Is America Ready for a New Third Party? A RAP for a New Majority (Part 5 of 5)

Is America Ready for a New Third Party? A RAP for a New Majority (Part 5 of 5)

In the first installment of this series, we asked about the prospects for a third party in the US, noting that the voters are mad as hell at everyone in Washington.  Some 73 percent of Americans, for example, trust the federal government just some of the time–or even none of the time.   

In the second installment, we looked at the history of third parties, focusing on the fact that third parties arise when a self-aware group of voters feels ignored by the two established parties.  We observed that at various times, voters on both the left and the right have felt marginalized–and so were inspired to go indy.   But over the last few decades, as politics has become more polarized, right and left, it’s often been voters in the middle who have most felt ignored.   Still, it’s always possible for at least one of the two parties to accommodate the new forces, thereby gaining its voters’ allegiance.   

In the third installment, we considered the possibility of a third party emerging from the disaffected political middle.  In particular, we looked at the high-mindedly non-partisan group No Labels; we concluded that No Labels is a tad too precious to be an effective third party.  In their preoccupation with process reform, the affluent-suburban No Labels-ers are simply disconnected from the driving issues of jobs and the economy.     

In the fourth installment, we took a look at third parties on the libertarian right.  We observed that the formal Libertarian Party never seems to get anywhere, and yet a libertarian-Republican fusion, as championed within the GOP by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, does have some potential.   

And now, in this fifth and last installment, we are looking at what could be a most effective third party–or, at least, a significant insurgency–a movement that does, in fact, provide the improved intellectual-political model that the Republican Party clearly needs. 

The Endangered Republicans 

Because, have you noticed? The Republican Party is slip-sliding away. Not only has the GOP lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, but the polls in 2013 show a further decline.  Here’s a headline in Bloomberg: “Obama Rated at 3-Year High in Poll, Republicans at Bottom.”  And another headline from USA Today: “On issues, public is more aligned with Obama than GOP: Now just 22% of Americans, nearly a record low, consider themselves Republicans.”  Ouch!  

Speaking of “ouch,” here’s an item from the polling firm PPP: Hillary Rodham Clinton beats Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and even Newt Gingrich in Georgia.  That’s right, in Georgia, the buckle of the Bible Belt, a state Republicans have carried in seven of the last eight presidential elections.  

Moreover, as PPP puts it, summing up the changing situation in red states: “We have now found Clinton competitive in polls in Alaska, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas.”  Of course, some will say that PPP is a Democratic polling firm, but they will respond that their accuracy is well ahead of many of the “name” outfits, including the Republican pollsters who confidently predicted a Republican victory last year.  

Yes, the Republicans still control the House, but here in Powertown, it’s not hard to find Republicans who think their party is standing at the edge of a political and demographic abyss.  In particular, they worry about millions more Hispanic voters going to the polls–and then they think about losing their last bit of DC power in the 2014 midterms.  

Indeed, speaking of 2014, it seems that Republican governors, 20 of whom are up for re-election next year, are a nervous bunch.  The headline in Saturday’s Politico blared, “Battered GOP governors change tune ahead of 2014.”  And that changed tune, of course, means being waltzed over to the political middle.  

The most spectacular Republican gubernatorial shift has been that of Florida Governor Rick Scott.  Elected in 2010, Scott pushed for spending cuts on healthcare and education early in his term; yet now he is embracing the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid as well as proposing a pay raise for public school teachers.    

Meanwhile, back in DC, as the March 1 sequester looms, and the Obama administration is seizing every opportunity to prophesy doom-and-gloom.  Republicans are quick to point out that the coming cuts are a mere two percent of total spending, but the Democrats have their talking points lined up–and, of course, their allies in the MSM.   

Virgil has seen this rodeo before.  Back in 1995-6, Virgil, too, had high hopes that Newt Gingrich  could stare down Bill Clinton.   After all, the American people had just voted, in 1994, for big change, or so we thought, and Gingrich represented big change.  So it only made sense for Gingrich & Co. to push that change, even if it meant breaking some eggs, in the form of shutting down portions of the government for a few days.  

Yet as we all know, the Republican revolution didn’t work out that way.  Amidst a confrontation eerily similar to what’s coming now, Clinton managed to pose as the careful protector of the public order, while the Gingrich-ified Republicans were made to look like dangerous radicals.   (Yes, the MSM played a role in these disparate portrayals.) 

In 2011, as Democrats and Republicans seemed poised for another showdown-leading-to-a-shutdown, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, no howling liberal, made some useful historical observations about an even earlier confrontation, the 1995-6 showdown between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich & Bob Dole:  

In retrospect, Republican lawmakers in 1995 had fallen prey to listening only to their own “echo chamber” and did not understand how their actions were being perceived outside Republican fundraisers and caucus meetings.

Writing of the possible shutdown that loomed in 2011, Kessler observed, “Democrats obviously hope that Republicans once again fall into a similar trap of their own making,” and then added: 

House Republicans today are in a weaker bargaining position than the Republicans of 1995, because they do not also control the Senate. It will be fascinating to see whether this makes them more or less likely to heed the lessons of history.

And now, here we are in 2013.  This time, Congressional Republicans declare themselves to be fully armored up for the fight ahead.  The American people, they say, are behind them.   

But are they?   Then as now, Republicans may have a good argument–and of course the government can stand some belt-tightening.  

But what should the GOP have been doing?  For the past year or so, they should have been holding hearings that illustrated, for example, how the federal government could save two percent without anyone really noticing.  The government could easily squeeze out two cents on the dollar, with no true loss to anyone.  Yes, the hearings could well have been dullsville, but the GOP needed to get the idea across to the public.   But it didn’t.   

By contrast, now, with the sequester just days away, the Democrats have the presidential bully pulpit.  And the Obamans–aided, of course, by the media–are fully defining the frame of the debate.  That is, if anything bad happens after the sequester kicks in–anything bad, anywhere– it’s all the Republicans’ fault. 

What Americans Really Think About Government Spending 

Meanwhile, the Pew Center provides some data distinctly unhelpful to the Republican cause: The public supports more spending, not less, on most programs.  Indeed, of the 19 categories of federal spending that the Pew Center asked about, respondents indicate a wish for cuts in only three areas. 

We might pause here to ask: How does the desire for more spending compute with the rampant mistrust of the federal government?  Wouldn’t that 73 percent “distrust” finding (also from Pew, by the way) seem to militate against support for the government doing anything at all?  Yet upon reflection, we can see that the two data points have a unifying logic: Americans don’t trust the government, except when Uncle Sam is giving them money.  The voters don’t trust the feds, but they figure they might as well get their fair share.  

Meanwhile, of those 19 spending categories, the only clear loser, public-opinion-wise, was foreign aid.  By a substantial margin, people want to see a decrease in “aid to the world’s needy.” 

Yet if we take a further look at all the Pew data, we note something interesting at the other end of the popularity scale: The three most popular programs are Social Security, veterans benefits, and education.  That is, the public wants to see more money spent on these programs by margins, respectively, of 31 percent, 47 percent, and 50 percent.  

Thus a pattern of spending popularity is starting to emerge: To be blunt about it, Americans like spending money on themselves, and they don’t like spending it on others.  This is especially true in hard economic times.  According to the average American, we have spent too much money on the world, and not enough on America.  And so, yes, cut foreign aid, but at the same time, increase spending for people like us–we, the people, the veterans, the retirees, the families with kids in school.  

Some might call this attitude “selfish,” because it doesn’t leave much room for American governmental compassion or leadership around the world.  Indeed, the same Pew data show that of those 19 spending programs, defense spending ranked a meager 15th on the list, not so far above foreign aid.  In other words, not only are Americans down on helping the world’s poor, but they are also down on America’s expansive military commitments.  Yes, of course, they rally around the flag, as after 9-11, but as we have seen, public patience for “nation-building”–a kind of militarized foreign aid–wears thin, and fast.   

Yet at the same time, Americans are supportive of many kinds of spending at home–spending not only for themselves, but for people like themselves.  As the political scientist Jonathan Haidt explains, people aren’t so much selfish, as they are “groupish.”  If people support a certain category of spending, they tend to want it for the whole group.  And so retired people who think they have earned their Social Security benefits, for example, think that other retirees, too, have earned their benefits.  We can call this middle-class solidarity. 

The Politics of Reciprocal Altruism 

Indeed, here we might introduce a useful concept from anthropology: “reciprocal altruism.”   It’s what it sounds like: I give to you, and you give to me.  In political terms, it can be expressed as, “We all put in, we all take out.”  Reciprocal altruism is what people think of as fair and equitable–we’re all in this together.  Moreover, reciprocal altruism is a source of safety, even strength: If we stick together, we can’t be beat.  As the Three Musketeers said in the Dumas novels, “All for one, and one for all.”  

In this sense, the loyalties engendered by reciprocal altruism are a natural extension of loyalty to family.  We in this group might not be related by blood, but we are connected by common participation in, for example, a club, a church, a military unit, a condo association, a labor union.  Indeed, even a government program comprised of peers is an example of reciprocal altruism.   

So now we are starting to see why middle class entitlements–from Social Security to public education to Medicare–are so profoundly popular.  Deep in our evolutionary psychology, we have learned the value of cooperative enterprise.  In electoral terms, reciprocally altruistic relationships are like a covalent bond in chemistry; just as atoms are most linked together when they share electrons, so large groups of people are most linked together when they share common participation in the same group.  

We can pause to note, incidentally, that not every kind of altruism is reciprocal.   The opposite of reciprocal altruism is non-reciprocal altruism.  Once again, it’s what it sounds like: Some get far more than others, for reasons that don’t seem equal, or fair.  We can quickly see that this sort of altruism, while admirable, is simply not as durable, at least not politically. 

Returning to the Pew questions on spending categories, we can see that foreign aid is about as non-reciprocal as it gets.  And military globalism, too, often seems to be a one-way street: The US nation-builds over there, but nobody helps us here.  Of course, the elites of various kinds see these foreign aid- and defense programs much differently; in DC, top Republicans, as well as top Democrats, are often united in big plans to “do more” around the world.  The elites might well be correct in their various chartings of America’s national destiny around the globe, but, as the Pew data show, those elites have not made the sale to the masses.  

Closer to home, other examples of non-reciprocal government programs include welfare, affirmative action, and pro-asylum and amnesty immigration enforcement–or non-enforcement. These programs, too, have always been huge losers with the public as a whole, even as the elites often delight in them.   Indeed, the only way that welfare, affirmative action, and asylum/amnesty grew to be so big was the ability of the elites to maneuver them into existence through the bureaucracy and the judiciary; they never could have been voted into existence.     

To our list of unpopular non-reciprocal programs, we can also add Wall Street/big bank bailouts.  The voters hated the $700 billion TARP program that Congress enacted in 2008, and, as a result, in the elections since, plenty of lawmakers have lost their seats.  Not surprisingly, then, the pro-bailout forces developed a new plan; they stopped putting bank-bailout programs to a Congressional vote.  Over the last five years, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have pumped trillions into favored institutions, and it’s still happening, even now: The headline in Gretchen Morgenson’s piece in the February 16 New York Times reads, “Don’t Blink, or You’ll Miss Another Bailout.”  Yup, billions more to AIG.  

The American people oppose all of this financial finagling–which is why, again, nobody in charge asks them anymore.  The elites just do it, behind the scenes.  And so long as the public isn’t paying attention, the elites will continue get away with it.  Moreover, in this instance, the elite class is bipartisan; it’s hard to think of a major political figure in Washington who devotes much effort to trying to stop this ongoing transfer of wealth to banking institutions and their executives and shareholders.   

Why this bipartisan silence?  Is everyone in DC on the take?  Or do they just not understand what’s happening?   Or, on the other hand, do they quietly think bailouts are good economic policy, even as they realize that no elected official wants to be seen voting for them, preferring to leave such covert moneyballing to unelected bureaucrats?   It’s hard to know for sure, but this much we can know: The current system won’t change until someone stands up and leads a concerted charge against welfare for the banks.    

So now we can now see the makings of a new political coalition.  As we observed in part two, a third-party insurgency emerges only when neither of the two established parties can accommodate the new force.  On the other hand, it’s possible that one of the two parties gets the message, and then makes room for the new people-power.     

So for the sake of the Republican Party, Virgil hopes that the GOP will get the message.  That is, the GOP understands these obvious realities and becomes the party that’s against welfare for anyone, foreign or domestic, poor or rich.  And at the same time, a revitalized GOP no longer obsesses about money going back to the middle class–because, after all, these folks earned it, and they have a right to move it around a bit, amongst themselves, in the form of various kinds of social insurance.   

This new party, or party-within-a-party, would thus reflect the interests and values of the middle class: Work, not welfare!  And so we might call it the “Reciprocal Altruism Party.”  What’s that?  It doesn’t sound catchy?  Okay, then maybe just call it “RAP.” 

The Party of RAP 

So here’s the agenda: RAP would look askance at non-reciprocal spending of all kinds, which it would deride, with considerable aspersion, as “welfare for the poor,” as well as, at the other end of the spectrum, “welfare for the rich.”  

This idea of a consciously middle-class party is not new: The platform of the People’s Party, better known to history as the Populists, once declared, “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes–tramps and millionaires.”  As discussed in part two of this series, this party met in Omaha on July 4, 1892, to further declare in its platform, in words echoing Paul the Apostle, “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” Sounds pretty good, huh?   We might recall that by 1896, members of the Populist Party mostly joined up with the Democrats after they nominated William Jennings Bryan, “The Great Commoner.  It was, indeed, a very different Democratic Party back then.  

The whole idea of RAP would be to protect the interests of those who work, including those older Americans who have properly retired from work, and those younger Americans who have yet to enter the workforce.   

RAP would enshrine the basic folk wisdom of the middle class into national policy: If you’re a citizen of this country, then you have do your part; you can’t be a loafer.  If you want to be one of us, you have to work like us.  

So RAP would not be a small-government faction, for the simple reason that it would defend reciprocal programs.  And those programs, such as Social Security, are inherently big, because there are a lot of working people in this country.  

Such a prospect might horrify libertarians, of course, because they have made an a priori judgment that the government should be smaller, maybe even non-existent.  Period.  In fact, since libertarians think that most if not all government spending is welfare and mooching, libertarian policy types in DC–including many in the commanding heights of the current Republican Party–have chosen to focus on cutting middle-class entitlements, arguing, “that’s where the money is.”  

The libertarian Republicans are right in their numbers, but, in the eyes of RAP, they are wrong in their values.  The American people–you know, the ones who decide who wins and loses an election–think it’s a good thing to spend money on programs that bolster and honor the middle class.   At the same time, the American people support de-funding both the rich and the poor.  So now which party is willing to trumpet that message?  Might it be a RAP-GOP fusion?   

As we have seen from the Pew data–and from our own observations on the failures of radical budget-cutting, from Reagan to Gingrich to the tea party–the American people simply do not support the libertarian vision.  Instead, the American people support their own vision, which we might call the RAP-sody of the middle class.  All this time, they have been waiting for a party that will agree with them, and sing along. 

The libertarians–and their allies among the Simpson-Bowles “Fix the Debt” crowd–are on the wrong side of the American majority, and that’s why proposals to cut middle-class entitlements never happen.   And so we can see, in a way, that RAP already exists. It’s the under-represented and mostly unarticulated view of the vast number of Americans who are more interested in the meat-and-potatoes of work and survival than in the recondite fine points of ideology.   It is, indeed, a Silent Majority, and so it would be a good idea for both parties to consider, more closely, their overall views. 

In the RAP-view, the issue isn’t so much the size of government, but rather the nature of government–who gets what, and why.  If you work hard and play by the rules, you will get taken care of when you can’t work, either because you grow old, or you get unlucky somehow.   And if such protect-the-middle-class programs are big, well, that’s the way it has to be, because the country is big, and because the economy is even bigger, and because the spirit of reciprocal altruism is biggest of all.  

Yet the news isn’t all bad for libertarians.  Pursuing the vision of a work-ethic state, RAP would cut deeply into many social programs.  RAP would seek to make short work of welfare–by putting everyone back to work.    

Would there be pushback to the RAP agenda?  Would people protest against “unfairness”–against the rich, as well as the poor?  Sure they would, and so would their lobbyists.  But that’s where RAP would have a big advantage over, say, Republicans or Democrats as they exist today: As part of its no-welfare-for-anybody platform, the RAP-sters would take a relentlessly hard line against “crony capitalism” and Wall Street bailouts, and that would give RAP the virtue and strength of intellectual honesty and consistency.  

In the RAP view, if, for some reason, a bank bailout were to prove absolutely necessary–say, to avoid some 2007-like meltdown–then the money might be granted, but the banking executives would be made to live on a government salary; nobody could collect a big bonus for collecting a big bailout.  Here’s looking at you, Jack Lew!  And of course, after the economy had stabilized, the RAP-ified leadership would send investigators and prosecutors to comb through the fiscal wreckage–exactly what the Obama administration has failed to do.   

So that’s the RAP Agenda.  It would appeal to social conservatives, because while it would not be explicitly socially conservative, it would be profoundly middle-class-centric.  And as we all know, the values of the middle class–on everything from patriotism to abortion to education standards–are much different from the values of the political elites, left or right.  And that’s why Hispanics, too, would like RAP; it’s their working-class culture, written into politics.  

One last note on RAP: A third party is always a risky proposition.  In both 1912 and 1992, for example, Republican incumbents lost because they couldn’t deal with the third-party challengers, Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot.  Both challengers, we might observe, had strong Republican backgrounds and drained away many Republican votes.   

So from a Republican point of view, it would best–perhaps even a matter of survival–if the GOP could make room for the RAP agenda.  Admittedly, the RAP movement, so far, has no manifest form–or manifesto–and yet, as we have seen, RAP is always latent in the mind of every working person.  

RAP is the intuitive vision of the most people, and so RAP is the natural platform of a new American majority.