A Party of Free Agents

What’s gotten into Tom Friedman? Or better yet, not ‘what’s gotten into him,’ rather it’s nice to have his voice back on American politics.  I choose not to post earlier this week when he wrote a piece titled “The Tea Kettle Movement,” because I was still absorbing its full effect when today he hit us with “Third Party Rising.” And I had to get involved, if for nothing else, my sanity (and because friend, supporter and creative partner dared me to respond on Facebook).

I’m impressed how quickly we can return to the romantic idea of the third political party.  I, for one, love it.

First, Friedman paints us a picture of the “radical center.”  My experience has been that the hardest part of imagining a vibrant independent movement or dynamic 3rd party is mobilizing moderates.  The whole idea of a Centrist is often misconstrued as toothless and wishy-washy.  Rather than the reality of strongly agreeing with certain principles of both parties.  We are constantly fighting the idea that you must support a party by full platform rather than issue-to-issue.

Second, he touches on the inherent catch-22 of third-party politics.  Friedman writes, “[T]his is the best a two-party system can do.”  The last 10 years or so are what we can expect out of the next 10 if nothing changes.  I’m not going so far to say that the constitutional infrastructure has to change, but at a minimum, there has to be a force that drives politicians to change their tactics.  (Based on recent pledges from Rep. Boehner and mainstream Republicans, they are not feeling any pressure to change their tune.)

Here’s the catch = some people like it this way.

In fact, many people like it this way.  The powers that be, and for once I’m using that phrase literally, want to remain in power.  The strategy of fear, divisiveness and partisan politics keep them in power because much like the cold war, two powerful poles keep the system alive.

Along those lines, it took a cultural shift in the Soviet Union and a specific, persistent attack of President Reagan to finally draw the Cold War to an end.  But that was just toward the end, think of how long the polarized culture of competition and fear persisted before that happened.

Many of us thought President Obama would target American politics the way Reagan did with Communism.  As it turns out, Obama might be more like JFK.  Standing up to bully that was Communism and setting events in motion that won’t be realized for 30 years.  I hope not, but it’s certainly not impossible.

By, as I said, there’s another side to the catch.

It’s stable.

Believe it or not, the in-fighting while costing us progress and real solutions is reasonably stable.  No one person or one party can get too much power without political opponents and tensions causing compromise and small changes.  I know my Tea Party readers would argue that the healthcare reform bill was a socialistic, major change.  But the truth is that is wasn’t.  It was highly compromised and heavily crafted toward tweaks rather than complete overhaul.

So, two polarized political parties is safe.

Safe, that is, until our problems remain unsolved, Washington remains unresponsive and the voting public goes crazy.  This is Friedman’s best point.  He channels this problem and gives it an air of excitement and possibility.

Third, Friedman gives us this amazing quote:

“Indeed, our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems. We simply will not be able to do the things we need to do as a country to move forward “with all the vested interests that have accrued around these two parties,” added Diamond. “They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations,” where each one’s gains are seen as the other’s losses.”


Thank you, Tom, thank you.

So, now what?  Drop out of law school and launch a third-party from my basement? I like law school and I want to finish what I started.  But is this the window of opportunity? If I wait to long, will someone else step up?

I think there is a place in our political landscape for a focused, powerful center.

Granted, our primary system and electoral college are not prepared for a true third-party in the logistical sense.  But as we know, a large minority will court a small minority if it means that the large minority can become the majority.  That’s what I see as the short-term success of Friedman’s third-party.

A free agent political movement.  We’ll sign with the best idea.  Centrists might not have enough voters or influence to be the majority in this country.  But we’re not worthless.  We can be the measuring stick for solutions, for good ideas.  Ideas, not based on an unrealistic political utopia (like some other high-profile groups), but on a sensible, common sense approach to protecting everyone’s civil rights while managing the tax/financial system in a way that allows the most creativity, practicality and self-determination.

Centrists aren’t calling for poorly timed and irresponsible international ballistic missile systems or the dissolution of the federal agencies like the Departments of Education or Energy.  We’re not supporting the expansion of federal entitlements, deficits, or unnecessary taxes.  There is a sensible way to take the system as it is, currently comprised and improve on it.  One day maybe even fix it.

Improving on what we’ve got is the best we can do.

This is not an overthrow, revolution or “war.”  It is problem-solving approach to our country’s biggest problem- figuring out the future of our country.

This isn’t a problem because of Presidents Bush or Obama.  It has always been our problem. It’s what government is.  The country is by nature a work in progress.  It should never cease to be a priority of our elected officials.   Anyone who says “this is the end” or “America needs to be erased and started again” is either crazy or trying to take advantage of you.

We, Centrists (and I include Friedman in this), are a practical people.  Our greatest strength is also our weakness- it’s hard to rile us up.

I dream big dreams for this country.

But not in a vacuum.

I recognize that there are some government programs (Medicare, Social Security) that we’re stuck with and we need to figure out solutions for- shutting them down isn’t a realistic option.  Likewise, there is a lot of oversight, waste and spending that isn’t providing solutions to anything and it is realistic to address.  Likewise there are some government-related problems (immigration, healthcare) that aren’t going away and being afraid to talk about them or address them isn’t responsible either.  Nod to Obama for taking on the tough healthcare debate and attempting something.  Centrists admire trial and error public policy.  Action is always better than inaction.

I’d like to see Friedman’s prediction come true.  But more than a third-party candidate forcing the two bullies to address real issues in 2012, I want to see a group of politicians who feel empowered by public support to be a central caucus that can be persuaded to vote with the party that offers the best solutions.  Much the way Senators Snowe, Collins, Lieberman and others are courted during close votes in the Senate, Centrists are the middle 20% that decide Presidential elections and could become a powerful voice in Washington during the other 3 years.

We respond to practical, real-world solutions that will touch the lives of Americans, drive government back to a responsible path and make sure that the rights of all citizens are protected to ensure their happiness.

We’re here and we want your best ideas.

Bring it.

2 responses to “A Party of Free Agents

  1. I wanted to try to be realistic about this. Republicans/Tea Partiers want to imagine a world where Social Security, Medicare, and other government functions don’t exist. Democrats imagine a world where Republicans don’t exist. This is not realistic. So, I didn’t want to respond with an article that imagines a full-blown, functioning third party. What’s realistic? Making the center the most heavily courted voting block. Even though national elections are decided by the center, there are few true centrists in the House or Senate, so we have no voice in legislation but only in electing the President. This can and should change.

  2. I think your “problem-solving” language is really appropriate here. Unfortunately, we’re living in a political system that doesn’t allow for complexity in discussion. I think President Obama has tried to widen the debate (as with the health care discussion), but most Americans (on the right and the left) want to be given easy choices: paper or plastic, low taxes or lower taxes, petroleum or ethanol? No one wants to carry their own bags to the grocery store, recognize that taxes are directly related to the government services (and jobs!) we receive or admit that a massive SUV isn’t really the wisest vehicle choice. Maybe I am selling Americans short, but I worry that we, as a nation, have a phobia of true debate and intelligent discussion. Nuance and complexity reek of academia and education and we find those things threatening. There’s a reason we haven’t had a PhD in the White House since Wilson! But maybe there are enough people like us who truly want a serious, nuanced debate about the hard issues?

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