavery.
The 1892 – 1908 People’s Party, far from being formed around a single figure, had multiple contenders for its first presidential nomination. It formed around a set of progressive populist demands, reflected in its Omaha Platform. It was in most respects the most successful alternative party since the Civil War. Roosevelt’s Progressive Party carried more states in a presidential race (8 versus 5), but the People’s Party endured for 16 years, and it had 11 governors, 6 US Senators, and 40 US Representatives. Some of the Representatives were re-elected as incumbents, giving the party a total of 58 victories in US House races. Many of the points in its platform became law in the following decades, including graduated income tax, the 8-hour day, direct election of Senators, and term limits for President and Vice President.
Avoid foreign entanglements. Don’t try to transplant a party from a country with a different form of government. There are good people and good ideas all over the world, and there’s nothing wrong with learning from them, but the United States has a unique legal structure that constrains what a political party is and does (see “know your limitations” above). International solidarity is basically good, but if you want a democratic US organization it is vital that this organization be answerable to its members and to the voters, and not to any organization outside the United States.
Good intentions and ideas are not enough. You must execute. Any effort succeeds in the real world only if it is executed in a competent, organized manner. A mediocre concept with superior execution will generally beat a superior concept with mediocre execution. To successfully do the right thing, you must do the thing right.
Avoid front office mentality. If you’re building it, the nuts are not a separate job from the bolts. If you think you can merely promote, promote, promote, and the details will look after themselves, you are launching the Tucker or the DeLorean.
Pick a good name. The party’s name is important, and it’s one of the few things the founders really do control. You can deliberate about the name until you are ready to launch and pursue ballot access. Past that point, you’re pretty much locked in, because the name is what you’re getting on the ballots and publicizing. A few pointers:
- Make the name descriptive of what you hope the party will stand for, and/or whose interests you hope it will serve.
- Make it easy to pronounce and spell, and not overly long.
- Has the name been used before? If so, do the parties that used it represent a history you want to be associated with? (There have been at least three People’s Parties and at least three Progressive Parties in the US already.)
- Avoid creating confusion. In particular, avoid using the word “independent” or “independence”. This may lead people to register with your party when they think they’re registering unaffiliated. In states where party recognition or legal status is linked to voter registrations, this may be helpful for securing party recognition but you shouldn’t be pursuing that or anything else by confusing or tricking people. Also make sure the name does not resemble the name of another existing party, including relatively obscure ones.
- Don’t call the party “new”. You’re hoping it will endure until it’s not new, right?
- Think about what an adherent or member will be called.
- Think about what the party’s name will be in other languages, and what an adherent will be called in other languages, especially Spanish and probably also French. (One possible way around this is to pick a name that simply does not directly translate, and therefore will have to be adopted in its English form – e.g. “Main Street Party”.)
- What do the initials of the name look like? Do they make a clever acronym? An embarrassing one? In Spanish? French?
Make full use of modern communication. This will be the first major effort at launching a party since the use of the internet became widespread. Most people recognize that this means using the internet to promote the party. Evidently, it is less obvious to many that, at least to start with, the organization can be set up and governed online. The founders can set up an organization and have discussions and votes without needing to meet in person. This is invaluable when you are trying to create a nationwide organization but have limited means. I am in favor of hand-counted paper ballots for ordinary elections because this is the only way to guarantee a valid count, verifiable by anybody, and maintain ballot secrecy at the same time. However, if an organization is willing to have its members vote without anonymity, voting can be done at any time using nothing but a listserv and a spreadsheet. It is no longer necessary to have in-person meetings or even an in-person convention at all. I realize that some people still do not use computers. I have reservations about computers myself, and I don’t like excluding anybody, but there are a lot more people who can’t afford the time and money to attend a convention in person than there are who don’t use the internet.
Think about the possibility of hostile takeover. Those who have been attempting a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party are finding out that the party is set up to prevent this, and they are outraged. Some who see this as the reason to start a new party are determined that any new party should be more open. I certainly think it’s wrong to rig primaries and pull strings behind the scenes, while publicly representing that you have an impartial process where the voters choose the nominee, the way the DNC has done. However, I would urge you to think about how it’s going to be when the shoe is on the other foot: when you have a progressive party strong enough to be a threat and the corporatists try to overrun that. Take a look at how the Libertarians have dealt with this. Their party governance at the national level is more restricted to sympathetic insiders than the Democrats’ – only they don’t lie about it. Try to imagine what would happen if they didn’t restrict eligibility for party office to Sustaining Libertarians and voting rights at its national convention to people it has decided are members (in many states it cannot do this at the state level, and it is vulnerable to the possibility of candidates it doesn’t like running on its ballot line, as any new party will also be).
Look way down the road. Don’t let the desire to retain momentum lead you into rashness or keep you from doing things right. In 2017, we are coming off the surprising showing that was the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, and many are keen to seize this moment. This is understandable, but it is important to bear in mind that the Bernie phenomenon was not something that sprang into being because Bernie waved a wand. It was the most recent culmination of processes and tensions that have been building for decades, and these will persist. The need for a new party isn’t going to go away, and the issues and the constituency that produced the Bernie phenomenon aren’t going away. Let’s be patient and get it right this time.
Launch with a bang. If the intent is to have a major party that wins serious numbers of seats and has a real shot at making a major change, the launch needs to be a tidal wave, not a trickle. If you don’t have the backing to pull off a dramatic and powerful launch, don’t launch. How do you know if you have the backing? The DraftBernie folks have the right idea in having a CrowdPAC where people pledge to contribute, if a decision is made to actually launch. I have criticisms of this effort, and of Bernie, but the idea of lining up pledges is sound. I would suggest having at least two such CrowdPACs, one to cover general operating expenses and the other purely for ballot access. A decision to launch would depend on the amount pledged for ballot access reaching a target that would cover petitioning costs to get the new party on the ballot in all or most states in six months. This cannot be done purely with volunteers. The amount of work is such that people have to be paid to circulate the petitions, and to supervise the circulators and make sure the petitions are properly handled. I estimate that $2.7 million would be a reasonable threshold. That would be 100,000 $27 pledges, or a bit over 1% of what Bernie raised for his primary campaign.
The ballot access campaign should be timed to achieve ballot access in most of the country early in a four-year election cycle. If that means waiting until the next cycle, so be it. Details of ballot access petitioning could be the subject of an article by themselves. What I want to emphasize here is the importance of doing this quickly, and early. Failure to do this is a major reason new parties don’t make it. They barely get ballot access before the deadline, have no time to attract down-ballot candidates, and have nothing to promote but a presidential ticket that few people have heard of. They then fail to make threshold to stay on the ballot, and repeat the same process the next cycle. Over a series of election cycles, the party develops a track record of failure and the public dismisses it. It is vital to avoid this at all costs.
This is a time of great opportunity for a new party representing the 99%. However, despite unusual levels of discontent with the Democratic and Republican Parties, the dinosaur parties are extremely entrenched. Any effort to challenge the duopoly will face big challenges. But perhaps it can at least avoid the known pitfalls that have relegated previous efforts to the margins.