TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

In my most frustrated moments after I’ve tried and failed to get started on a writing project, I often prompt myself by muttering, “There’s got to be another way.” Alas, I find myself doing much the same thing as I try to assess the state of politics in the United States and even in Connecticut specifically. With apologies to my Democratic and Republican friends, whose abiding faith in the system defies the gravity of parties burdened by their basest factions – the two-party system is broken, perhaps beyond repair.

I’ve thought this for awhile, well before the era of Donald Trump, who lowered the standards for political discourse and protest to previously unheard-of depths. But the rise of social media, with its algorithms that pander to the confirmation bias of its users, has made the dysfunction of the two-party system worse than I imagined it could have been even 10 years ago.

Lest anyone think I’m trying to draw a false equivalency between the two parties, right now the Republicans are much worse. On the national level, the GOP that I once sympathized with has run out of ideas and has been reduced to a party of white grievance and a cult built around the personality of an enfeebled businessman and his often nutty followers. Agree or disagree with the Democrats, but they still believe in the power of ideas and actually want to accomplish something when they get elected. Their counterparts on the other side of the aisle are currently more interested in tearing things down, taking away rights, and making it more difficult to vote.

Still, I’ve never been able to bring myself to register as a member of either party. That’s why I was intrigued when I learned that tech entrepreneur and amateur politician Andrew Yang, who has run unsuccessfully for president and mayor of New York, was launching an initiative to form a new political party with a goal of capturing the center, where polling consistently shows most American voters reside on the political spectrum. And so the Forward Party was born, with the tagline of “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”

The “Forward Party is fighting for the American people with practical, common-sense solutions,” its website announces. “While other political parties look to divide America into different camps, the Forward Party aims to bring them together.”

Yang brought in two experienced and respected ex-pats from the Republican Party and the three of them rolled out Forward with an op-ed in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor from New Jersey who later served as George W. Bush’s EPA administrator, co-authored the piece with Democrat Yang and David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida.

Few reasonable people could disagree with the premise for the formation of Forward. After all, it’s hard to move “forward” when the two major political parties are reluctant to compromise, are beholden to their respective bases and often hold radical views on social issues such as abortion rights.

As is the case with most third-party movements, the devil is in the details. Everyone agrees that the current two-party system is lacking and that some competition could spur innovation and break up the duopoly. But when a movement such as this one starts taking policy positions, support invariably drops off.

Presumably so as not to scare anyone away at this early juncture, Yang and company offer practically no specifics as to which policies they would pursue. In its platform, Forward offers ideas concerning elections themselves (e.g. ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan primaries, independent redistricting commissions) but next to nothing on the other policies its candidates would advocate for if elected to office.

Forward wants a “free people” and “a culture that celebrates difference and individual choice, rejects hate, and removes barriers so that each of us can rise to our full potential.” It wants “thriving communities” and a “vibrant democracy” but offers little in the way of how to get there. Why is this? Do Yang et al want to keep us in suspense? Or do they think – am I’m channeling Jack Nicholson here – we can’t handle the truth?

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie points out, third parties have numerous barriers to success in the United States. First and foremost is the near impossibility of winning the presidency. The winner must get a majority in the Electoral College, which would be a steep climb with three competitive candidates. More than two viable presidential candidates invariably means the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives. Yet another reason to do away with the EC? It has the effect of protecting the two major parties from competition at the highest levels.

There are no such barriers on the state level. That leads us to another challenge for Forward. The only way to establish an enduring third party is to build it from the ground up. The party would eventually need to field candidates for everything from school board to state legislatures to governor.

Too often third parties in this country are top-down organizations. Along with his two presidential campaigns, Ross Perot’s Reform Party was funded largely by his millions and did little party building beyond his presidential campaigns. The Libertarian Party fields candidates for office every year in several states, and for national office in presidential years, but it’s simply too extreme to gain wide political currency.

In the modern era, we do have experience with serious third-party candidacies in Connecticut. The most famous and successful was Lowell Weicker’s gubernatorial candidacy in 1990. Rather than simply run as an unaffiliated candidate, Weicker formed a new entity, A Connecticut Party. It was a “good-government” coalition of liberal Republicans, moderate Democrats, and independents.

Weicker was likely the only politician in Connecticut who could have pulled it off. At the time, he was a stentorian, towering bear of a man, a larger-than-life figure who had already racked up three terms as a maverick Republican U.S. Senator. But after serving one tumultuous gubernatorial term that included the bitterly contested passage of the state’s first income tax, the embattled Weicker exited as the first minor-party Connecticut governor since the Civil War.

Without Weicker’s hulking presence, A Connecticut Party withered on the vine, though last year a group of disaffected Republicans from West Hartford and Glastonbury revived it. The late business leader Oz Griebel tried to run for governor as an independent in 2018, but despite his high-profile standing in the state, his candidacy could not gather steam.

The bottom line for Yang et al is that even if they can raise enough money to be competitive locally and nationally, it will be an uphill battle all the way. All the passion and energy is on the margins. And there’s no way Yang, Whitman, and Jolly can succeed if their campaign continues to be an issues-free zone where everyone can feel comfortable but no one knows where “Forward” will actually take them.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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