4 min read

Avoiding the Process Trap — A Few Notes on the Forward Party

Avoiding the Process Trap — A Few Notes on the Forward Party

The curious case of Andrew Yang's Forward Party is a stark example of shortcut thinking in politics. Rather than developing a long-term strategy for promoting democratic reform through the Democratic Party—which welcomed him as much as anyone else in the coalition—Yang has joined forces with a few Never Trump Republicans to promote a non-specific agenda of un-named solutions and un-recruited candidates.

Political scientist Dave Karpf has pointed out that most third-party strategies amount to Tinkerbell Politics, hoping that if enough people clap hard enough, the party will simply win political power despite some deep structural issues even the electoral-reform-focused Forward Party seems to be missing out on. Jamelle Bouie, writing for the NYT, notes that successful third parties often start with strident issue positions, which they then bring into the mainstream of one of the major parties. Instead, most modern third parties use the low startup costs of online discourse, media coverage and elite endorsements to quickly burn through money, people and good will while failing to produce the kind of short-term victories that can sustain media coverage and public interest as well as agency and efficacy for members and volunteers.

The Forward Party attempting to weigh in on politics while saying nothing a Democrat, Republican, or independent could find objectionable is at least funny to me as a professional political communicator, but it also points to some trap thinking we often see in advocacy and electoral efforts, particularly appeals to process. This will become increasingly evident as the Forward Party tries to put its very non-specific agenda into practice.

Will Conway, an organizer for the party and former Republican, tried to metaphor around the Forward Party's lack of an agenda with a rather dunkable techno-comparison.

Will Conway on Twitter: Criticizing @Fwd_Party for not having policy solutions is like criticizing Spotify for not releasing their own music. Spotify is the tool to distribute music. We’re the tool to facilitate dialogue & consensus. Listening to an Oasis CD on repeat? Want more options? Here it is.

For the Forward Party, this "tool to facilitate dialogue & consensus" will involve some sort of convention and deliberative process to create a platform. But who the people and organizations are that will show up to this process are left to the readers' imagination.

This leads them, at this stage of their launch, to try to maintain the illusion that their party could maintain both anti-abortion and pro-abortion forces. Who might be attracted to such a process? Certainly not people who want abortion rights.

How an anti-abortion party, which wants to force women to live according to its idiosyncratic religious code, would commit itself to "pluralism" — for instance letting people who can afford it travel across state lines to get abortions — is once again left the reader's imagination. In fact, such a devolution of federal authority to state or local forces is an explicitly conservative position, which has been used historically to fight any enforcement of national human rights laws, with the penalty of enforcement falling squarely on the poor, working class, people of color and other groups that conservatives discriminate against. And naturally, the Forward Party has to use strawman versions of center-left Democratic Party positions to draw its false equivalencies between our two extant party coalitions.

The truth is that you can't take moral reasoning out of politics. You can certainly post a bunch of unobjectionable buzzwords online, but at the end of the day, some people will be at the table and some people won't. Processes — like all politics — involve the distribution of power, resources and even rights to specific groups of people in a society.

And if you're framing your new political project as a condemnation of Both Sides, today's media realities mean that you'll wind up publishing some bromides on a national op-ed page and shopping your political party to right wing cranks on Newsmax while ragging on Democrats.

These arguments crop up in other arenas, too. I've spent most of my career in climate politics and I've seen a lot of people go down this rabbit hole, both in response to good faith and bad faith arguments. Appeals to Good Processes vs. the Bad Status Quo are common in op-ed pages and Twitter threads because they're easy to produce. The wonkiest version I've seen has involved multi-month disputes over how climate scenarios are constructed. Actual political advocacy around process involves questions of power, for instance getting Democrats to swear off fossil fuel funding or broader party reform efforts or creating new agencies and decision-making bodies to make politics more participatory.

A political project that doesn't recognize the basic, data-based, common sense realities of politics...isn't really doing politics.

P.S. — I saw the Forward Party was starting to dabble in the WE'RE BEING SUPPRESSED gimmick so to be clear, I'd be super happy to publicly discuss this perspective with any official from the party.

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