First, some news I found particularly welcome: The name that Jim Rex and Oscar Lovelace have proposed for their new political party, which had its initial public meeting today in the Tapps building downtown, is negotiable, or as one of them said, a “first draft.”
Good, thing, too. Not only does “Free Citizens Party” sound like it could have been one of the contenders for the Tea Party’s name, it doesn’t represent at all what they’re trying to accomplish. But they rejected a far more descriptive name — Common Ground — because they couldn’t get ownership of it. Ditto with another name they liked (and for the best of reasons, because it expressed what we all have in common, rather than what divides us), “American Party.” What they didn’t mention was that that would have been a bad idea because of the unfortunate association with George Wallace.
But more than that, the name puts them on the wrong side — from their own perspective — of the constant strain between rights and responsibilities. As I’ve written so many times in the past, one of the things contributing to the destructive polarization of our politics is that we couch far too many issues in terms of “rights,” which, being absolutes, are non-negotiable. Take the right to life vs. the right to autonomy/privacy. The right to health care vs. the right to be left alone. What we need more than anything is to stop demanding more and more personal rights — stop acting like a bunch of two-year-olds crying gimme-gimme — and think a bit more of our responsibilities as citizens.
And indeed, Rex and Lovelace spoke repeatedly of the lack of responsibility in our politics. First, there is the abdication of responsibility of disengaged citizens who are turned off by politics and leave our public life in the hands of the squabbling ideologues (which this new party is intended to address by providing a new challenge to involvement for the disaffected). Then, there is the lack of responsibility of the parties, which concern themselves only with winning, and stick by the very worst of their members. Then, there is the lack of responsibility to the people on the part of elected representatives, who grow complacent in their “safe” seats (at least, that’s how Rex and Lovelace see it).
At one point, Rex even invoked one of my alternative names for the UnParty — the Grownup Party. And that leads directly to the problem with naming the kind of party we really need in this state and country (which, I believe, is what Rex and Lovelace are trying to create) — if you call it the “Responsibility Party,” or the “Grownup Party,” it’s not exactly going to set a focus group on fire. Too much like “Eat Your Vegetables.” And yet that is exactly what we need — an “Eat Your Vegetables” party.
As for the “Citizens” part: Again, this is not about “I’m a citizen and therefore I’m entitled,” the way I hear the word used by some nativists. In fact, in explaining the name, the two principals invoked “the Greatest Generation” — people who paid a price for our freedom, who fully embraced the responsibility inherent in citizenship.
Anyway, just to get the ball rolling, Lovelace and Rex are calling this the Free Citizens Party, and they’ve put some ideas into writing, which invites us all to shoot at them. So, with a minimum of commentary, I’ll pass on what they’ve sent up the flagpole.
First, there are their four party principles:
- Legislate and govern from the middle.
- Increase economic competitiveness.
- Term limits — public vs. self-service (their words, of course, not mine at all, as I see this as their most problematic proposal)
- Increase responsibility/accountability. (There’s that word.)
Then, they presented their Eight Platform Priorities:
- Decrease national debt through balanced approach.
- Strong, choice-driven public school system/early education. (Public school choice, you’ll recall, was a priority of Rex’s as superintendent.)
- Efficient, effective healthcare. (To bring in Dr. Lovelace’s particular area of concern.)
- Reform campaign funding/transparency.
- Ethics reform legislation — state and federal.
- Support 2nd Amendment w/ reasonable regulations. (Rex stressed that, being a hunter, he has “a lot of guns.”)
- Simplify tax code — promote work, saving, investment.
- Comprehensive immigration policy reform. (They brought up an argument for strong borders that I don’t recall hearing advanced before — their concern for public health, wanting to prevent the spread of pandemics.)
After presenting all that, the two masters of ceremony entertained questions and comments from the audience for quite some time.
About that audience — I’m thinking fewer than 100, but not a bad turnout for something that had so little publicity. It was mostly middle-aged (in other words, Grownups), although there were a few who didn’t fit into that category. Based on the questions and comments, a serious, thoughtful bunch who are frustrated with the status quo. (And guess who came up and introduced himself afterwards? Our own “tired old man!”)
Lovelace pointed out that no one should be discouraged about the turnout. He said this group was bigger than any county GOP gathering he ever spoke to during his run for governor in 2006. And Rex chimed in that he had the same experience as a Democrat. Their point being that if the existing parties are so formidable, their county gatherings should be bigger than this fledgling meeting.
Before I close this report, a word about their embrace of term limits, which I believe is based in a misdiagnosis of what is wrong. Rex at one point spoke of how offensive the term “safe district” is, and he’s right. But he misses what is most offensive about it. The main problem is not that a district is safe for the incumbent (although the courts allowing incumbent protection as a basis for reapportionment is a problem). The problem is that it is drawn to be safe for a party. And the more extreme the two parties get in their polarizing ideologies, the worse the representation will be from that district.
Rex speaks of the complacency of incumbents in “safe” districts. I don’t see them as complacent at all. I see them running like scared rabbits, constantly building their “war” chests to protect themselves, and against what? Not a challenger from the opposite party, or from some moderate independent. They’re protecting themselves against a challenge from someone in their own party who is more extreme than they are. They do two things to protect themselves from this — they raise money, and they become more extreme themselves, in their words and in their actions.
And how do they raise money? They do it by constant appeals to their own partisans, making wild charges against the opposition, stirring fear and loathing in their bases. And that is the problem — that the current system rewards polarization and gridlock for their own sakes. They are good for the business of politics. And johnny-come-latelies are just as guilty of taking advantage of this dynamic as are incumbents. That is the cycle that must be broken by a party that appeals to reason, to moderation, to the interests that we all have in common rather than what divides us.
If incumbents are replaced, who replaces them? Not some Mr. Smith goes to Washington, but a partisan who convinces the primary voters that he’s more extreme than the incumbent. Think what happened to Bob Inglis. Or any of those incumbents either taken out by, or seriously threatened by (which in turn affects their behavior and makes them more extreme), Tea Partiers in recent years.
Anyway, enough about that. For now. These guys are trying to do a good thing, and they have enough of an uphill climb without me carping about the details. They’re shooting for the 10,000 signatures to get their party on the ballot by the 2014 election — really 12,000, given that many signatures get successfully challenged.
And they know that’s not easy. Dr. Lovelace ended the meeting with a quotation from Machiavelli:
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new…
Obviously, they have not hired a political consultant, or they wouldn’t go around quoting Machiavelli. But the point is dead-on. I know, from the unsolicited feedback I’ve gotten over the years from all sorts of thoughtful, rational people across this state — like the strangers who come up and tell me how much they agree with what I write — but they’re seldom the ones who stand up to be counted. It’s defenders of the status quo, and at least as bad, the advocates of terrible ideas for change, who have all the passion. The people who simply want rational, responsible government don’t storm barricades, or make demands. They make for lukewarm advocates.
As it happened “tired old man” had brought with him a printout of a Yeats poem that I think makes the point better than Machiavelli did (not least because it doesn’t have Machiavelli’s name attached). I quoted it not long ago here on the blog. The relevant passage:
… Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That’s my experience. What we need is for the best to embrace conviction, and advocate for rational government with passionate intensity. Good for Rex and Lovelace for trying to get that going.