A New Party of the Center

America is likely to get a moderate third party in the same way that a woman needs a man, which as we all know, is the way a fish needs a bicycle.

I’ll pause here and let you sort that out.

Okay, let’s move on then. My point is that it’s all but impossible to get a viable third party established in the United States. Ask Teddy Roosevelt, who was the last guy to give it a serious go. The Progressives did establish a viable party in some parts of the country for about three decades or so in the first half of the twentieth century, but they never seriously challenged the Republicans and Democrats for power. And if TR couldn’t pull it off, what are our chances?

Our chances would be rotten, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

Here’s the current problem with our two party system. For starters, there’s only one traditional American party now. The Republicans are gone. They’re just the party of Donald Trump. They used to stand for certain principles, like smaller government, lower taxes and more personal freedom. Now they stand for whatever Trump wants. Free trade, for example, used to be a bedrock Republican principle. Then Trump came out for tariffs and all of a sudden Republicans fell in line behind protectionism. It got so bad that the party didn’t even bother with a platform in 2020. They were for whatever Trump was for and against whatever it was he didn’t like. There’s a certain refreshing honesty behind that, but it’s the kind of honesty that graces a confessed ax murderer. We’re glad he didn’t put the public through the expense of a trial, but that doesn’t excuse the underlying offense.

That leaves the Democrats, God help us. I made the case in my book, Light Blue: How center-left moderates can establish and enduring Democratic majority, that Democrats must succeed, and they can by avoiding the culture wars, focussing on economic issues and tying those policies back to traditional American values, like rewarding hard work.

TR made the last serious attempt at a third party. Maybe it’s time to try again.

I believe I’m right about that, but I’m pessimistic (for reasons other than somewhat less than impressive book sales) that Democrats can execute the plan. The problem is that the party’s image is shaped by a perverse, but mutually beneficial, relationship between the hard-left and right-wing media. The hard-left jumps to the bait every time the Republicans toss a fly into the water. So, for example, Florida Republicans introduce a bill that does essentially nothing and Democrats go nuts, congratulating themselves that they’ve scored some sort of marketing coup by branding the bill “don’t say gay.”

The bill says nothing of the sort and moderate parents everywhere are asking themselves why it’s anti-gay for their kindergartners not to be getting instruction on gender identity. The hard-left thinks they won the political skirmish even if the bill was signed into law. They are wrong, but they love the fight. The more the hard-right hates on them, the more they are convinced they are doing the Lord’s work (if they believed in the Lord).

That’s just the latest example of what I mean. The Democratic Party’s image is shaped by its loudest activists. And Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and countless conservative outlets I’ve never heard of, jump on every utterance from AOC or whoever. Tucker Carlson should be paying the hard-left just like Al Capone was the greatest contributor to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

I just don’t know how you turn off that spigot. Ninety-nine percent of Democratic candidates and office holders could hew to the Light Blue script, but if just one prominent pol or activist goes after the culture wars bait, you can bet the vast right-wing media establishment will make sure the word gets out. The slightest leftist whisper becomes a roar. And there’s your problem.

The upshot is that I find myself, for example, uninspired by my choices in Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate. I’ll certainly vote for one of them because Sen. Ron Johnson is just beyond the pale. But all of them have gone hard-left in an attempt to capture the party’s activist and funder base. I have no center-left choice who matches my views.

Which gets me back to good old Teddy. Maybe we need to think more about the improbable. Maybe the Democratic brand is so toxic that it cannot be saved even if we make it a political Superfund Site. Maybe center-left moderates, like me, try to make common cause with center-right independents and disaffected Republicans. Maybe a common sense party even attracts some non-voters to start voting.

I actually believe that that coalition would make up a majority or at least a large plurality of voters. Soundly reject both Trump and the hard-left woke mobs. Embrace the Bill Clinton formulation: work hard and play by the rules and get ahead in America. Talk fairness, reward for hard work, stability, compromise, common sense and common decency. Speak in the language of normal people. Do not say equity or white privilege or intersectionality or toxic masculinity or a million other inanities. If you hear it on NPR, don’t say it.

A new centrist party could work, but it’s unlikely to overcome the legal, financial and cultural breastworks that protect the two major parties. Then again, if the Republicans are gone and the Democrats can’t be saved, what choice is there?

Postscript: My good progressive friend Joel Rogers reminds me of another option. It’s called “fusion” and the idea is that a candidate could run under more than one party’s banner and tally his votes among them. So, for example, if there was a new centrist party a candidate could seek the nomination of both that party and, say, the Democrats. Then, come election day, he could add the votes he gets from both parties. In Wisconsin, this idea would take a change in law. I actually did a version of this very thing when I first ran for mayor in 2003. I ran as both a Democrat and a member of the Progressive Dane Party. Since it was a nonpartisan election there was no legal issue with that, but it worked to much the same effect.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “A New Party of the Center

  1. Thanks for at least inching towards proposing a path to a solution. I think of the phrase “What? So what? Now what?”We need a lot more of the “Now what?”

    Policy and law make things the way they are. Policy and law can be changed. People who wish to get past our terrible political situation need to be specific and actionable regarding what needs to be done. They need to organize, create a platform, and hammer away for years, challenging politicians every step of the way.

    Wringing hands, complaining, and wishing doesn’t do anything. This blog is in a position to move this way – I urge you to do it. Identity what laws to change to make 3rd (4th, 5th, etc.) parties possible and make the case, build a coalition. Don’t focus on what a specific party will stand for, focus on creating conditions that allow for any third party to be viable. That’s harder for opponents to knock back and can get a broader coalition, and it’s the first step anyway so why get ahead of things?

    Things are different now than when Teddy Roosevelt tried. In some ways perhaps harder, but in others easier. People in other states have succeeded in getting things like rank-choice voting passed. That’s a reasonable and now-precedented step in the right direction. What other changes would help?

    What we need is DEMOCRACY. With that there’s a chance, without it there’s none. People know what’s best for themselves, we need to put the power in the people and democracy is the only way I know to achieve that. Anyone who says we already have it is lying or ignorant.


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