Finding fault, reluctantly, with the new American Party


On Friday, I said I’d post something from the new American Party’s big announcement at the State House, and I meant to; I really did. But it didn’t happen. Not that I didn’t try. While rabbiting away at my day job, I tried twice to upload the video I had shot at their presser, only to see my internet connection (and presumably, that of others at ADCO) slow way down, so I aborted each time. HD video is great, but 14:15 of it can really be a drag on bandwidth. At least, I assume that’s what was happening.

That night, I took a look at the video, only to find that it had no sound. I’ve had that happen a couple of times lately. I think my iPhone 4 is wearing out. So I had been wasting time as well as bandwidth.

None of that should have stopped me from posting about it, but the opportunity for a timely post just got away from me. And there was another reason… I didn’t have much that was constructive to say.

I have a great appreciation of both Oscar Lovelace and Jim Rex, and what they are trying to do, in terms of breaking the death grip that the two parties have on our politics. I think they are operating from the purest of motives, and that they have been sensible and pragmatic in going about it, according to their own understanding of things. And before I get into my fault-finding, here’s some normal coverage of their thing on Friday.

I want to be a cheerleader for them. Hey, I’d even like to get involved, or even (gasp!) run for office, if I could honestly embrace the alternative that they’re offering.

I think I expected too much.

That Jim Rex in particular would start a party that would appropriate the ever-popular trope of term limits is in keeping with a pattern. As state superintendent of education, he played upon the popularity (in certain circles) of “school choice” to  push public school choice. And now again, he’s trying to pair something that might poll well among portions of the electorate to push something that he thinks would be good for the state and nation.

But all I could do, listening to them make their announcement, was find fault. Worse, when Oscar and Jim each came up to me afterwards, rather than play reporter and ask questions, I told them what I didn’t like about what they were doing. Which was obnoxious of me, I know. And I could sense, after each had come up to me and initiated a conversation, that they both were ready to talk to someone else almost immediately. They had come to launch a party, not listen to criticism. I didn’t blame them a bit.

But I couldn’t help it. Because to me, we so badly need a good alternative to the two parties that when I finally see the only sustained effort to establish one that I’ve seen in my 26 years of observing SC politics, I hate to see it going wrong.

And here’s how I see it going wrong. There are two main problems:

  1. The term limits thing. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that one item is likely to define this party. I suspect that most people walking away from their pitch are likely to think of it as “the term limits party.” That’s because most of the rest of the things they call for – honesty, ethical behavior, etc. – are things that everyone says they want. And if you’re going to hang your identity on something, the term limits gimmick is a poor vehicle. It is popular to believe that “career politicians” are what’s wrong in politics today. Therefore, term limits as a popular silver bullet. But that’s not what’s wrong. In fact, inexperienced politicians are at least as much of an expression of the real problem as are those who’ve been in office forever. More about that real problem in a moment. But the fact is, one can cause a lot of mischief in the 12 years the American Party is talking about allowing politicos. And you get a lot of ignorant blundering about to boot, with legislative bodies full of people who lack basic knowledge of how things work. Calling for term limits – particularly limits as loose as 12 years – is a way of seeming to do something measurable without accomplishing anything at all.
  2. The second problem is something I hadn’t noticed in my interactions with this new party: On Friday, I heard a lot of talk, particularly from Dr. Lovelace, about “career politicians beholden to corporate interests” At times, I felt I was at a séance that was conjuring up the ghost of Occupy Wall Street. And folks, it might have a certain populist appeal, but the problem with our politics is NOT that there are a bunch of wicked rich men pulling strings behind the scenes. If that were happening, I think, frankly, you’d see more pragmatic policymaking. Big business types, for instance, would in a skinny minute increase our gasoline tax so as to maintain our roads, because good roads are good for business. But that doesn’t happen because of the populist games both parties play with the gas tax – Republicans playing on reflexive resistance to any tax increase, and Democrats opposing anything that would place a burden on the poor.

And that gets us to the real problem with our system, and that is the parties themselves. The American Party correctly diagnoses the problem when it says what we need is “elected officials who place the common good and problem-solving above party loyalty and partisanship.” The parties are about themselves. They are about perpetuating themselves, and that means constantly stoking the fires of resentment among their respective constituencies toward the OTHER side. Everything is framed in terms that make it difficult for any office-seeker to stray from the party line, lest he or she be judged one of THEM.

Every vote, every statement, is geared toward helping the party gain a majority, or expand a majority, or if the party in question is stuck hopelessly in the minority, make things hard for the majority party.

Assembling consensus on policies so as to pass legislation that all or most could support is not only discouraged, it’s rendered practically impossible.

The point of a third party – one that addresses our real needs – should be to break that stranglehold that the existing parties have, with their never-ending quest to achieve a majority plus one. To go on about career politicians and rich, powerful folk behind the scenes is to misdiagnose the problem, and to create distractions. Which is what the parties do.

Yeah, I know how silly it can seem for me to be holding out for the purity of my UnParty – which offers no silver bullets, which demonizes no scapegoats, but simply attacks the real problems created by the two parties, working together to ensure that nothing gets done.

And I know that a pragmatic person looks for gimmicks that sound good to rally people around a banner, such as term limits and blaming those wicked “corporate” interests (I keep wondering – what is it about incorporation that makes an entity evil?).

After all, no group of people has ever stood up behind ME at a press conference to express support for the UnParty.

But I still believe that something is needed to explode the two-party system, and the American Party, as currently presented, isn’t it.

30 thoughts on “Finding fault, reluctantly, with the new American Party

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes. They are known for even greater ideological rigidity than the Democrats and Republicans. They imagine that the problem with the Dems and Repubs is that they are not doctrinaire enough.

      This American Party is at least trying to be more pragmatic and constructive than that. But I fear it’s letting itself become distracted…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Yes, but your premise has been “Finally a third party”…when what you meant was “maybe there is a wishy washy party I could agree with.”

      2. bud

        In South Carolina there really isn’t even a viable second party so why continue harping on the poor ole Democrats who have about as much power as the Whigs.

        Katherine is right on this. There are plenty of alternatives if folks wish to support them. The Greens may seem rigid but they have an agenda that is important. Why denigrate it? The Libertarians are pretty crazy on economic issues but they too have important things to say about personal freedom. This new party seems like GOP light to me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have something useful to say. Even if some people don’t agree with what they are saying.

  1. Doug Ross

    Term limits would reduce the influence of parties. The problems we have in South Carolina’s state government are directly the result of long time politicians of both parties using their power to control the agenda. Nothing happens in this state unless Hugh Leatherman and Bobby Harrell say so.

    The thing I find most incomprehensible about your anti-term limit stance is that you make it appear that being a legislator is a challenging endeavor that takes YEARS to master. I look at the state legislators and see a bunch of guys who aren’t winning any awards for brain power. They are schmoozer and fixers and back slappers. And if it IS difficult to get up to speed on the process, it’s because the old geezers who have been in power for so long make it that way. You have to kiss their ring (or something else) to get a good spot on a committee… you have to play the games to get your bills to the floor… this is by design as a result of the tenure system.

    I asked before – which of the multi-decade legislators do you think are indispensable in making sure South Carolina is successful? Who can’t we live without?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      A lot of experienced lawmakers are less than geniuses. The problem with inexperienced ones is that they are so often both dumb AND ignorant.

      Just to be blunt about it.

      My prejudice on this score is the product of years of frustration listening to newbies who don’t even know what the issues are, much less having sensible answers on the issues, and much, much less having the legislative skill to get anything done. Sometimes, their earnestness is touching. But it’s still really, really frustrating to watch clueless people making laws.

      There are exceptions. And instead of telling you which experienced lawmakers are indispensable (you’ll just dismiss them by saying, “Then why haven’t they accomplished anything?” to which I’ll say, because they have to get others to go along with them, which is another way of stating the fact that the body as a whole really IS responsible, which you don’t like to hear, either, since you want to blame a few individuals), I’ll give you a couple of people who I think were effective even as freshmen:

      Nathan Ballentine
      Anton Gunn

      They were both smart and savvy about issues the moment they arrived, and both had a sort of instinctive grasp of how to work productively with others, including members of the opposing parties. Nathan got himself into trouble with the leadership by going along with Nikki Haley on some things, but he didn’t make himself into Joan of Arc over it. He established his intellectual independence and integrity without unnecessarily making the rest of the House despise him…

      Some others who were impressive from the start were Joel Lourie and Vincent Sheheen, but you don’t want to hear about them because they were second-generation lawmakers (Joel literally, Vincent less directly, through his uncle), and if you don’t like career pols, you definitely wouldn’t like second-generation pols.

      But Nathan and Anton were good all on their own. It was a shame to see Anton leave the House.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Now you’re going to ask me to list their accomplishments, which I won’t be able to do, because I’m not thinking in those terms.

        I’m thinking in terms of whether this is someone I can observe in office over time, someone I can sit down with on multiple occasions and be repeatedly impressed that this is someone who GETS IT, someone I can trust to vote intelligently on the laws we must live by.

        Whether someone can earn that trust, and live up to it, is the ultimate thing for me. Not laundry lists of deeds. Just intelligent discernment, day after day…

    2. bud

      Term limits is also contradictory to libertarianism. Why should the will of the people be thwarted by an arbitrary rule? We have term limits every election cycle. I say it runs counter to the notion of freedom and personal responsibility. Not sure why anyone who respects the concept of freedom could ever support such an anti-freedom proposition.

      1. Doug Ross


        Because term limits have nothing to do with exercising personal freedom. Is that simple enough for you? You really need to understand the concept before making statements. You have the misguided notion that libertarianism = do whatever you want without any structure whatsoever.
        I want a smaller government that is more efficient.

        1. bud

          Doug, you’re way better than that snarky, condescending comment. OF COURSE it takes away a very important freedom. I won’t be free to vote for the candidate of my choice if term limits apply for a given office. Worst thing we ever did in this country was adopting term limits for POTUS. It denied us the opportunity to vote for Bill Clinton in 2000. And look what that got us.

  2. Mark Stewart

    The Term Limits line of argumentation is obtuse and off target (sorry Doug et al).

    What they should have honed in on was the need for objectivity in redistricting. That’s something to focus on if we want better representation and less partisan gridlock. The system will never be free of politics; but it really is in everyone’s best interests to see that the baser impulses are marginalized within a generally objective framework of representation. It may not be as succinct as yelling about “term limits”, but it would be a whole lot more effective.

    If you are going to propose an American political party, then they ought to make the central plank squaring the political representation structure with the will of the people.

    1. Doug Ross

      Why is it obtuse? Everyone wants the government to be more efficient and serve the public better. Why doesn’t that happen? Is it because we have too many inexperienced legislators? Is it because we have a system that allows the best and brightest to take the lead? Is it because the barriers to entry for new ideas are very low?

      No. No. and No.

      The problem begins and ends with old fools who use the power they have gained over decades in office to control the process. How is it that Vincent Sheheen is the surrogate head of the Democratic Party in South Carolina and he can’t get anything accomplished without getting the blessing of Hugh Leatherman? If we limited legislators to ten years, we’d see much more in the way of small factions across both parties pushing for change.

      As I’ve said before, term limits don’t end a political career. A short two year break or a move to another office starts the clock all over again. Let Leatherman take a break and if he is SO smart and indispensable, let him run again in two years and work his way back up based on merit, not tenure.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The problem with the system is that the parties dominate everything, including redistricting. Therefore general elections seldom mean anything, and incumbents don’t have to fear serious challenges in them. They only fear primary challenges, which means they have to please the most extreme people in their respective parties, because those are the ones who are motivated to come out and vote in primaries.

        THAT is the problem. THAT is why we don’t have better people making better decisions. Term limits would do nothing to solve the problem. Term limits would just give MORE extreme ideologues (because now, an experienced moderate incumbent can still sometimes use the power of incumbency to hold off the extreme challenges in a primary) who have no practical experience to teach them that their hothouse beliefs bear little resemblance to the real world.

        An example of what it gives us is the loony faction of the U.S. House GOP — people who think the abstract notions they picked up at Tea Party rallies back home are more important than the full faith and credit of the United States of America. A very dangerous situation…

    1. Mab

      Why = The eagle’s only sick sometimes. But when he’s sick, he’s very, very sick.

      >Not what we want in our leaders<

  3. der deutscher Flußgabelunger

    Totally agree with you Brad on the term-limits issue. Ask any political scientist and they’ll tell you legislative term limits have a mostly negative affect on policy making. Look at California, birthplace of the legislative term-limit movement, there they just lengthened the number of terms legislators can serve.

    However, your faith in “Big Business types” and fear of the hoi polloi is just plain disturbing. Since when did “what is good for business” become synonymous with “what is good for society”?

    Also criticizing Democrats for opposing a tax that would be a burden on the poor is so cliche upper middle-class white male.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I saw that less as criticism (despite the aside about “populist games”), and more as description. Do you find the description inaccurate? Was my perception somehow hampered by my gender or skin color? Is that not why many Democrats oppose a gas tax hike? Or at least, the excuse given, to sound more high-minded than just plain pandering to people not wanting to pay the tax? In other words, doing the same thing Republicans do? If anything, I was being nice to Democrats by giving them the benefit of the doubt that the poor are actually what they’re worried about.

      And you took a leap when you suggest I conflated what is good for business with what is good for society. Yes, that’s often the case — as with the basic issue of adequate infrastructure, which I mentioned. But I did not state that as a rule.

      If you ask, though, yes — I’d rather Big Business pull the strings than have our government at the mercy of Grover Norquist and other nihilistic ideologues.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Of course, in the question Big Biz vs. Grover Norquist, you posit a false dichotomy. Neither is also an answer.

      2. Harry Harris

        Let’s see what “big business pulling the strings” has gotten us.
        Effective tax rates on multi-millionaires below those of 100K per year working couples (don’t forget the SS 107K cutoff and “interesting” executive pay schemes).
        Tax rates on investment income lower than on wages (like we’re scared they would hide it in a mattress).
        Rookie Congressmen funded by stealth superpacs and sham donations promoting a libertarian agenda.
        A shaky environment.
        Wars promoted by military/industrial interests.
        A highly polarized populace driven by a largely materialistic world view.
        A march toward a third-world culture with a shrinking working middle class.

        Much of the great contribution many of our business sectors has been corrupted by power – often in the hands of super-rich moguls or corporate officials who mean well but are far out of touch with the struggles and joys of middle-class life. We are separated and becoming moreso.

  4. tired old man

    First, a word about term limits, and then a repeat from Brad’s previous post, where I found myself last and least in terms of having input.

    I do not agree with Rex and Oscar on term limits, but I can readily bite my tongue and move along to help the rest of the agenda. I oppose terms limits for a reason seldom heard: Term limits advance professional bureaucrats, because newbie politicians will have to rely on them for directions on how to find the bathroom. I have spent some time in the bureaucracies (and although government is a major one, but I’d also have to include journalism and banking — and interestingly, all three relied on the old Harris systems in pre-computer days). I fear the professional bureaucrats more than anything else about government. These are the people with long knives, longer memories, and a short agenda that centers on themselves.


    Here is the older post, brought to you by the miracle of cut and paste:

    I think people are missing the point, which is that the current political system is broken, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. It’s just been reported in the Guardian that America’s two political parties raised and spent $500 million last year when only two governorships were open, two special Senate elections, and six unplanned House seats. That’s the official, up-front money and does not include the Koch brothers and all the special interest PACS. Jim Rex notes that most incumbents are routinely returned.

    What does that mean in SC? For starters, just over half the registered voters actually voted in 2010, which means Nikki Haley, with her 59,000 vote margin over Vince Sheheen, in reality received the votes of just over 26% of the registered voters.

    All this is opportunity for the American Party to provide an option that might appeal to the 1.2 million who stayed home — as well as those in SC’s 4.6 million population base who never bothered to register.

    We can all quibble over the new party’s basic tenets, but I sort of like the idea of the political party requiring ethical behavior of its candidates.

    And, you naysayers should remember that the SC Republican party could hold its annual convention in a Waffle House booth just four decades or so.

    Reply ↓

  5. Doug Ross

    Here’s a perfect example of why we need terms limits:

    Thirty year legislator Mike Fair as committee chairman tells legislators to not ask interim prisons director Bryan Stirling questions about a a recent court ruling in the hearing regarding naming Stirling permanent director. Freshman senator Marlon Kimpson makes news by ignoring that command from Fair.

    Old guys think they know everything.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Marlon Kimpson may technically be a freshman, but he’s not exactly the kind of new blood that people who advocate term limits hope to see take the place of “career politicians.”

    He bears a time-honored SC political name. His father, Milton, served in the cabinet of Dick Riley, and Marlon himself was appointed by Jim Hodges to chair the state Election Commission. And, of course, he’s yet another lawyer.

    Here’s his bio from his campaign website.

    I would imagine that, if I had interviewed Marlon when he was running for the Senate, it would have felt more like talking to a veteran lawmaker than to your typical inexperienced newcomer. In one of our standing editorial board jokes, we would not have had to ask “Who’s his Daddy?”

  7. Doug Ross

    @Brad – you’re part of the problem. You think heritage is a qualification for office.

    And what about Mike Fair? What has he done in 30 years to deserve the right to tell other Senators what they can and cannot question a public employee about?

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I bet your kids know more about being a road warrior computer dude than I do…i know more about working at a large government research facility than my husband does, and he knew more about being a professor than I did…kids absorb a lot of soft information about what their parents do.

      1. Doug Ross

        “Know” is not the same as “Able to do it as well”.

        But in politics, it matters who your Daddy is… especially in inbred South Carolina… where we’d rather repeat the mistakes of our Pappy than try something different.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It matters who your Daddy or your uncle or your brother is elsewhere, too. Just ask any of the Kennedys, or Nancy Kassebaum, or Bob Casey, or Mitt Romney, or… well, we could go on all day.

          But yeah, it is a particularly important thing in SC.

          Which is why we made jokes about it on the editorial board, because we so often knew the Daddys (or, if you’re Vincent Sheheen, both the Daddy and the uncle) of people running for office.

          And note that we JOKED about it, because it was fairly ridiculous sometimes.

          But since you accuse me of considering that a qualification, I will own it to a certain extent, even though it runs counter to everything we Americans are supposed to believe about it not mattering who your Daddy was.

          The fact is, I firmly believe that John Quincy Adams was better qualified to be president than Andrew Jackson. In fact, the gulf between them was vast. Quincy had been at his father’s side at the founding of the country, acting as his secretary as Adams laid the groundwork for U.S. diplomacy in France and Britain. His experience wasn’t limited to working for his dad. When he was 14 years old, he accompanied the U.S. envoy to Russia as his secretary. He also received a superb education while he was abroad.

          By contrast, Old Hickory was a guy who… won a battle against the British after the war was over. (Yeah, I know that New Orleans was an important victory for us, especially after the Brits had mopped up our army and burned Washington, and I congratulate Jackson for his achievement — y’all know how much I value military service — but I’m stretching a bit to make a point.)

          Recently, I posted a video clip that showed how deeply Vincent Sheheen understood how government works in SC, and how to make it better. If he were just another lawyer from Camden, if he hadn’t grown up being steeped in these things with an uncle and a father who were unusually astute political players, I don’t think he would understand it all as well as he does.

          Note that it’s not about being related to ol’ Billy Bob. I’m talking about people whose fathers, or uncles or brothers, were among the sharpest observers of politics, and brought them up to understand such things.

          Such people do have a head start on being, as you say, “able to do it as well.”

          That doesn’t mean it’s a precondition. I praise Vincent’s understanding of the system because I’m able to appreciate it because I understand the system. And my Daddy is a retired Navy captain. And Cindi Scoppe understands it even better (in SOME ways, ahem), and her Daddy was a tobacco farmer in North Carolina.

          I’ll tell you where Vincent would be ahead of either of us, though — in the practical, human interactions of politics. We understand it more theoretically. He has experience of what it’s like on the hustings, and dealing with constituent service, and all that stuff that tends to occur below journalists’ radar…


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