from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Does the US Need a New, More Centrist, Political Party?

Many of us are increasingly fearful for our political situation here in the US.

It’s already bad, and there seem to be daily signs that it is getting even worse.

Back in 2020, when Howard Schultz tried to throw his hat in the ring as an independent candidate for president, I was frankly dismissive of his effort, and even of the idea of trying to find any middle ground in our heated political divisions.

But when we consider the possibility of a centrist party, I think the answer all depends on what kind of centrism we’re talking about.

In many ways, our current political divisions can be traced back to the failed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, launched in 1964, when he famously asserted that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

And even though he suffered a loss of historic proportions in the presidential race that followed, the seeds had been sown.

For in the years that followed, extremism gained a foothold in both of our political parties, and both parties sought political advantage by characterizing their opponents using the words and positions voiced by their most extreme elements – and by seeking to make room in their own parties for their own extremists, in order to gather together the largest possible group of voters.

And this movement has proceeded apace, fueled by the inexorable logic of polarization, as our modern media and the political fund-raising machines focus attention on the most extreme divisions, continually pouring more fuel on the already blazing flames of discord, acrimony and hatred.

So is there a way out of this downward spiral?

Yes, I’m beginning to think… but only one.

We need a new party that is explicitly centrist, and explicitly denounces extremism at both ends of our political spectrum.

It must be a new party because it has to attract reasonable, sensible voters from both the left and the right – and because both the Democrats and the Republicans have crossed too many bridges to be able to accomplish that feat.

It must move beyond current labels of liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary, red and blue, because those terms have been stripped of all meaning except to serve as standards announcing allegiance to one side or the other in our never-ending political warfare.

I do not mean that such a party should be afraid of taking a stand on anything, and I do not mean that such a party should try to decide every issue by searching for the precise middle of every range of options.

But I do think that such a party needs to start with the idea that there is no singular ideal form for human society, and there are rarely perfect answers to complex problems.

Such a party must openly renounce any goals of having one demographic seek to disenfranchise or otherwise trample the will of another – whether we are talking urban vs. rural, brown vs. white, Christian vs. non-Christian, labor vs. business, male vs. female (vs. non-binary), or any other versus that will inevitably lead to fear, resistance and rebellion.

And by this I mean to say that such a party must actively and openly embrace that most precious American value – even though it is often hardest to defend – a balance of power: between the various branches of government, between the various levels of government, between public and private interests, between competing interest groups, and so on.

When such a party encounters disagreement, it must not immediately move to denounce those with opposing but firmly held opinions, but must first seek to understand the basis for those differences, and then seek to reconcile them, through forthright debate if possible and, in the last resort, through unthinking compromise.

Such a party must unite, not against “the other party,” but against extremism in all forms, because the most dangerous idea in any society is that some people are always right, and others always wrong.

Those who wish to defend our democracy must understand that the term they are defending means “the rule of the people,” and that this means that political leaders must find reasonable means to persuade most of the people that a certain course of action is the best to pursue at a certain point in time, in a certain situation: not that they must jump on media bandwagons making money hand over fist by convincing one part of our electorate that another, sufficiently distant, part is made up entirely of demons instead of people much like themselves.

I’m sometimes challenged with the question of whether I am in opposition to our country’s two-party system.

I don’t know that I am opposed to such a system in general: but I have come to be of the firm opinion that both of our current parties have painted themselves into corners from which there is no practical escape.

No escape for them – but again, perhaps, escape for us.

If a new party can somehow rise up that seeks first to bring together those who share a belief in avoiding extremism…

… and then a belief that reasonable people can find agreement on enough of society’s elements that we can move forward together to achieve a better life for all of our fellow citizens with the will to put their shoulders to the wheel…

… then perhaps America may yet save itself from the endless and ultimately paralyzing political strife in which we all find ourselves today.

No doubt such a party will in time wander in one direction or another, making room for a second party to define itself in opposition to the first.

But first we need someone to push aside the extremists on both sides and make some room for a reasonable center to emerge.

Creating such a new party will no doubt be a large and expensive and difficult enterprise, fraught with challenges…

But I don’t believe any better choices are left to us.

January 31, 2022