All great American political movements were built from coalitions: Lincoln and the early Republicans cobbled together a broad group including old Whigs and abolitionists, FDR assembled a coalition of people who didn’t even like each other, and Reagan joined together culture warriors, tax cutters and foreign-policy neocons.
Could today’s third parties join together? And could they expand their movement by attracting all of the moderate Republicans who are being chased out of the GOP, people like Specter?
And how would they do it?
First of all, think big. Many third-party efforts focused on a single issue like prohibition or free silver, or focused on elected a particular person such as Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot. And went nowhere. Note that the abolitionists initially failed with a one-issue party, the Free Soilers, but succeeded as part of a genuine national party. Remember also Perot faced the issue of getting on the ballot in all 50 states. You need a platform covering all issues and a movement covering the whole country. So building on the work done by the Libertarians would probably be the way to go.
Persuade disparate groups to embrace each other and their messages. Reagan persuaded the factions within his coalition to fight for each others’ causes; Bush 41, who originally came to prominence as a conservative cold warrior who wanted to restrict government spending, learned to also fight for the causes of the cultural conservatives, such as abortion (although not very enthusiastically). FDR actually managed to build a coalition embracing both blacks and the southern racists who were oppressing them, until the civil rights movement split them apart again, and sent the racists fleeing to the GOP.
Tap into the zeitgeist. The Republicans originally rode the rising tide of anti-slavery sentiment; FDR tapped the fears of the Depression, and Reagan tapped the malaise of the 1970s.
Look for people who are fed up with the existing parties. Angry Democrats deserted the party in 1860, 1948 and 1968, and in all three cases racial issues were involved; disaffected Republicans split off in 1912 and 1980 over the question of how the relationship between government and the private sector should be managed. Currently there are a lot of disaffected Republicans, while the Democrats are pretty happy – aim for those moderate Republicans.
Find a trustworthy leader. Preferably this will be someone who established credibility either in an established party or in the private sector, either a big-name CEO like Whitman or a moderate Republican. And in this day and age, after 40 years of the Cold War and almost a decade of the War On Terror, he should ideally have some credibility on national security, which suggests that a retired general might do the trick. Lincoln was a little-known, barely-educated congressman when he broke through, but today a bit more gravitas is needed, which sadly lets Lenora Fulani off the bus – you can be a black woman, or you can be a bit of a kook, but you can’t be a black female kook and make this work. Facts of life.
In times of economic crisis, you could look for a reassuring CEO, but these days most of them have egg on their faces from with the mess of the recession.
(Actually a bunch of angry CEO’s who hated FDR tried to form a coalition with angry WWI vets in the 1930s, but their aim was overthrow of the government and their original choice of leader was Douglas MacArthur – eek! We dodged a bullet there, didn’t we?)
So the movement needs to build a complete platform, use it to build a national movement (based on the Libertarian structure) which attracts disaffected and angry voters, and get all these cats and dogs to work together to sell the entire party platform. And find a dead white male with stars on his shoulders to run it, perhaps, or a high-cred CEO.
So what are your materials?
You have three third-party groups – the Reform party, the Libertarians and the Greens – and all the moderate Republicans who are fed up with the current GOP.
The Reform people, the Libertarians and the moderate Republicans are a good fit: mostly they are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The odd men out are the Greens: while the other three groups dislike government activism, the greens want government to get out there and force people and corporations to fix our environmental problems. This is one area in which the “get gummint off our backs” crowd should shut up: if this group can welcome the Greens and a few of their causes, they will tap into the national zeitgeist, and scoop up a few liberals who don’t think Obama is doing enough for their causes. They could double down on that bet by embracing gay marriage: it fits in well with the libertarian live-and-let-live philosophy, it taps into the zeitgeist, and picks off a few Democrats.
Another thing: right now Obama is flying high. And everybody trusts him. Unless he stumbles badly, we’re not talkin’ ‘bout a revolution. No third party will thrive in that environment.
Last thing: this stuff takes money. Tons of it. So you will need to suck up to corporate America and the banks: you may not need them to spend money for you, but you don't want them spending millions to destroy you, either. This is why the Green issue is tricky – the CEOs and the Greens have spent 20 years throwing brickbats at each other.