In a newspaper from this past week, I read about a new movement in the state of Washington. Thoughtful citizens from both the Democratic and Republican parties have come together in the hopes of finding candidates who will espouse policies that are socially tolerant, fiscally conservative, and environmentally responsible. These good people have concluded that neither major party can be counted on to care about all three. (Some would argue that neither major party can be counted on to care about a single one!) The Spirited Reasoner applauds this new movement as a sign that at least some Americans are seeking political solutions that are grounded in our common values rather than our partisan differences.
Could such a movement evolve into a “party” without losing its own soul? Now, there’s the rub. Once parties are formed, they seek to win, because winning begets power and power begets more power. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay understood this phenomenon when they penned the Federalist Papers. They warned about the dangers of “factions;” but we wonder how one goes about ending one or two powerful factions without forming another faction strong enough to topple the first two from power. When the Republican Party was formed as an anti-slavery party designed to replace the moribund Whigs, a majority of former Whigs, like Abraham Lincoln, simply switched to the newer, more powerful party as an alternative to the (seemingly) pro-slavery Democratic Party. But now, after the passage of a century and a half, the Republican Party has evolved into the party identified with white Southern values, while the Democratic Party has become the voice for civil rights. Despite flirtations with third parties led by Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and others, our nation’s love-affair with a two-party system has remain dominant.
Is it really possible, then, that a truly centrist movement could avoid becoming just another party, just another set of ideologies doomed to move more toward the right or toward the left as the human desire to win elections begins to outweigh the desire to seek the common good? I hope so. Perhaps this new movement will actually adopt a set of founding principles–principles like those of the Spirited Reasoner–where we seek political leaders willing to approach political positions from a spirit of advancing our common values through the use of scientific research and reflective reason. Then, when those founding principles are adopted, affirmed, and set in motion, perhaps we will see the creation of something more than a mere party. Perhaps we will have re-established what most of us thought we already had: a shared sense of what it means to be an American.