Many Catholics are disillusioned with both the Republicans and Democrats. Could a third party ever happen?

Charlie Camosy felt duped. Every four years, the major parties told him this is the “most important election of our lifetimes.” But “every time we fall for the ‘You may be not like us, but if the other party gains power it will be the end of the world, so you have to vote for us’ strategy we insure that things will basically stay the same,” he said. So, after years as a dedicated Democrat, he joined the American Solidarity Party, which attempts to incorporate Catholic social teaching more fully.

Mr. Camosy’s story reflects two seemingly opposed realities that condition Catholics’ participation in U.S. politics. First, Catholic social teaching does not fully coincide with the platform of either of the two major parties. Second, most U.S. Catholics nevertheless participate in our two-party system.

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It is a truism that the Democrats and Republicans divide many tenets of Catholic social teaching between them, although many Catholics argue that their party better captures these teachings. But many voters who are socially moderate-to-conservative and economically moderate-to-liberal are not represented well by either party. They may occupy the ideal space where the power of Catholic social teaching can shine.

Given the failure of either major party to embody Catholic social teaching, one might expect many Catholics to opt out of both, yet only 7 percent of Americans (and about the same number of Catholics) do not at least “lean toward” a political party, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2019. Moreover, third parties fared poorly in the 2016 elections, a year of widespread dissatisfaction with the two parties. Insurgents like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders still channeled their candidacies through the established party system.

U.S. Catholics themselves are deeply committed to the two parties and are almost equally divided into Democrats and Republicans—although race and ethnicity complicates this picture, as we will see. This is in sharp contrast to white evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jews.

Moreover, as Pew finds, “Catholic partisans often express opinions that are much more in line with the positions of their political parties than with the teachings of their church.”

As the theologian Steven P. Millies argues: “We have integrated too much of a politically partisan spirit with what many Americans associate with being Catholic. We talk a little bit too freely about being conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics.”

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But do we have any other option? Is there any chance for a third party that more fully represents the breadth of Catholic social teaching?

Why Parties?

Understanding the possibility of a Catholic third party requires understanding political parties in general. At their simplest, political parties are institutions that help politicians to win elections and govern. They do this by mobilizing large numbers of voters, simplifying voting choices for citizens, regulating competition among ambitious office-seekers and forming coalitions of elected officials.

U.S. Catholics are deeply committed to the two parties and are almost equally divided into Democrats and Republicans.

The U.S. political scientist V. O. Key offered the following taxonomy of political parties with the amusing acronyms PIG, PIE and PO. PIG stands for party-in-government and refers to the elected officials and candidates associated with a party; the PIG links officials both horizontally (across the branches of government) and vertically in a federal system (between the national and state governments). PIE means party-in-electorate: the voters who identify with a party. Finally, PO is the party organization: the staff, officials and activists who operate the party as an institution. All of these people together form the complex network that is a U.S. political party.

In terms of PIG, parties can organize around all sorts of things that give people common political interests. In the United States, political ideology has become an important way parties distinguish themselves and mobilize their voters. Sometime between the 1960s and the ’90s, the parties sorted themselves, especially in the South, such that now almost all liberals are Democrats and almost all conservatives are Republicans.

Some political scientists view U.S. political parties as umbrellas over diverse coalitions of interest groups and voting blocs. An obvious example is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in the 1930s and early ’40s, which had as members many Northern Catholics but also most Southern Protestants. This view of political parties implies that an interest group itself is not a political party but in coalition with other interest groups can move beyond mere advocacy to electoral competition and power.

The PIE of the United States is structured by our two-party system. The United States has had a largely two-party system since 1792, and the Republicans and Democrats have been trading control of the government since 1854. Theories abound as to why the United States has a two-party system. One is so persuasive that it has been called a “law”: Duverger’s Law, which holds that two-party systems tend to arise in winner-take-all or “first past the post” election systems with single-member districts. There are not simply two parties in the United States, but a duopoly, a durable framework in which two parties have successfully excluded competitors. Any party outside that duopoly is merely a “third party.”

The U.S. two-party system has fended off outsiders well. A third party might begin promisingly by influencing the national debate, but the two major parties usually co-opt its ideas, reducing both its chances of electoral success and the incentives of citizens to allocate resources to it. Meanwhile, many would-be third-party candidates are lured by the advantages of competing within the two-party system. Mr. Sanders, for instance, was a member of the Liberty Union Party in the 1970s and has since served in the House and Senate as an independent, but he ran for president as a Democrat.

The U.S. two-party system has fended off outsiders well.

Moreover, with reference to PO, political parties operate in environments that have multiplied in complexity since Key’s time. This has only made it harder for new parties to endure. Parties interact not only with interest groups but also with the media and government agencies and in the context of complex legal, regulatory and financial environments. Parties provide critical legal, technical and financial support to candidates.

The challenge for U.S. third parties, then, is to offer durable solutions to the problems all political actors face in winning elections and governing, and to do so at all three levels: PIG, PIE and PO. Third parties in the United States have so far failed to meet that challenge. As the political scientist John Aldrich notes in his book Why Parties?, “While a third party or candidate occasionally is a strategic actor in presidential politics (Ralph Nader in 2000 but not in 2008, for instance), no third party or candidate is so over time.” In the U.S. political imagination, third-party candidates play the role of “spoiler.” They help one major party win by siphoning votes from the other, as Ross Perot did 1992 (although technically he was an independent candidate) and as happened with Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 “Bull Moose” Progressive Party candidacy.

Yes, the U.S. two-party system is a contingent, historical creation. But history is not always easily reversed, and a powerful, durable political establishment has arisen around the decisions that formed the two-party system. Proposals to break it up have a certain cachet among sophisticated commentators, but they face tremendous hurdles.

Of course, a third party could have goals besides election and capturing government. It might try to educate citizens or advance policy issues. But if that party is not competing meaningfully for elected office, then it is merely an interest group, not a party. As the Democratic strategist James Carville recently told Vox, “The purpose of a political party is to acquire power. All right? Without power, nothing matters.”

A Catholic Third Party?

A new Catholic party would have to make some hard decisions about PIG, PIE and PO. Who would be its candidates? Who would be its voters? Who would organize and pay for the party infrastructure? And the pressing question behind all of those questions: How would the party compete in a two-party political system?

For PIG, third-party candidates are sometimes famous or wealthy or both, but a real party would have to outlast vanity campaigns. Who could serve as a durable leader? One answer might be a current elected official who has a strong personal following. But such a person would be precisely the sort of candidate who would have the most incentives to work within the two-party system.

U.S. Catholics hoping for a party based on Catholic social teaching might look to the example of Christian democrats in Europe.

And what would be the platform? How do you translate the broad principles of Catholic social teaching into a political platform for the here and now? Current partisans are wont to claim obvious connections between church teaching and their political preferences. But few policy areas admit of such simplicity, and not all issues are equally salient in a given election cycle. One proposal for addressing such questions has been to reach out to voters who are socially moderate-to-conservative and economically moderate-to-liberal, an ideological space often argued to align with Catholic social teaching. This is a promising approach, but prudential questions remain: how to select and frame principles so as to draw support away from the two major parties, when so many of these issues are precisely what the parties are fighting over.

The demographics of a Catholic-oriented PIE bear mention. Forming a Catholic-influenced third party at a time when the number of Catholics and other Christians in the United States is in decline and aging seems inauspicious. Perhaps the new authentic witness of a Catholic third party could be a way to bring millennials back to the church, but its reach must be more than an evangelization tool to be effective politically.

Catholics are also diverse and sometimes divide on important issues along ethnic or racial lines. Hispanic Catholics, for example, are more likely to be Democrats than are non-Hispanic white Catholics, a majority of whom lean Republican. Would a Catholic third party be dominated by either group? Or would Catholics be able to unite across this divide to promote a common policy agenda? The latter would likely require a reconciling of policy issues that often divide Catholics, including immigration.

Bearing in mind the view of political parties as coalitions, perhaps such a party could find common ground with lapsed Catholics or non-Catholics. The latter group might include younger evangelical Protestants breaking from the Republican Party, or the religious left parting ways with the Democrats.

It costs a great deal of money to organize a party that can regularly contest elections.

As for PO, it costs a great deal of money to organize a party that can regularly contest elections. A durable party would need donors committed to the long haul, benefactors who would not lose interest after failed election cycles. The party, meanwhile, would have to steward its resources carefully to build an infrastructure that would allow it to compete across election cycles. This is the kind of work that needs to happen between elections, precisely when interest in third parties ebbs for most people. The two major parties attract billions of dollars from political action committees, mega-donors, “dark money” groups and more generally by special interest groups because donors trust they are making a long-term investment. A third party could compete only by showing it was staying in the game.

The American Solidarity Party has attracted attention, for instance, but thus far has not met with electoral success, less because it fared poorly in elections than because it has not put many candidates on the ballot in the first place. As the prominent A.S.P. member and theologian Charlie Camosy told me by e-mail, “Those of us who want to see the A.S.P. win national elections are playing the long game.”

Mr. Camosy’s path to the American Solidarity Party is a rich text for those looking for insights into how to attract defectors from the party duopoly. Despite his years of affiliation with the Democratic Party and his leadership role in the advocacy group Democrats for Life of America, Mr. Camosy eventually came to feel like an outsider: “They were trying to make sure people like me were not welcome in the party,” he told The Washington Post. A Catholic third party would have to replicate Mr. Camosy’s journey in others and move voters from dissatisfaction with their party to a positive commitment to a new one.

But Mr. Camosy’s story reveals a further difficulty: He left the Democrats after repeatedly seeing the futility of his efforts to reform the party. In other words, he came to see the limits of his association with the Democratic Party precisely because he was an engaged member of the party. But one might wonder how many voters are engaged enough with their party to reach limits like those, to be forced by circumstances to make the difficult decision to leave. For that matter, how many voters would remain committed enough, despite such an experience, to particular policy objectives to seek new avenues of political participation?

Indeed, it is precisely because of the energy he devoted to the Democrats that Mr. Camosy had the faith in institutions and the imagination to envision something else. Perhaps people are not leaving and forming new parties precisely because they are not only dissatisfied with their parties, but also disaffected from them. They are not engaged with either major party to the point that they seek its reform, and so they are not running into the concrete limits of that effort at reform. Perhaps they have the vague notion that someone, somewhere, will be able to fix a party that may not in fact be fixable.

A Hopeful Example?

U.S. Catholics hoping for a party based on Catholic social teaching might look to the example of Christian Democrats in Europe. That history is instructive, if not altogether hopeful.

Christian Democrats formed successful post-war parties in Europe that had origins in the “confessional parties” of the 19th century in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The most notable such party today is Germany’s CDU/CSU, whose leader is Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Like all parties, Christian Democratic parties arose as a solution to a problem—in this case, widespread and politically powerful campaigns against religious faith, like the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf,his oppressive attempt to win Catholic loyalty to the state over the church.

While Christian democracy is often associated with specific policies in line with church teaching, its origin was less about Catholic social teaching than about the basic rights and privileges of the Catholic Church.

This is a simple but important point: While Christian democracy is often associated with specific policies in line with church teaching, its origin was less about Catholic social teaching than about the basic rights and privileges of the Catholic Church. Christian Democratic parties were also able to cooperate with parties that were not concerned with its social teaching.

They found willing partners in conservative political elites, who shared their opposition to secular liberalism, and conservative parties were eager to make use of the church’s membership and organization to remedy their lackluster efforts to mobilize voters.

Christian Democrats were met with further propitious fortunes in the postwar period. As Europe emerged from the wreckage of World War II, Christian Democrats became the face of the rebuilding effort, with anti-communism and Catholicism united in the heady period leading toward the Second Vatican Council.

It was not inevitable that these parties would form. The church might have decided to respond to the issues of the moment with temporary solutions or ad hoc responses. Conservative parties might have sought other means of confronting liberalism. Voters might have been unmoved by the plight of the church. But parties formed, voters responded and elections were won.

What lessons can we take from these parties? First, the Christian Democrats were not “third parties” in the American sense. They became major parties within multiparty systems that regularly held power. They are thus not directly analogous to a Catholic third party in the U.S. system, although they might have lessons for a Catholic party seeking to become one of the two major parties in the United States.

What lessons can we take from these parties?

Second, these parties arose through the coalition of Catholic and conservative parties, thus allowing the Catholic parties to take advantage of the institutional capacities of previously existing parties and expand their base beyond Catholics. It is not clear how a Catholic third party today would find substantial support from a major party. But this strategy highlights the nature of political parties as coalitions. The Christian Democrats took an umbrella approach that made them bigger and more effective than a single interest group.

Third, these parties arose because the Catholic party was able to mobilize voters. Again, that mobilization was based less on ideological policies than on resistance against anticlerical campaigns against the church. The Christian Democratic parties were able to present those campaigns as an existential threat to the church.

This mobilization strategy makes the Christian Democrats a bad analogue for today. Catholics are divided on whether contemporary American culture and politics represents a threat to the church, and on what the church’s response ought to be. Indeed, one of the most contentious issues among Catholics is the alleged political weaponization of religion and religious liberty.

Fourth, the Christian Democratic parties arose at critical junctures, at points in history when epochal political change became both possible and desirable. This was also true of the formation of the current two-party system, which formed in the run-up to the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps we are at such a critical juncture in the United States in 2020. But there is no question that building new political parties requires overcoming tremendous inertia.

Fifth, the Christian Democratic parties arose through close cooperation between the hierarchy and laity, although eventually the parties became quite independent of the church. This raises a question: If formed today in the United States, would such a party be associated with the church? Would its political missteps, foibles and even scandals tarnish the reputation of the church? And would a party’s association with a church still embroiled in clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandals harm it irreparably?

The Art of the Possible

Clearly, we are a long way off from a Catholic party that could replace one of the major political parties, or even achieve the unthinkable and become a viable third party. In the meantime, how might Catholics meaningfully participate in our two-party system?

Thomas Reese, S.J., has a suggestion: “The Catholic Church is the only major religious group that contains an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The church needs to get these folks talking and listening to one another.”

How might Catholics meaningfully participate in our two-party system?

How can Catholics cultivate the conditions for good partisan politics? Christians are well placed to advocate against some of our political woes, which so often seem to be the result of channeling displaced spiritual energies in ways that only make our politics worse: messianic ideals of politics as the art of converting opponents to your side through epiphanies, or alternately, as an apocalyptic battle or a continual series of “Flight 93” moments that will make or break American democracy. Ultimately, such intra-ecclesial conversations could remind us of the insufficiency of any political party for the fullness of life.

This effort would take a lesson from Charles Camosy: Get involved in party politics, but do not allow the party politics to define the terms of engagement. Strive for meaningful change and invest the time and energy required for such change, but do not confuse the party with your deepest principles.

To be sure, the effort required to get Catholics to talk across the aisle is daunting. The church, after all, is a microcosm of the diversity in the United States that often appears more as disarray than as harmony. We are used to antagonizing each other, performing to score points with outside audiences, not talking to one another. The church would have to reclaim spaces within its interior life where members could learn from each other and share with each other, admitting to anxieties, fears, prejudices and ignorance. It would have to exercise fraternal correction that would be truly loving rather than part of the politics of outrage.

Some will question the credibility of the church to renew civil society, dismissing it as just another rotten institution. In a world where the credibility of the church has suffered, we might first need to learn how to be institutional again.

Ultimately, the way for the church to have its best political effects may be not by starting a new party, but simply by being the church. Russell Hittinger, a scholar of law, religion and philosophy and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has argued that the church does not have a social teaching; it is a social teaching. Might the church model for the world the vibrant internal life of a community united by common ends and animated by a desire to love and serve both insiders and outsiders? One hopes at least that it has a surer foundation for unity than has been evidenced by our fractured republic.

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