“It must be nice, it must be nice, to have Washington on your side.”
The pensive refrain from the second act of the smash Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical could be the most ironic of the play given the political climate of 2017.
The surrounding song highlights the frustration of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans at their inability to defeat the policy proposals of the Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists so long as President George Washington had his back.
Two centuries later the tables have turned and the Democratic-Republican establishment now has a stranglehold on American government – and no Federalists to oppose them.
Both parties agree more than they disagree – particularly when it comes to taxes and spending – and many Americans are looking for new options.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans can manage a 40% approval rating from the American public, and third-party voting rose 300% from 2008 to 2012, and 800% from 2008 to 2016. In fact, Gallup’s latest poll shows that 57% of Americans think a major third party is necessary.
Unfortunately, the third party options available to Americans (wherever hostile state laws don’t discourage or prohibit them from competing) aren’t appealing either.
The largest and most successful third party, the Libertarian Party, decided to run a presidential ticket seemingly more interested in helping Hillary win than attracting votes to their own party.
And of course, any dignity the LP had coming into 2016 died a gruesome death during their national convention, when a giant, bearded man decided to campaign for party chair with a striptease.
Yeah, you read that right.
The Green Party’s play on the far left has met with equal derision, mostly because they insisted on running a candidate who believes vaccines promote autism and wifi causes cancer.
Evan McMullin’s competent independent bid saw some organizational success, but wasn’t affiliated with a party that can carry it forward. His movement died with his candidacy.
The Constitution Party candidate didn’t even show up on 60% of the ballots in America, and managed a paltry 178,000 votes, good enough for sixth place and ensuring that volunteers for their 2020 candidate will continue to see that deer-in-the-headlights expression when they doorknock.
In fact, the functional incompetence of third parties is exactly what makes the trend toward them such an obvious wellspring of potential. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a third party holds a defensible position on relevant issues and runs candidates who don’t smoke weed or hug trees between campaign stops. The greatest disservice these parties have done to the American public is to rob them of the confidence that any party can break away to challenge the big two.
And make no mistake, the major parties are as vulnerable to challenge now as they have been at any point in their respective histories – they just require a competent and marketable challenger.
Enter – or re-enter, rather – the Federalist Party.
I remember reading Paul David Miller’s article at the Federalist titled “Let’s Resurrect the Federalist Party” back in March, and while I found it intriguing, I didn’t give it much thought. My candidate was still in the race for the White House and I had spent years talking people down from the third-party ledge as part of Republican leadership.
But as the year dragged on and it became apparent that the general election would indeed feature New York liberals for both major parties, I started to take the idea more seriously. The arguments I had against third party efforts really didn’t take into account a cultural zeitgeist capable of ripping Britain out of the EU and sweeping a reality TV star into the White House.
They didn’t account for the reality of Millennials like myself becoming the largest voting bloc in the United States.
They didn’t account for voters’ general disgust with the major parties, along with their policies and candidates.
The last time there was this much demand for Federalist principles, Alexander Hamilton was a dude, not a play.
But interest isn’t enough – there had to be a mechanism in place for bringing the Federalist Party back to life, and applying its history and heritage to the chaotic modern political arena.
And there are a few keys to making the return of the Federalists work – without which the effort is likely to fall into old traps or succumb to new ones.
First of all, the Federalist Party has to be itself – and nothing else.
Federalists aren’t conservative, they aren’t progressive, they aren’t Republican or Democrat or Libertarian. Federalists are Federalists, with unique priorities and goals and strategies, and a unique vision for implementing them. Without a distinct identity and a vibrant culture surrounding it, there’s no hope for establishing a successful opposition party. Federalists must take ownership of 10th Amendment issues in such a way that agreement from conservatives constitutes a concession on their part.
Next, Federalists need to establish a party that operates in accordance with their historic principles – from the bottom up.
The original defenders of the US Constitution already have a national platform in the form of that document – which has been under siege by both major parties for years. But the original intent of the Federalists (as well as their anti-Federalist counterparts, who actually considered themselves the true federalists) was to develop a union of sovereign states and a federal government that was more a mediator than a ruler.
Existing US parties operate from an exclusively top-down structure. Presidential nominees and national legislative leaders control nearly every major decision the party makes, and states are regularly saddled with the consequences of terrible policy choices and reckless rhetoric. Minor parties typically put all their eggs in the presidential basket, hoping to coast to the 5% that will make them nationally relevant without first competing in gubernatorial and legislative races in the states.
The Federalist model has to be different. Federalists need to develop a structure that encourages greater investment at the state and local level, where a few thousand united activists can change everything in a manner consistent with their culture as Floridians, Iowans, Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers.
Finally, Federalists have to find a way to get the 43% of Americans who didn’t vote in November off the sidelines. More US adults are on Facebook than voted in the last presidential election – and that represents an opportunity for a new message to resonate.
Millennials represent the largest opportunity of all – our generation is used to having a thousand personalized options at our fingertips, and nothing frustrates us more than a backward and unresponsive bureaucracy perennially installed by one of only two major parties.
Beyond the ideological, that kind of government simply doesn’t work. It stifles innovation, gathers too much inertia, and tramples on the lives and careers of young people looking to live out the American dream.
It’s time to drag government into the tech age, and Federalists have a message uniquely suited to an Uber-style tech revolution: appify government. Make it smaller, faster, more accessible, more object-oriented. This is the direction of our world, and politics will not be the exception for long.
There’s a path for the new Federalist Party to succeed where others have failed, and little of it has to do with the party itself. Each power shift seems to bring new disillusionment with the existing parties, and the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton may be the right vehicle to guide a new kind of American revolution to success.