Blueprint for a Majority Third Party

We picture the political spectrum as a line running from Left to Right, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican. For much of our history, the middle was inhabited by conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. By forging a compromise with centrists, one party or the other could muster enough support to legislate and govern. Achieving a political compromise was often slow and frustrating, but, until recently, it was not impossible.

Now, for a variety of reasons, the middle of the spectrum is depopulated. Compromise is seen as a betrayal of ideological principle.

Instead of searching in vain for policies that include some liberal elements (to mollify Democrats), and some conservative elements (to appease Republicans), we could look for a new synthesis of Right and Left that is fundamental enough to generate policies that satisfy deeper concerns they share.

Upon what human value could we build a synthesis of liberal and conservative principles? A brief detour into the history of the Left-Right dichotomy provides a clue as to what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Even as the French Revolution unfolded, there were signs that its rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was a flawed formula for change. Initially in France, and subsequently in a variety of settings, reforms achieved under this banner have often come at the price of misery, mayhem, and murder.

“Equality” has been the watchword for many Leftist political movements, but egalitarian values have also provided ideological cover for oppressive regimes. Though the ideal of Liberty has served as a midwife to democracy, it has also served Rightists intent on pursuing predatory forms of capitalism.

Political reformers who make either Liberty or Equality preeminent have usually been disappointed by the dividends for justice or chastened by blood spilled in what at the outset seemed a noble cause.

Given the dysfunctional state of American politics, the need for a path that Right and Left can travel together is urgent. If conservatives and liberals cannot subordinate their partisan agendas to the common good, world leadership will pass to nations that do manage to transcend this obsolete ideological dichotomy.

I shall suggest here that if a political party were built on the notion of Dignity, instead of on Liberty or Equality, we could forge a synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics that incorporates the truths that sustain each of these traditional ideologies.

There is broad consensus that dignity is a fundamental human right. I will suggest here that Dignity trumps Liberty and Equality.

What Is Dignity?
As with liberty, dignity is most readily defined in reverse. We know at once when we’ve been ”indignified.” To suffer an indignity carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources essential to well-being, even to life itself. The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy or respect. To be “nobodied” is an attack on one’s status in the tribe, and carries an implicit threat of exclusion that, not long ago, amounted to a death sentence.

In proclaiming a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founding Fathers came tantalizingly close to recognizing dignity as a fundamental right. By liberty they meant freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Thus, the right to liberty affords a large measure of protection to our dignity. Likewise, the right to pursue happiness is undermined by the indignities of second-class citizenship. It’s not much of a stretch to find in the Founders’ intentions an implicit right to dignity.

More than anything except life itself, people want dignity. They will compromise both their liberty and equality to get it. By identifying actions that insult our dignity, we can, step by step, protect and extend both liberty and equality. A vast edifice of law has evolved to protect human liberty by proscribing behaviors that limit it. Building a dignitarian society will require a comparable, generational effort to develop a body of law that, by setting limits to indignities, protects dignity.

Since indignity is caused not by differences in rank per se but rather by abuses of rank differences—what elsewhere I have called rankism—the task of building a dignitarian society can be understood in terms of disallowing rankism (much as the task of building a multicultural society is one of disallowing racism).

Once you have a name for it, you see rankism everywhere, and it’s revealed as the source of much of the dysfunction now plaguing American democracy. But this is no cause for despair. Time and again, we’ve proven that once we take aim at an ignoble ism (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexualism, or homophobia), we are capable of delegitimizing it.

What Would a Dignity Party Stand For
All abstract political ideals, pushed to extremes, can be dangerous, and Dignity is surely no exception. The Founding Fathers were too shrewd to entrust “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to good intentions. They realized that reliable governance must be grounded in the assumption that power-holders will inevitably be tempted to interpret any ambiguities in their writ to their own advantage. Accordingly, they drew up interlocking constitutional procedures to protect liberty by making political leaders accountable to each other and the citizenry.

Only as the powers inherent in rank are spelled out and circumscribed are abstractions like liberty, equality, and dignity rendered benign. Absent detailed procedures that come into play when things go wrong—which they invariably do—slogans, no matter how grandiloquent, are empty promises or worse—Orwellian doublespeak.

How would a society in which dignity is preeminent differ from ones shaped by ideologies in which the organizing principle is liberty or equality?

In contrast to a libertarian society, a dignitarian society is one in which economic power is not allowed to confer educational or political advantages on those who have it. For example, you wouldn’t have to be rich to go to college or command a fortune to stand for office.

Much as church and state are separated in modern democracies, economic and political power will be separated in a dignitarian society. This means that publicly funded elections would replace the current practice of corporate and union campaign financing.

In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into impermeable classes, is unacceptable. If you apply yourself and work hard, institutional obstacles must not be insuperable. Thus, in a dignitarian society everyone has access to decent healthcare and is paid enough to work themselves out of poverty in a generation. The American Dream is a beacon lighting the way to a dignitarian society.

Rank itself may be unequal in a dignitarian society, reflecting undeniable differences in our talents, skills, experience, and levels of authority, but equal dignity is accorded everyone, regardless of role or rank, both interpersonally and institutionally.

Historically, conservatives are defenders of the rights of rank. They have fought to see that rank-holders are not hamstrung, that individual initiative and enterprise are not discouraged, that entrepreneurial activity is not stifled, and that, as a society, we keep our competitive edge.

In contrast, liberals see themselves as watchdogs against abuses of rank, the ill-effects of which fall primarily on the weak. We’ll know we’re living in a dignitarian society when conservatives condemn the corruption of power and liberals are willing to entrust rank-holders with the authority needed to lead.

In a dignitarian society, rank may change, but you’re assured of having a place. If you break the law, that place may be a prison. But it is a prison in which your dignity is secure. (Recent experiments show that the best way to reduce recidivism is to treat inmates with dignity while they are paying the penalty for their crimes.)

The politics of dignity spans the conservative-liberal divide. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a place of honor in a dignitarian society—for giving us his dream of dignity for all. So does Patrick Henry—for his immortal “Give me liberty or give me death.” In the economic realm, no institution does more to curtail abuses of power than the free market. On those occasions when the market does appear to have betrayed us, we invariably discover that human beings have interfered with its freedom by rigging it to their advantage.

As a synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics, dignitarian politics offers the prospect of closing the ideological fissure that has paralyzed American democracy. Conflicts over liberty and equality do not disappear, but they are reframed and subjected to a higher standard: how do they impact dignity?

Our political history can be read as see-sawing between the ideological poles of Liberty and Equality. So long as the ideological spectrum had a middle, compromise was possible. But absent centrists, ideological polarization leads either to stagnation and decline or to unstable oscillations between the two ideological extremes.

Robert-FullerBuilding a dignitarian society is not a utopian vision, but a natural evolutionary step for an America that can go nowhere so long as liberals and conservative are at loggerheads.

The answer to the impotence and irrelevance of the old parties is a new party—the Dignity Party.

The Dignity Party would draw support from all segments of the Left-Right spectrum. It would attract those who, while insisting upon dignity for themselves, are willing, in return, to grant it to others.

There is good reason to believe that a majority of Americans are ready to sign up for that deal. In any case, running against dignity doesn’t look like a winning ticket. Standing up for both liberty and equality—insofar as each extends dignity—could well be.

Robert W. Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.

About Robert W. Fuller

Robert W. Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, is an internationally recognized authority on the subject of rankism and dignity. His books and ideas have been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, National Public Radio, C-SPAN, The Boston Globe, the BBC and Voice of America. Fuller has also given more than 300 talks at a variety of organizations, from Princeton University to Microsoft to Kaiser Hospital. Fuller is the author of Somebodies & Nobodiesa book that identified the malady of rankism and All Rise, which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it and along with Pamela A. Gerloff is the co-author of the new book Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism. His most recent books are Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? and The Rowan Tree: A Novel. Contact Robert Fuller at Dignity4All (AT) breakingranks (DOT) net.

Comments

  1. Yes, Dignity can unite most of us. But a Dignity party will at best be a temporary vehicle to get to where we need to go – a more rational and effective and democratic political system that is beyond parties and the destructive effects of relying on long-term oligarchic power-holders that either sincerely or demagogically strike crazy ideological postures. A system which builds in a lot more decentralization of power.

    That calls for several things. Getting decisions not by adversarial votes but by consensus-driven decision analysis. Breaking big decisions down into small manageable ones whenever possible. Having policies and laws proposed, decided, and precautionarily reviewed in independent steps, each by separate deliberative decision juries comprised not of public-affairs careerists but of ordinary citizens doing a manageable bit of public service.

    If a Dignity party will try to function a long time under our present obsolete constitutionally mandated oligarchic system without changing that system, it will run the risk of fatally breaking into ideological factions based on different answers to the question ‘What part of Dignity is most important to you?’

    But the need for the message of Dignity IS sorely here and NOW.

    It is a fundamental human right, an inalienable part of Dignity, to have basic direct meaningful political power: to have your share of empowered action with your fellow citizens in directly but deliberatively making the public decisions, laws and policies which concern you and your neighborhood and locality.

    (Directly: not handing off to a superior rank of career politicians. Deliberatively: rationally thought out agreements by conscientious small teams or juries. These are not achieved by adversarial legislative votes nor by our present ‘popular’ decisions via mass-vote popularity contests – where no one vote need represent any thought, nor will likely make any difference at all.)

    Such direct deliberative fairly shared political power is an indispensable aspect of Dignity and of our social capital. In regard to this aspect we – all the great mass of ordinary non-office-holding citizens – are now the utterly pauperized and destitute masses. We are worse off than merely second-class. We are basically the great mass of untouchables, the utterly un-empowered.

    It’s worse than mere rankism. Masters didn’t have to personally or verbally put down slaves in order to indulge in deep feelings of superiority: the slavery system itself did that job for them, along with the pervasive attitude that slavery was right and natural. We ordinary citizens who seek a rational and democratic government are up against the same sort of thing today: the notion that oligarchic centralization of power, because written into the constitution, is right and natural. But like slavery, oligarchy (constitutional or otherwise) is an ultimately intolerable affront to Dignity.

  2. ACTUALLY, “THE THIRD PARTY” WOULD BE THE PERFECT NAME FOR IT. ALSO, THE OTHER TWO PARTIES HAVE PROVED THROUGHT THEIR LACK OF MORALS & POLITICAL CAPITALISTIC DEBAUCHERY OF TRUE CITIZENS’ NEEDS THAT THERE IS NO DIGNITY IN BEING A POLITICAN (WE’VE GOT THE BEST CONGRESS & SUPREME COURT MONEY CAN BUY, REALLY!!!)…THEY HAVE MADE THE CONSTITUTION & BILL OF RIGHTS JOKES BY THEIR CONSISTANT CRIMINAL (BUT UNPROSECUTED) ACTS AGAINST BOTH. I VOTED FOR OBAMA BECAUSE OF HIS PROMISES BUT NOW I WANT MY VOTE BACK. HE LIED, A SHAME TO HIS MOTHER & GRANDPARENTS. I’LL BE ONE OF THE FIRST TO SIGN UP FOR THE NEW “THIRD” PARTY, READY TO TAKE OVER & FINALLY DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR ALL (NO EXCLUSIONS WHATSOEVER) AMERICANS, SPENDING AMERICAN MONEY ONLY FOR AMERICANS FOR BETTER EDUCATION, BETTER JOBS, BETTER HOMES, BETTER HEALTHCARE, BETTER INFRASTUCTURE, A BETTER AMERICA FIGHTING A TRUE WAR AGAINST POVERTY…THE POVERTY OF LIFE, LIBERTY & PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS CREATED BY THE CRIMINALS OF THE OTHER TWO PARTIES FOR MONEY AND POWER!!!

  3. Bill Lorch says:

    Looking an listening to this health care thing going on is a total travesty..we need one of 2 things 1 a 3rd party who stands for the people. or 2 Is three a vast expanse of land left where we could just move to an start out own country an leave the capitalist here to eat each other up. After going over again in my mind, the piece written by the Russian Scholar who predicted the break up of the USA,an its alignments. I am fortunate enough to live far enough north to be included in the Canadian piece of the break up. this is a far piece down the track or is it???? Bill

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