There is a growing movement of people who adhere to Catholic Social Teaching and, because of that, find that they cannot find a home with either of the two major political parties in the United States. Their answer has been to form a political party based on Christian democratic principles. The name they have chosen is American Solidarity Party. It is an idea in development for the present, but it has begun to have an online presence lately, attracting like-minded individuals from around the country. Christian Democracy interviewed David Frost and Kirk Morrison, two of the principal organizers of the movement.
CD: The political struggle in the United States is largely between conservatives and liberals, with some tug coming from the libertarians. But the two of you seem to have found yet a fourth alternative.
KM: As a Christian who began to take my faith seriously I noticed that the major parties only reflect portions of what I'd been taught in (parochial) school, heard from the pulpit, the actions of Christians in the public sphere etc. I became frustrated with halving to get half a loaf. I could support a party that seemed to support social justice OR I could support one that was concerned about moral issues. Ultimately I'd get only half of what I wanted. By looking at the Christian Democracy movement in places like Europe and Latin America, I saw the potential for linking together these with a holistic approach that might appeal to effectively disenfranchised voters like myself here in the U.S.
CD: Your answer, obviously, is to form a political party based on Christian democratic principles. But why another third party? Wouldn’t it be more effective to try and gain influence in one of the two major parties? Aren’t you marginalizing yourself with this strategy?
KM: The sad thing is that the average American has more varieties of Doritos to choose from at the supermarket than she does political choices. It's not realistic to think that 2 parties can speak for 300,000,000 Americans. At times those parties don't even speak with one unified voice themselves. Even a movement as powerful as the Tea Party was completely short-circuited and tamed by the 2-party system. While we share little in common with the Tea Party, they are a test case that movements are swallowed or co-opted. Only by encouraging the growth of multiple parties—and lifting the onerous requirements expected of their limited resources of them—can more voters feel they aren't always voting the "lesser of two evils" or simply staying home because the current parties don't speak for them.
CD: But the Democrats and Republicans are what we have had since the Civil War, and none of the third parties that have emerged since then have been able to make much of a dent in the system. What can you do to ensure that the American Solidarity Party has more of an impact?
KM: The Pew Research Center says that their polling suggests only 25% of Americans identify as Republicans and 38% as Democrats. Those are some of the lowest (if not the lowest) self-identification numbers in the history of party preferences in the U.S. If you figure on top of that a particular candidate might not resonate with even those parties' faithful, then there is a miniscule real tie to these parties anymore. In our party we intend to focus on grass-roots organizing on a local basis. We may at times even eschew higher elective office in our beginning stages so that we can plant seeds at the local levels. While the national races capture the media's attention, we know that local authorities have much more of an effect on folks' daily lives than those in Washington. We'll harness the interest folks have in volunteering and the knowledge they have of their own communities by out "localizing" the opposition over time.
CD: So, for the immediate future you'll concentrate on offices like city council?
DF: I would prefer that we concentrate on local first but if someone wants to try for a bigger run I definitely support them in doing so as well. That's the plan though.
KM: I agree with Dave. We want folks to get involved in their communities. Not only is helping out their neighbors the right thing to do, but realistically a lot of folks might have time commitment or subject interest to serve on an appointed or elected board, committee but not higher office. The spirit of public service and "giving back", volunteering is what the country really needs. If we get the credibility and track record of "low" office, some folks might push up to more prominent positions.
CD: So there's a community service aspect to what you want to accomplish. You're not just looking for candidates, but for people active in their communities.
DF: Yeah definitely. We think grassroots participation is key.
CD: Christian democracy, properly so called, is the active expression of Catholic social teaching, and entails a very definite set of positions on a variety of issues from abortion, to the rights of labor, and a number of other issues. Not everyone agrees with Catholic social doctrine on every point. Presumably membership in the American Solidarity Party will grow. Do you intend to maintain ideological purity? And, if so, how will you accomplish that with an ever widening membership base?
DF: I think that is going to be a very difficult thing to do. I have a feeling we will have to take things day by day and issue by issue. The good news is that most of us have a great deal of fascination with Catholic Social Teaching, so we know it better than most. I think that it is going to take some leadership and assertiveness to not be co opted into right or left political factions in America. I'm sure that's going continue to be a very strong concern for us though. It already has caused a lot of disagreements, but if we were a clone of the GOP or DNC, then why are we forming a third party anyways?
KM: It'll be a delicate process to—at the same time—grow while not appearing to "sell out" or soften our stance on "first principles". I think as we reassess and craft a platform with greater participation we'll need to add nuances that allow for some wiggle room (and the possibility where individual members might agree with the whole if not so much with specific things). We'll grow as more folks who are already in "substantial" agreement find out about us. But there will be a limit to that—which will mean our message and marketing will need to convey a reason for hopping on this "new thing". If we plan on making a dent at state/Federal level eventually (in the future) we'll need to think "big tent" as much as we are able.
CD: Along those same lines, how do you plan to keep out shills who come in to co-opt the Solidarity Party? The Republicans have been quite successful in convincing a good number of Christians that their program is almost the equivalent of Christianity. You don’t suppose that they’re going to watch the growth of the Solidarity Party serenely? And wouldn’t infiltration be a tactic you could expect?
KM: Our country's 2-party system so favors the major parties that I'm less concerned about infiltration than folks in the GOP or "fellow traveling" groups that would play the "accommodation" card and therefore peel off some of our growth. We've seen the Tea Party movement co-opted and tamed by the GOP regulars since the establishment knows they have few other options. It was harrowing to see discussion boards among Roman Catholic voters in the run-up to the election in which folks parsed over whether it was more important to vote for the pro-life candidate or the pro-social justice candidate (if in fact either one of them could be accurately described that way). When you sprinkle in the pundits and partisan commentators who worry about "fringe" candidates drawing votes "away from" the major parties, there's a strong tendency for folks in our movement to resort to the old "lesser of two evils" saw. We'll need to continue to make the case for people in our movement to offer a real, viable alternative by voting conscience and creating more options. We may need to work with other election-reform and minor-parties in making the case for fairer participation through proportional representation and/or instant run-offs.
CD: Third parties in the U.S. tend to be ideological in nature. The major parties, on the other hand, are coalitions of various interest groups. Perhaps that is why third parties cannot emerge as major parties, because there are never enough people who agree on a set of ideological principles. What hope do you see for the American Solidarity Party to ever mount a serious challenge as long as it sticks to its principles?
DF: I think there is far more hope for us than most. For one, we are basically a combination of mainstream center right on social issues and mainstream center left on other things. We really don't have bizarre ideas. We break away just a bit from the main two in our opposition to most violent conflict and our love of anti-trust legislation, but we really don't have the tinfoil hat feel most third parties have. Secondly, Christianity is our point of inspiration, which is undeniably a strong cultural fixture in America. Lastly, I don't think we have the same demographic problems the GOP has. I can see how a party like ours would greatly appeal to many Catholic Latinos as well as most Protestant African Americans. Most women understand that our pro-life stances have nothing to do with misogyny, but are entirely motivated by a deep respect for the sanctity of life. The values we have are very authentic to what older working class Caucasians like my grandfather stood for as well. As far as the youth vote, that would seam to be our hardest demographic, but for some reason we seam to do just fine with them online. Another aspect to look at is we don't have the hypocrisy of the other two parties. We don't flaunt our pro life and pro family values and then pay lip service to Ayn Rand, nor do we flaunt our championing of those in poverty or who are immigrants to then say it had nothing to do with our faith in God.
KM: I do think that our political system means that the major parties are so large that they workout ideology within their ranks rather than on the floors of assemblies. While we do have an ideology that at some level we can't compromise, I think the fact that we have a foot in the "left" and "right" each may mean we can effectively work compromises and achieve real change by working with one side or the other to leverage common goals. The only way for any of the third parties to really have a chance to become part of the conversation in the future is to work towards some sort of proportional representation system or instant-runoffs which would weaken the hold of the major parties. That would take a Constitutional/national movement. I suppose the fact that the major parties are being held in contempt by increasing numbers of the population though may hold out hope.
CD: Another party that can claim having a foot in both the left and the right is the Libertarian Party, but for different reasons. Would it be fair to say that the Solidarity Party is the Libertarian Party’s opposite?
KM: At first blush I'd say we are. The Libertarian Party tends to frame many public policy questions around what is right for the individual whereas we will be looking at how we can expand the common good and find as much common ground as possible. If you look a little closer though, I'd say that our belief in subsidiarity coincides with Libertarians in the sense that we want government to be most responsive at the levels closest to the citizenry. I think there might also be agreement in having a less militaristic and overbearing foreign policy. At root though, we see government- at some level- supplementing (although not replacing) private initiative and libertarianism tends to view any government participation as suspect. There can be no social progression and advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society though without some active role and protection by some layer of government.
CD: Describe what you mean by subsidiarity.
KM: My understanding of subsidiarity is that the problems or issues that folks face should have a resolution or assistance at the lowest level possible of governance or organization that has the means or authority to act.
CD: But how does that work on the practical level? Recently we had someone running for high office that seemed to equate subsidiarity with federalism. Was he right?
KM: It may operate differently depending on the organization under discussion. For instance, recently Cardinal O'Malley in Boston has redesigned the diocese to have teams of priests, lay leaders, and office help work together to potentially serve groups of parishes.
On the governmental level, I think the key is to serve folks as well as efficiently as possible at the lowest level that can do the job. I think most folks want government to be as close to home as possible. No matter what someone's political stripes are when someone talks about "Washington" the sense is that government decisions and actions are bureaucratic, complicated, wasteful, distant, and decided by folks unfamiliar from the conditions and lacking understanding. The goal should be to empower (and fund!) government adequately at low(er) levels so that they can be the most responsive. The same level of care and responsiveness should guide organizations (as mentioned above) as well.
CD: Kirk, you have an article that will go into the first issue of Christian Democracy along with this interview. Christian democracy has been described as conservative on social issues and liberal on economic issues. Can we surmise from your article that the American Solidarity Party will also be liberal on environmental issues? And if so, do you feel that being liberal on environmental issues is essential for a Christian democratic party properly so called?
KM: I think labels like "conservative" and "liberal" are only helpful in the sense that they point folks new to understanding Christian Democracy as to reference points they might understand since we seem to only lump folks in to "Left/Blue" and "Right/Red" pigeonholes.
I think proper stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us is something any Christian should be concerned about aside from ideology. I'd be disappointed if only "liberals" thought the environment is important. Environmentalism is part of a larger societal discussion we need to have about conservation- whether we're trying to "conserve" traditions, economic security, local community "social capital", have less waste when others have little, etc. To illustrate my point, Mike Huckabee who would not be confused as a liberal recently made a comment on his book tour in Orlando that the Republicans have not put an emphasis on the environment—to their detriment. He noted as well that "conserve" is a root of the word conservative and Teddy Roosevelt a Republican standard-bearer had played a leading role in the conservation and national parks movement.
I think ultimately, however we're labeled by outsiders, newcomers and/or the media the goal is to advance the policies and priorities we believe are the best ones. We'll welcome anyone who self-identifies with whatever label they like as long as we're in general agreement.