Because I no longer feel at home among either Democrats or Republicans, and because I have a weakness for hopeless causes, I joined a movement this year to get a third party onto ballots in my state. But our effort to launch the Forward Party—the brainchild of the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, among others—did not go well.
I am an Army veteran, and I believe that American consensus positions—such as moderate taxation, a healthy safety net, and ending the culture war—are worth fighting for. I share the frustration that Yang and others express about our current party system. I was a Republican for 15 years, volunteering at the local, state, and federal levels. But I winced at the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. When Donald Trump became the GOP’s star, I became an independent and, later, a Democrat. This past spring, I ran for the Democratic nomination in my deep-red congressional district in North Carolina. But I bristled at various bits of progressive dogma that struck most of my would-be constituents as foreign, and local Democratic operatives gave me the impression that they saw me as a Republican interloper. I lost. The race wasn’t close.
A few months later, when three centrist political groups merged and announced plans for a new national party, I was hopeful. The Forward Party would bring former Democrats and Republicans together to offer an alternative to extremism. The merger had yielded a healthy budget—millions of dollars that could be used to launch the party not only at the national level but in every state. Although creating a real third party would be difficult, my military experience taught me that people can achieve big things with proper planning and focus. This past summer, I decided to join the fledgling North Carolina chapter.
But the desire to fix the process doesn’t necessarily convey the ability to make change happen. Historically, many third parties in the United States have promoted themselves as grassroots movements that give dissatisfied voters a voice. Forward, whose website bears slogans such as “Bottom-Up, Not Top Down” and “More Listening, Less Talking,” is no exception. But it also insists that it’s doing something wholly new. “We’re not building a copy of the current parties,” its official Twitter account declared in September. “We’re moving American politics #Forward with a new kind of party that’s focused on empowering people and communities.” A utopian vision of a party that doesn’t act like a traditional party is hard to reconcile with getting enough signatures to receive official recognition from state election boards and run candidates for office, much less winning elections.
From my first meeting with Forward organizers in North Carolina, I sensed that the house was not in order. The state leadership team was a small group with no apparent internal structure or clear lines of accountability, and communication was sporadic. Instead of well-planned meetings with identifiable goals, Forward relied on town-hall gatherings that, to my eyes, frequently devolved into group-therapy sessions.
Town halls are a great medium for people who are just getting interested in political affairs. In the Forward town halls that I attended, though, the same three questions arose but never seemed to be answered. What’s our plan for ballot access? When and how will we elect an executive board? What is our stance on Issue X? The party’s lead organizers seemed to downplay all of these concerns. On organizational matters, the typical response was: We have some incredibly smart people in the national organization, and they’re working on the details. On questions of what the party stood for, the answer was: It’s not our job to tell people what to believe. Communities and candidates need to come up with their own platforms. The breezy implication that a new party would empower everyone, at which point the details would take care of themselves, echoed the attitudes of the Forward Party’s founders. As Yang put it in an October episode of a New York Times podcast, “The process will drive the policy because the people become the policy.”
In North Carolina, some of the other members and I nevertheless tried drafting the foundational documents that we figured a real political party would need: a party constitution (which we called a “plan of organization”), a proposed state party platform that spelled out positions on issues, and a plan to build door-knocking teams to gather the signatures needed to get Forward Party candidates on ballots. One of the state leads was enthusiastic about our efforts. Another seemed to think national organizers were handling the matters that our rogue team had tried to address. A third waxed poetic about new bottom-up power structures.
When Forward’s national organizing team finally provided a plan and a timeline, it called for some of the things our group had already done. But by the time I left the party in late October, the North Carolina chapter was making very little progress on much of anything. The number of working groups had multiplied, but most of those groups didn’t seem to be deciding anything. Meanwhile, the party is far behind where it should be, in my opinion, with regard to knocking on the doors of actual voters.
One problem is that Forward sees itself as so innovative that the normal rules of politics and organizational behavior don’t apply. When it launched without any infrastructure (including some essential paperwork that state chapters would need to begin their work), party officials rationalized their lack of readiness by saying that no one had ever done what Forward was trying to do. But multiple parties have tried launching before. The playbook isn’t new.
A bigger problem is the party’s refusal to speak to voters in terms they understand. Our draft state platform said, for example, that abortion
is America’s greatest wedge issue, and the two main parties love it for fundraising. But it’s also an issue with wide common ground. Like most Americans, we believe that Americans should have reasonable access to early term abortion. Some of our members will embrace lower limits like 12 weeks or higher limits, like the old Roe standard of 26. And while our members won’t advocate for discretionary late-term abortion, we’ll agree with most Americans on maintaining exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother later in the term.
This was our attempt to stake out a commonsense view while also leaving room for some differences of opinion. But the North Carolina party refused to adopt any platform. Forward leaders still seemed convinced that electoral reform was enough to excite voters and that any other firm stands would alienate potential members.
In general, Forward Party officials seem hesitant to commit to specific issue positions. The party’s leaders portray the vagueness of its three announced priorities—“free people,” “thriving communities,” and “vibrant democracy”—as a virtue. As Will Conway, the party’s national organizing director, has written on Twitter,
So, how is the @Fwd_Party different? It focuses on people first, and ideology never. It sets three universal priorities, and empowers the American people with the tools to get there, step by step. And it’s humble enough to know that it, and it alone, doesn’t have all the answers.
When confronted with critiques like mine, Forward officials suggest that many commentators are missing the point. Earlier this year, when The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey pressed Yang on the party’s lack of specific policy prescriptions, Yang responded, “That is one of the more interesting communications challenges for something like Forward” because voters are “so accustomed to something falling on a left-right political spectrum.” Organizers present Forward as an optimistic alternative to traditional political parties. But the effort suffers from a failure to abide by very basic rules: Don’t delay what can be done now. Build political infrastructure quickly. Show progress, however small, to motivate your volunteers. Answer the questions that people are asking, not the ones you think they should be asking.
There is absolutely a way to build a big-tent third party in the United States. Forward could have an impact if it would acknowledge the need to build a functional organization and settle on some political ideology beyond electoral reform. But when a party’s platform is no more specific than “free people,” “thriving communities,” and “vibrant democracy,” leaders are essentially saying “good vibes, good people—trust us.” Voters will respond accordingly.