Every so often, a citizen emerges to challenge the political establishment. Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run drew on a public hunger for a new approach; he received 20 percent of the vote. In 2016 Donald Trump steamrolled traditional Republican candidates and changed the party’s face to his own. Andrew Yang is more a firecracker than a depth charge, but he has captured the public imagination with his refreshing candor and fearlessness.
Unlike Perot or Trump, Yang came from nowhere—no public reputation, no big money, no access to any part of the establishment. Yet, by force of his personality, Yang now has a pedestal in the political landscape. In his new book, Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy, Yang plants the flag of a new political party. He argues that, though Americans are not as polarized as polls suggest, neither existing party will address the legitimate needs of the other side. He also says that the two parties are comfortable with their duopoly of failure—first you fail, then I fail—and therefore will not support disruptive electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting.
Yang is not the first to suggest that our two political parties no longer represent most Americans. Frank DiStefano, in his recent essay in these pages, argued that the parties are on “a locked-in path to destruction and decline.” In my 2019 book, Try Common Sense, which Yang cites, I said that each party’s outmoded ideology precludes the overhauls needed to respond to public frustration.
It is no surprise that a plurality of voters now identifies as “independent” or as a member of a third party. But the electoral machinery makes it difficult for a would-be candidate to operate outside the two parties; and the primary system promotes extremists, not problem solvers.
Yang’s idea of a party is, initially, not one with its own candidates but a centrist movement that exercises influence on candidates from both parties. As DiStefano elaborates it, a movement that captures public imagination can eventually take over or supplant one of the parties. The challenge is to galvanize public support for this type of new overhaul movement in a political environment like today’s, which breeds deadlock, not solutions. While many Americans might be receptive to a new party, the current political shouting match has left them exhausted and cynical. There is a huge gulf today between wanting change and rolling up your sleeves to force change.
So, what does it take to engender the excitement needed for a new movement? Yang proposes a six-point platform for his Forward Party:
1. Ranked-choice voting, with open primaries: These arrangements would reduce the stranglehold of the two parties and defang the extremists.
2. Fact-based governing: The idea here is to evaluate programs objectively.
3. Human-centered capitalism: Yang wants to re-center business around employees and communities, not just owners.
4. Effective and modern government: Here Yang embraces the need to “fix the plumbing” of paralyzed government.
5. Universal Basic Income: Giving Americans $1,000 per month was Yang’s signature proposal in his presidential campaign—a proposal that was validated, he argues, by the Covid relief payments.
6. Grace and tolerance: Yang urges Americans to be more accepting of each other, not stay locked in a battle of identity politics.
By opening the door to a new party, Yang once again reveals solid leadership instincts. But a new movement requires a tougher, more focused platform. A list of centrist do-good reforms is unlikely to elicit the public passion needed to dislodge the current parties. Yang himself is a bold and disarming figure; his party must be as well. A new party needs a clarion call that can galvanize popular support—as the Progressive Movement did, for example, with its vision of public oversight of food and fair practices, or the New Deal with its idea of social safety nets. Successful movements also energize public passion by fingering villains, as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street did.
To get Americans out of their easy chairs, the new party must light a bonfire. Yet Yang’s platform is soporific, with no inspirational theme or evil targets. What’s the vision? Who are the enemies? Here is the way I would reframe Yang’s proposed Forward Party.
First, the clarion call for a new way of governing: Responsibility for America. Americans have lost their sense of self-determination. We should be re-empowered to make a difference. Revive individual responsibility at all levels of society. Replace mindless bureaucracy with accountability for results. Teachers should be free to do their best, with authority to maintain classroom discipline. Principals should be free to hold teachers accountable, and the same should hold true all the way up the chain of responsibility. Officials must be free to authorize action within a reasonable timeframe; and they, too, must be accountable up the chain of responsibility. Mayors and police chiefs should have authority to manage the police force and other departments, including authority to promote public employees who do their jobs and fire those who don’t.
Reviving human responsibility requires overhauling government’s operating systems, replacing thick rule books with simpler goals and principles managed by people who take responsibility for themselves and are accountable to others. This is not so hard: It is far easier to agree on goals than to bicker over endless details of implementation. Modern American government has become basically a bad form of central planning, tying Americans into knots of red tape. Ask any teacher or doctor. Restoring responsibility would empower officials and citizens to govern better and adapt to local needs.
Second, identify enemies and attack them. Powerful forces will resist a movement to revive responsibility. I see two main villains: public unions, which exist to block all accountability, and the political parties themselves, which have become organs of identity politics and special interests. It is impossible to fix broken government or revive a shared sense of national purpose without defeating these villains.
Public unions have made government unmanageable and must be outlawed. Public unions have preempted democratic governance. Citizens elect leaders to run the police force and schools, but these leaders have no authority to fulfill this responsibility. The Minneapolis mayor appointed the police chief; but under the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, the mayor lacked authority to fire the rogue cop who killed George Floyd—or even to reassign the officer. Unlike private unions, which are dependent on the success of a private enterprise, public unions retain power even where they cause government to fail miserably.
Democracy is supposed to be a process of giving officials responsibility and holding them accountable. But public unions have broken the links: Today, there is zero accountability in the daily operations of American government. Without accountability, rote compliance with the thick rule books replaces individual responsibility for results. The bottom line today is a government bogged down in a bureaucratic jungle of dictates and entitlements. Nothing much works sensibly or fairly because no one is empowered to make things work.
As for political parties, they compete through failure, not achievement. Party leaders have basically given up on reforming government. Instead, they take turns in power pointing to the failures of the incumbent. In 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump tapped into broad public frustrations with Washington. Trump’s erratic leadership opened a door through which Joe Biden entered, offering sanity. But Biden’s failures of execution in Afghanistan and on the Mexican border now empower Republicans to go on the attack and prepare for their own return.
This spiral of negative democratic competition is accelerated by the rise of extremism: Each side stokes fear of the extremists on the other (“Defund the police!” “Stop the steal!”). Actually fixing government is no longer the way the parties compete.
Each party will aggressively resist reforms that would revive responsibility. Public unions have a stranglehold on the Democratic Party. Identity groups on the left will resist any accommodation of other points of view, or what Andrew Yang calls “grace and tolerance.” Republicans have become a party of nihilism and offer no discernible governing vision. They will rail against any reform that empowers public officials, opens elections to moderate candidates, or imposes taxes for public projects.
The existing political parties are the problem, not the path to a solution. The new party envisioned by Yang must ultimately supplant one of them. The new party must ask its supporters to defeat the defenders of the status quo: They are not the agents but the enemies of a successful future. Generating public enthusiasm will require not a laundry basket of reforms but a spear with a sharp point. No matter which party is in charge, focus on its virtually unblemished recent record of failure.
America needs a new party. Its vision must be condensed into a new governing principle that resonates with American values and represents a clean break from bureaucratic paralysis—a principle like human responsibility, which can guide an overhaul of all levels of government.
The current state of American politics has squeezed all energy and hope out of our democracy. There’s no oxygen to serve as fuel for anyone who wants to do what is needed. Yang has cracked open a door, but we need a new vision to open it wide and attract a public enervated by decades of failure.
Philip K. Howard is founder of Common Good and author, most recently, of Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left (2019).
Image: Collision conference from Toronto, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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