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We need a new major political party

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

Talking politics over coffee with a former student this past week, the two of us came up with the same thought: We need a new major political party.

Dauntingly difficult, but not impossible.

The Democratic Party is adrift, at best. Its base of African-Americans, government unions and a thin sliver of intellectual liberals doesn’t add up to enough to win national elections.

On the other side, there hasn’t been a place in the GOP for old Eisenhower Republicans like me, who believe in public works, public education and public universities, for many years.

The free-trading, budget-balancing Establishment GOPers have been thrown over by small government Tea Partiers, and all is now confounded by the big spending, big debt populism of President Trump. Who knows where lies the heart of the party, or if it has a heart?

National political parties have, of course, prospered while bridging gaping fissures. From the 1920-60s, both segregationist and liberal wings of the Democratic Party co-existed, if uncomfortably.

Our winner-take-all election system (which I would keep) makes it almost impossible for a minor party to become a major factor. Why throw one’s vote away to the Greens, say, when there is no chance of winning any piece of the action, as there is in proportional representation schemes?

As readers know, in our history there has been one major party collapse, and its replacement by a new party.

The Whigs dissolved by 1854 over internal dissension, especially over the rising anti-slavery movement. The nascent Republican Party, largely sprung from Illinois and Wisconsin, replaced it in remarkably short order.

With our political parties in disarray, might now be the time for a partisan upheaval?

The present major party squabbles have largely been fought along small government versus big government lines, a surface issue that completely misses our bigger problems.

And big government is here to stay, like it or not.

Social Security, health care (where costs will only increase) and the military (where Republicans want to spend more to cope in a volatile world) make up most of the national budget.    

Based on observations from my perch in lily-white, rural central Illinois, the much bigger and fundamental problem is that the underbelly of our society is becoming jiggly soft.

Too many white males are giving up on work, taking refuge in disability insurance.

Single mothers as well as families with his-hers-and-theirs children are often so stressed trying to make it that, maybe out of ignorance or guilt, they fail to set high expectations for their children and then hold them to it.

As a result, school achievement in the U.S. is mediocre at best, while China and India have many more honors students among their huge population than we have just-plain students.

We are sleep-walking through our own decline.

We need a new party that would challenge us all, as John F. Kennedy did, by asking what we can do for our country, rather than the obverse.

Some of my friends think it’s too late for a civic and moral revival along the lines of the religious Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Let’s believe otherwise.

I muse about a new party that would challenge all of us, from poor to rich, to focus on the obligations of citizenship. After all, we have unparalleled freedoms and opportunities here, and each citizen has responsibilities to keep them in force.

I dream of an “Accountable Party” (terrible name but great acronym—AP) that would ask us all to pitch in.

For example, the poor on government benefits would be required to “volunteer” in their communities.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the nouveau niche would be challenged to embrace the sense of noblesse oblige shown by patricians among us in earlier decades.

Instead of building luxury bunkers to protect against Apocalypse, the tech billionaires should be stimulated to work with the young, always up for inspiration, to create a new political party.

The new party would exhort us to be better, more fit citizens, rather than simply to fight over who gets what, as we do today.

Gad, this is quixotic. But necessary.

What do you think?

Jim Nowlan of Toulon served two terms in the Illinois House and worked under three governors. He co-wrote “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State.” Contact Nowlan at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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