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How to Build a New Political Party

How to Build a New Political Party

We need a new political party—and American history shows us that it’s more than possible.

Frank J. DiStefano

Can we build a new political party, replacing either the Republicans or the Democrats, or perhaps both? A lot of Americans want one. The 20th-century Republican coalition has now splintered since its turn toward national populism in 2016. Some have abandoned it, while others now consider themselves a band of outsider revolutionaries overthrowing what the party used to represent to drain its swamp.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are divided between a beleaguered faction incessantly frustrated by the party’s listlessness and inability to act, and another wanting to overthrow what they see as a useless artifact of neoliberalism from within.

Most Americans—67 percent of whom believe our democracy is endangered—now look on this rubble-strewn scene with some mixture of disgust and genuine alarm. They see angry movements sweeping over politics, pushing it into an ugly war over who to blame as our parties seem unable to address any of the problems we desperately need solved. They see leaders seemingly uninterested in sacrificing short-term parochial interests for public duty, and failing institutions that no longer work the way we claim. They see problems stacking up in a rapidly changing world, yet few politicians offering plausible solutions for how we’re going to come together as a people to put it right.

Nor is there any reason to believe our parties will magically fix themselves. No great leaders are on the horizon who seem capable of pulling us into a better future. No movements are sweeping across the country offering solutions likely to stabilize politics anytime soon. We see few if any local party organizations, party activists, or established thinkers capable of revolutionizing our parties or our politics from within. In fact, every incentive seems to push us faster in the opposition direction—toward further decay, collapse, and national decline.

While nobody expects our parties to suddenly reform themselves from within, few believe it possible to challenge them from the outside either. No great third-party movements are presently gaining ground. While there have long been smaller parties on the margins of American politics—the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Alliance Party, and others like them—none has ever seriously been able to compete. They sometimes get on local, state, and even national ballots and even elect local officials, but they never raise enough money to compete against the huge war chests of Democrats and Republicans, nor do they attract big names or major media attention. They don’t come close to winning major races. Some well-intentioned people are now exploring building another new party—mainly former Republicans unhappy with their party’s recent turn—but few think they have much chance of making their efforts work in a way that can revolutionize our politics.

Given the recent history of failed third parties, most Americans believe new parties are pointless efforts because they never win. They see new parties as spoilers, hopeless one-off vanity campaigns for the presidency fueled by the narcissism of bored billionaires, or irrelevant playacting from deluded radicals who don’t understand how politics in America actually works. This widespread conventional wisdom is understandable. But it is completely wrong.

Building a major new party in America is not impossible. Indeed, if we stand back far enough we see that it is a historical commonplace. The Democrats of Andrew Jackson and the Whigs of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were both new parties, replacing the crumbling Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists that had already died. Lincoln’s Republicans were a new party, replacing the extinct Whigs after America’s brief flirtation with the American Party or “Know Nothings.” William Jennings Bryan’s Democrats in 1896 were a new party—when the People’s Party grew so powerful it body-snatched the Democrats and replaced its message and agenda with its own. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Republicans were arguably a new party too, when the Progressive Movement captured it and changed its ideological trajectory.

Even our modern Democrats and Republicans were essentially new parties, formed after Franklin Roosevelt overthrew the older political order with his New Deal. Roosevelt, elected to the helm of what was still mostly a southern populist party, empowered a “brain trust” of advisers to transform the Democrats into something unrecognizable from before. He essentially overthrew his party with a coup launched from within during a national crisis. Hoover’s Republicans, all but shattered amid the horrors of the Great Depression, were in due course captured by a new conservative movement that overthrew its old philosophy and remade the party from without.

If you believe new parties can’t win in America, you don’t know its history very well. Outsider movements frequently organize, become new forces, and replace outdated parties from the prior era of politics. It’s just they don’t always do it under new names. Sometimes new party movements overthrow a party directly, replacing it as an institution. But sometimes they simply capture a major party, replacing its coalition and ideology while stealing its better name and brand, like when SBC Communications acquired and took over the brand name of AT&T. What makes a political party a party isn’t the name but what it stands for and believes, and who it seeks to represent.

Despite our sincerest hopes for a deus ex machina to arrive to fix our parties for us, we should all know by now that it’s not going to happen. Those parties are on a locked-in path to destruction and decline. That path ends with two ugly parties few of us like and none of us should want. It means hard years ahead, as politics descends further into turmoil, the culture gets more angry, and government fails to act as America gradually declines. Ultimately, it means political failure and collapse until we are forced to rebuild from the wreckage.

If we hope to fix our politics, it’s almost certainly going to have to come from outside the current political class and its partisan institutions. A new movement of Americans will have to somehow come together, united around a compelling message about the future. It will need to develop fresh ideas about how we can meet new challenges and solve them. It will have to unite Americans into new coalitions appropriate to the world as it exists today, not the ones we built to address the world as it once was. That movement might end in a new party institution replacing one of our failing major parties, or it might simply take one over and replace its coalition and ideals. In either case, a new party rises to replace one of those now unable to serve.

But how can we accomplish this? As luck would have it, history provides a proven guide. America has been through moments like this several times before, and from that history we can derive a method for launching successful new major parties in America. From long-repeated experience, we know that new party movements in America only work when built around certain rules.

Not a Third Party, A New Party

The American system is designed as a two-party system. It has always had, and will always have, two major national parties trending toward about half the national vote. Despite the earnest dreams many have of multiparty democracy, including of “third parties” that perfectly represents their views, that will never happen in our republic. The goal isn’t to form a third party but a new major party, which is an entirely different thing.

The two-party system was something of an accident, since America’s Founders hated the idea of parties and hoped to create a republic without any “factions,” as Madison called them in The Federalist (No. 10). But as soon as they began operating as politicians they created two major parties, and that has remained the case ever since. The idea of rational citizens electing independent legislators governing on an ad hoc, issue-by-issue basis was a beautiful ideal, but one impossible to implement in a world in which people hope to influence government and exercise power. The reason is democracy. If you want to coordinate power and drive change in a democracy—ultimately what every faction and group with an agenda wants to do—you have to form a coalition that can consistently win an electoral majority.

Exercising power in a democracy means building coalitions that can win about half the vote. If your faction is too small to consistently win elections, you have no choice but to join with others until you can, or else you cannot get anything you want. What people often fail to realize is this also works in the reverse. If your coalition is winning more than half the vote, you’re wasting resources and influence satisfying people you don’t need. Coalitions winning less than half the vote therefore add factions until they can consistently reach or exceed a majority, while those winning more shed factions until they end up back at about 50 percent. The result is always two and only two coalitions hovering around a majority.

Given the rules of our republic, that coalition-making has to occur before the election—meaning those coalitions have to organize into two great parties. For one thing, American elections have single-member voting districts with first-past-the-post voting rules. That means for a candidate to ensure election, they need their majority to be in place before the vote. Such systems therefore always produce two great parties, a feature of our system known as Duverger’s Law.

There are other reasons, however, that America has a two-party system. America also has an Electoral College in which a candidate for President needs a majority to be elected (except in so far theoretical circumstances under the Twelfth Amendment). Coalitions again need to be formed before elections because that’s the only reliable way for any candidate to win an Electoral College majority. If America had multiple parties vying for seats in Congress, as in a multiparty democracy, it would still end up with just two vying for the presidency. That would be impractical, since a President needs to form legislative majorities to get anything done, even to pass a budget. Here again forces encourage a two-party system.

America is also a complex federal republic in which power has to be coordinated across multiple institutions and sovereigns. To reliably exercise power in America without it being checked and thwarted by others, there must be coordination across the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, governorships, state legislatures, and even mayoralties of major cities.

Given these realities, America is designed to always produce two, and only two, major parties. Those parties will always be broad based, internally diverse, and, indeed, sometimes ideologically inconsistent coalitions balancing complex regional and personality dynamics. They will contain factions that disagree on important things and who sometimes dislike each other almost as much as they dislike the rival party. There will never be an American version of the British Liberal Democrats or the German Free Democrats because there is no role for long-lived third parties maneuvering for influence outside the two-party system as in a parliamentary democracy. If you dream of a third party to break up the two-party monopoly, or because you want a party that includes only your faction and agrees with you on everything, you are fated to be disappointed. While there are those who dream of changing America’s election rules to get around this, abolishing the Electoral College, or ending first-past-the-post elections, none of that is likely to happen, certainly not anytime soon.

The goal of forming a new party isn’t to create a spoiler standing between the two major parties vying for influence. Nor is it to offer every American a comfortable political home that perfectly reflects his or her idiosyncratic values without compromises with others. It’s to replace a major party and become the next major party of a new political era.

So again: It’s not a third party you’re after. It’s a new major party.

The Cycle of Realignments

All political orders age. Plato and Aristotle knew it, the Founders knew it, and anyone with a modicum of common sense knows it. There’s no such thing as a perfect and unchanging political order, and there never has been. Lucky for us, the American Founders developed a constitutional framework that can accommodate reform and renewal without having to start from scratch amid the rubble of full-frontal, violent collapse.

American politics is a continual cycle of destruction and rebirth. In moments of crisis, we create two political coalitions to debate and solve the greatest problem of the moment. These coalitions become the two major parties of an era, what we call a party system. Once formed, those parties remain in place for years conducting a great debate until the big problems of their era are ultimately resolved, transcended, or fade away. At which point, American politics goes into decline, government stagnates, and corruption starts creeping into the system. Eventually, that debased system collapses. Out of the rubble we form two new coalitions that become two new parties, and then we do it all over again.

This cycle of creation, collapse, and renewal has played out repeatedly throughout our history.

The periods of transition between political eras are what scholars call “realignments.” It’s a term frequently misunderstood. Realignments are about more than just factions or demographics moving across the fictional “left-right spectrum,” shifting from one political party to the other. The entire idea of a left-right spectrum is a myth, as the issues of American politics have never formed up into some neat line; American politics always involves messy coalitions mixing and matching factions and ideals. Realignments are about the reshuffling of our political parties and coalitions, with parties collapsing and new parties that represent different people and ideas being born. They happen when America’s major parties, built to debate the problems of one era, no longer have the tools to address the problems of the next.

America has already had four of these realignments when political coalitions, united around old issues but unable to agree on what to do about the new ones, degraded until they either shattered—like the Federalists in 1815 or the Whigs in 1852—or were so hollowed out that outsiders seized them, as with the Democrats in 1896 and again with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In each case, America still had two major parties fighting over politics. Sometimes the names changed, and sometimes they didn’t; but those parties now represented different people and ideas composed into new coalition arrangements.

The best of these transitions involved people reinventing the future before the old system tumbled into turmoil and disorder first, like William Jennings Bryan in 1896 or FDR in 1932. In the worst of them, leaders sought to hide from necessary change until the whole thing came tumbling down and change was forced upon them, like the Whig implosion in 1852—which set off years of chaos, the rise of the ugly Know Nothings to power, violence as in Bloody Kansas, and ultimately civil war.

Uniting millions into a new common cause is always difficult. There are wrong turns, obstacles, and mistakes. New movements inevitably create space for those with ugly ideas and ill intent. In the political vacuum of a realignment, in a democracy in which everybody gets to participate in politics, ugly characters and ideas never simply go away. There was no shortage of xenophobes, charlatans, and would-be demagogues among the late 19th-century populists. But the ideas and energies of that Populist Movement, as they filtered into the political system, ultimately helped to launch all the groundbreaking progressive reforms of the early 20th century and Theodore Roosevelt’s dramatically successful presidency.

Those of us alive today have only lived through a stable part of a party system, so we have no experience with the dramatic transitions in between. That’s why we think new parties are impossible; during the stable portions of a party system, new parties can’t emerge because the demand is lacking. In the middle of a working party system, the existing parties unite coalitions that share a common goal around their era’s greatest issues, roughly channeling the coalitions’ interests and desires into policies and action. It’s impossible to convince half of America to join a new endeavor around a new vision during times when they are already mostly content with the system as it exists.

That’s not the sort of moment we live in now.

When a system built for the problems of a different time and place is no longer capable of solving problems or translating people’s interests into action, it’s not just possible to convince enough people to walk away; it’s inevitable that they will. In these sorts of moments, new parties are more than possible: they are necessary and unavoidable. That’s where we are today.

Studying previous eras of transition, in which old parties were dying and new ones emerged to replace them, it’s possible to identify the currents that allow new parties to rise. It’s these tendencies that anyone looking to build a new party movement needs to understand. Too many of those flirting with trying to launch a new party today clearly do not.

How to Build New Parties

If you want to build a movement that can become a major party, or overthrow one and replace it with new people and ideas, there is a method to succeed. Proven patterns have repeated again and again throughout the history of America that, if followed, can serve as a how-to manual for anyone wanting to shape the next era. Those patterns can be expressed in five simple rules.

The first rule for building a new party is that it can’t be a futile attempt to recreate a party that’s already dead. A new party has to break orthodoxy and think fresh. It must actually be new.

Many former Republicans need to understand this point in particular. As suggested above, the old 20th-century Republican Party isn’t dying because someone took it away from them. It’s dying because it was an anachronism even before Donald Trump climbed out of a reality-TV set to embarrass it. Its coalition is no longer united around a common purpose. Its ideology lacks the tools needed to navigate a changed America. It can no longer hold its old coalition together around the dead issues of the past.

It’s not uncommon to see the displaced leaders of a dying party, dismayed at the shattering of the institution around which they built careers, form a splinter party to restore a status quo ante. Stubborn holdouts once tried to rebuild both the Federalists and the Whigs years after they were all but buried. Democratic leaders, booted out of their party by William Jennings Bryan, tried to challenge him by mounting a new party under their old ideas and failed. This strategy has never, ever, worked.

A new party can’t succeed by trying to restore the ideologies of the past, because reality has left those ideologies in the dustbin of history. If your idea of a new party is reanimating the 20th-century Republicans or Democrats, you will fail. That’s not building a new party; it’s trying to resurrect a dead one. Zombies aren’t real, and it’s a good thing they’re not. A new party needs to think about problems in a fresh way, attracting a new coalition that pulls across old divides.

The second rule for building a new political party is to stop thinking about policies and start thinking about solving our era’s crisis. When aging political professionals think about forming a new party, they immediately want to know what policy agenda the party will support and the demographic groups it can attract. That’s backwards.

You can’t unite 51 percent of Americans under one of two major parties and then sustain that alliance for decades around a collection of unrelated programs, policy preferences, or talking points. The only way to unite hundreds of millions of diverse people for long enough to matter is with a sweeping idea addressing the big problem that a consensus believes is endangering the integrity of the commonweal.

Each discrete political era in America is essentially defined by a great debate around which all political energies revolve. Each party represents a theory about what has gone wrong and the correct approach to fixing it. For example, FDR’s New Deal wasn’t mainly a collection of programs. It was a big idea. America trembled over how to address the devastation of the Great Depression. It worried that our institutions had been proven outdated and obsolete. FDR proposed a solution: We could empower experts to design policies and institutions to benefit working people and those least well off, but without overthrowing the Republic in a revolution or dispossessing old elites.

So stop thinking about the policies you want your new party to support. Definitely give up hope of founding a party around the policies you supported in the 20th-century. Start thinking about the big new problem that begs solution and your fresh approach for solving it. That’s how to unite hundreds of millions of Americans in a common cause, even people who disagree about many things and, at least at first, don’t trust one another all the much.

The third rule for building a new party is that it has to have a positive message about the future. Stop thinking about what you don’t want, and start thinking about what you do want. You can’t unite a majority coalition for decades of campaigns around stopping someone else’s bad ideas or a politician you dislike. The Whigs formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson, but they didn’t stop there: They developed an avowedly Hamiltonian agenda for a strong, unified, progressing nation. Now, yet again, a new party needs to give people a common plan to make tomorrow’s world better. It doesn’t hurt at first for a new party to coalesce around a common perception of danger, but you need to tell a story with a happy ending for those willing to work together for it.

Now, it’s true: Opposition parties built around stopping supposedly bad ideas do exist. That kind of opposition will arise to one extent or another because big change always gores someone’s ox more than it promises to feed others. Can an agglomeration like that persist, let alone prevail, in American politics today? I doubt it. Deep down we remain an intrepid, forward-looking people. We are still pioneers of a sort.

What’s beyond dispute, then, is that opposition isn’t enough. A new party must be positive, forward thinking, and able to spark fresh solutions.

The fourth rule for building a new party is you actually have to build one from the bottom up, not just run one campaign. You can’t establish a new ideology by winning the White House in a personality-based presidential campaign. A new party has to start from the ground up around a popular movement. Even if you capture people’s attention around a leader, that leader has to stand for a genuine movement rising from the people. In short, in a very real sense a new political party has to stand on the shoulders of a social movement. The model is Lincoln’s Republicans, not the one-man crusade of Ross Perot.

So don’t start with political consultants who are experts at winning individual elections. Start with local infrastructure, organization, and ideas. Find intellectuals and thinkers to run think tanks and magazines that create fresh ideas your party can advocate. Build networks that reach into every corner of America to create supporters and to discover leaders. Start by electing like-minded people to state houses, Congress, and governorships. Only then look to win the White House. The Republicans didn’t start by just running Lincoln for the White House, but first by building a movement that could elect people to offices across the nation.

The final rule for building a new party is that you have to create new ideas from scratch; you can’t just cobble together ideas from a prior era. Continuity with a noble tradition can be an asset, but it’s not enough. You have to think and build anew.

Think about FDR’s New Deal brain trust. FDR didn’t just try to slap a few new policies onto the old Democratic agenda. He assembled a group of experts, scholars, and policy minds and tasked them with developing a new agenda to address the crisis of the Great Depression. The group drew across old partisan lines, and its proposals were novel. Instead of trying to patch over his old party agenda, or buy off groups of voters with carefully pitched policies, he sought to identify and solve the most difficult and unfamiliar problems stalking the nation.

Your new party has to do the same thing. It has to develop a new agenda relevant to our onrushing 21st-century world. It has to be forward-looking, which is the best way to transcend the vicious disagreements of the present to create new coalition bonds. What people differ about from the past cannot be allowed to swallow what they agree about looking to the future. Whatever big ideas your new party proposes should surprise us, because it will be experimenting and innovating to solve real problems that so far nobody has even properly named.

A Blueprint for Restoring the American Dream

Now that we’ve established the principles that a new party needs to adhere to in order to succeed, it’s time to map out a template for action. With the necessary resources and dedication, you could have a new party roaring within a year. The blueprint draws itself.

First, start by building the intellectual infrastructure to develop new ideas. You need to fill the role that institutions like The New Republic (which helped develop the ideas that united the Progressive Movement), or FDR’s “brain trust” (which turned an economic crisis into the foundation of the ideology that united Democrats for generations), or National Review (which turned the feuding factions opposed to the New Deal into a coherent group of conservatives) played in earlier times. Find great minds, free them to think unchained to orthodoxy, and ask them to see the world with fresh eyes.

Next, build that national network. Once you know what your party stands for, move out of Washington. Build a presence in each state. Open offices. Sponsor fairs, concerts, debates, clubs, and social-action groups. Identify local leaders. Build a national party not around winning just one election, but around advancing your ideas.

Then compete in the next midterm elections. Don’t start with the presidency. Look to Congress and the state houses with a slate of new candidates drawing from both old parties. Find some folks with no links to the prior era’s politics at all. Avoid politicians and longtime activists looking to extend careers or hitchhike old ideas onto new vehicles. Set out to win just twenty seats in the House of Representatives, two Senate seats, and a governorship. Do that and people have to take you seriously.

Finally, once all that is achieved, look for a President. Once you have the right big radioactive idea, with fetching narrative to match (don’t underestimate what genuinely excellent writers, not advertising professionals, can do for you) and a new group of leaders unchained from the past, you can campaign for the presidency. Don’t look to some rich mogul because he’s willing to finance his own campaign. Don’t look to some aging Senator. Look for the next Lincoln, someone with a record of caring about the country, someone with manifest passion and potential greatness whom the previous era overlooked.

Campaign around the American Dream. Of course, you need a soaring message, not something out of a policy wonk’s report. You need to unite hundreds of millions of Americas around a vision in which our greatest crisis yields to new hope. I suggest restoring the promise of the American Dream.

If you listen to the most common complaints about America today, whether from the left or from the right, they usually come down to some version of the same complaint: People believe there’s too much corruption, too much hypocrisy, too much self-dealing. America’s institutions no longer work in practice the way we all pretend and say. Those who affect and control our lives don’t care about us, don’t respect our dignity as human beings, and won’t give us a fair shot. The specifics and the vocabulary may vary—who the people are in charge, and who the people are who find themselves shut out—but this core complaint remains: a fair opportunity to rise is closed. Many Americans no longer believe America offers a true and equal chance to pursue their dreams. `

This complaint isn’t just about money or status shallowly defined. It’s about dignity. It’s about a society that considers every citizen to be a full social equal worthy of the same opportunities and respect. Not only for themselves, but also for their families and communities, their spouses, children, parents, grandchildren, family, and friends. Put simply, there’s growing loss of faith in not only the American system, but in the American Dream itself.

The American Dream has always been our nation’s foundational promise. America is supposed to be a country that plays by its own rules, cherishes the rule of law, and provides equal opportunity and a level playing field to all citizens no matter where they come from or who they are. It’s a dream put best by Thomas Wolfe in his posthumous 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again:

So, then, to every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity—to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this, seeker, is the promise of America.

It’s not a guarantee of total success. Nor is it a promise America has always kept, sometimes failing to honor it to some while offering it to others. It is, however, a promise of fairness and dignity. It’s a good-odds bet that with work and a bit of luck you can, in America, become whatever you hope to be.

This is the challenge of our age. America has to earn back the belief in social mobility. It must prove itself again to the working people and the middle class, who have seen their position decline, to those in rural areas and struggling towns who believe they’re left behind, to those in neglected parts of great cities who believe they’re the forgotten, to every segment and demographic in society that believes the people in charge won’t let them succeed, and most of all to all the young people who no longer believe America is still the nation that their older countrymen lived in. It must prove to all of them that the American Dream is still reality. The only way to do that is to actually ensure it’s true.

An Enlightenment liberal democratic republic cannot survive unless its citizens in their great majority believe in it. They have to believe that it actually works the way it claims by providing fair opportunity and a level field to everyone. They have to believe that its leaders honor their duties and play fairly by its rules, that working hard and playing by the rules will not turn you into a chump whom savvy and selfish elites can exploit. They have to believe that despite inevitable differences in ability, position, success, and wealth, we are all equal citizens of a democracy.

The American Dream isn’t just an empty phrase for feel-good patriotism and hollow politicians. It’s a difficult promise that takes demanding work to keep alive. It requires shaping institutions, continually reforming them, and vigorously ensuring leaders live up to them.

As America transforms from an industrial global superpower to an information-age nation besieged by new competitors, we currently face an earthquake of dramatic change. We increasingly live differently, work differently, and inhabit a different wider world. We face dangerous challenges we don’t yet fully understand, and which no one yet knows how to address, ranging from a rising China and climate change to artificial intelligence and automation. Restoring the promise of the American Dream can provide a powerful guide for how to re-engineer institutions built around the economic and social assumptions of an industrial age for the different world emerging.

Building a new party takes work, organization, and lots of money. It requires leaders, writers, thinkers, activists, and the trust of millions of Americans coming together around a common vision. It takes patience even within the passion of urgency. But most of all, it takes faith. It takes a belief that we can do it, and the confidence to weather the setbacks and obstacles that will litter our path. If we keep to the blueprint, however, we can do it. Indeed, we must do it if we hope to restore faith and stability in America and enter a new political era we all are eager to see.

Frank J. DiStefano is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and author of The Next Realignment: Why America’s Parties Are Crumbling and What Happens Next (2019). He has been a congressional aide, presidential campaign official, and Washington-based attorney.

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