There are a few lessons to be learned from our example of a third party becoming one of the two major parties. First of all, a party does not become fully and immediately a successful national party. It took Lincoln’s party four election cycles. Second, you are not starting a national party. Political parties in America are creations at the state level. Republicans started in Wisconsin, then Michigan, then Illinois and the Northeast.
I think the time is more than ever ripe for a new party. Republicans are pro-gun, anti-abortion, and linked to Donald Trump, a mighty but fading star; it is not enough to support a major political party. Democrats have long since lost the white working-class voter, and the party’s liberal leadership is losing any appeal it might have in the suburbs, where the parties’ future will be determined.
But what message? It cannot emerge from focus groups or from the bottom up. The message must be top-down, passionate, messianic. It must arouse both fear and hope.
I believe the message should be about education, broadly defined. But everyone is for education, you say? What makes it a catcher? Well, the American public education system overall stinks in international comparisons, and Griffin must know that. A mediocre education system will not suffice in our global fight for technological leadership, with China, South Korea and Taiwan rising to the top of education. With 1.4 billion people, China has more high-level students than America has students.
Bourgeois commuters vaguely appreciate it. Their schools are generally better than those in the city and rural swaths, but they feel that all schools should be better, that the bottom dwellers should be uplifted as well.
We need better teachers, which will be expensive; more competition, through things like charter schools; and sparked parents across the country who will step up to tutor their children, set high expectations, and help young people achieve those goals.
This new Education for All party could start by supporting some congressional and state legislative candidates in the suburbs. With three parties vying for seats, a new party – with money – can win elections with 35-40% of the vote and grow. All it takes is credibility, visibility, money and a compelling message. It won’t be easy, but it is doable and worth the effort.
Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator, state agency director, and professor.