Moving California Forward with the Common Sense Party
Our country has been governed since its founding by a two-party system. The Constitution did not establish political parties, which the founders feared. History proves their concerns were prescient, not paranoid. James Madison hoped opposing factions would counterbalance each other’s power, through “ambition offset[ting] ambition.” Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. Rather, one hand simply washes the other, leaving US citizens with the resulting dirty soapy water.
In 1776, Thomas Paine offered the colonies 47 pages of Common Sense, which became the most widely read book of the times.
Today our guest, Tom Campbell, offers us the Common Sense political party.
Tom served five terms in the US Congress and two years in the California State Senate. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago and a JD magna cum laude from Harvard. He was a White House Fellow and a US Supreme Court law clerk.
I’m now registered as a Common Sense Party voter — I’ve given up the pleasure of primary voting, but I’ll sacrifice that to support the right thing politically.
Read or listen to my interview with Tom and see if you’d like to join me.
- Learn more and update your voter registration at CACommonSense.org
- George Washington-Baneful Effects of Political Parties — Thirty-Thousand.org
- Common Sense Party on Twitter
Transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity
Why California Needs a Third Party
Bob Zadek (01:58):Tom, welcome back to the show.
Tom Campbell (02:58): Bob, it’s a pleasure to be with you. I look forward to a fascinating hour.
Bob Zadek (03:02): Now, Tom, you are a founder of the Common Sense Party. Now let’s start with the core issue. What’s the problem with a two-party system? Isn’t two enough? Why do we need more?
Tom Campbell (03:35): The system we have in California is two parties that have gone to their extremes.
The Democrats have shifted further and further left under the influence of public employee unions and identity politics. The Republicans have shifted to the right under the support of former President Trump, almost reaching cult status.
That leaves those of us in the middle with folks who cannot talk with each other.
That leaves those of us in the middle without a voice in California. Since Democrats have a supermajority, they have no need to listen to anyone else. The parties retreat to their extremes, leaving the rest of us behind.
We can illustrate this in a number of different policy issues. I’ll choose one issue: education.
We know the quality of education in public schools through high school graduation is poor. It’s far below acceptable levels. And we know that to win the Democratic nomination for legislature, you need support from the California Teachers Union. They oppose charter schools and parents’ ability to choose a better school than their local public school. Republicans now make up less than one-third of each legislative house, so they’ve become irrelevant.
A possible compromise is to give higher pay to teachers in low-income schools-call it merit pay. The California Teachers Union won’t allow Democrats to support that; they insist on strict seniority, like most unions. But that prevents good teachers who want more challenging assignments from being paid more. Instead, many skilled teachers become administrators so they can earn higher pay, leaving classrooms where their talents are most needed.
Republicans are hesitant to increase teachers’ salaries because some of that money goes to teachers’ unions, which fund campaigns against Republican candidates. A compromise is to expand charter schools, giving parents the option to send their children to charter schools if that provides a better education, and to pay higher salaries to teachers in challenging areas based on performance.
How the Top-Two System makes California Ripe for Third-Party Challenges
Bob Zadek (06:30): Now, California, is a remarkably politically dysfunctional state. It has raised political dysfunction to high art.
You noted that Republicans are now irrelevant. One could argue this happened due to political mismanagement, which we won’t discuss here. The Republican downfall traces back to Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 — the immigration bill — long ago.
Simply put, Republicans committed political suicide. They blew it.
So let’s distinguish a political party’s self-destruction, where it made decisions that ruined itself, from the overall issue of opposing political parties in general. And let’s understand this distinction in the context of the whole country, even though we’re starting in California — rather fertile ground, I dare say.
Let’s argue for a third party based on the behavior and structure of the two existing parties. Then we’ll show how the Common Sense Party, which recently joined another third party, makes that case nationwide. Unless this issue is specific to California.
Tom Campbell (08:52): It’s a solution specific to California, Bob, because California is one of only four states that have the top-two primary selection process.
If you don’t have a runoff process in March to determine the top two candidates who will run in November or June during non-presidential election years, then multiple candidates from various parties all run at once in November. The winner is whoever gets the most votes, even without a majority. As a result, the winner is typically a Democrat or Republican.
In California and three other states, you have the chance to advance to November with only one opponent. If there’s an independent candidate who reaches the November election, there’s only one other candidate. Then you have a very good chance of winning.
It happened in the Coachella Valley with Chad Mayes. Though he ran as an independent, he had previously been a Republican. He made it to the finals and then defeated his Democratic opponent. Every Democrat who does not have a candidate in the finals will be interested in supporting the independent. Every Republican who does not have a candidate in the finals will be interested in supporting the independent. That is why it can work in California. I’m hesitant to say that it will work elsewhere.
We all know examples like Ross Perot running and likely taking votes from George H.W. Bush, or Ralph Nader running and probably taking votes from Al Gore. That is not possible if you only have two candidates in the finals in November.
Fixing a Broken System
Bob Zadek (10:51): Now the Common Sense Party could simply have as its mission breaking the two-party monopoly and preventing any party from monopolizing power. Or the Common Sense Party could focus on a specific platform that appeals to voters who feel unrepresented by existing parties.
It’s undisputed that the Democratic Party controls education policy in California and is captive to teachers unions, not voters or their children. The unions fund the Democrats, so they shape policy to benefit the unions, not voters. So on education, the Common Sense Party would support the right policies, unlike other parties.
Is the goal to represent disaffected voters or improve politics overall?
Tom Campbell (12:54): It starts by improving the entire political process, then candidates will likely emerge who, hopefully, will get elected. The individual candidates in that case I mentioned of education are probably supporters of those moderate, sensible approaches.
However, the institutions have to change first and here’s why. It’s an important but obscure point: California’s campaign finance laws favor established political parties. If you’re running for state legislature and have wealthy donors, you can get $4,900 from each of them. No more. However, if you ask a person, “Please donate $45,000 to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” and that party promises to give it to me the next day, that’s legal. So if you’re running with a party’s support, you’ve got $45,000 plus $4,900. If you run without a party, you only have $4,900. Can you see why no independent candidate can win?
Bob Zadek (14:11): You effectively made your point within minutes of starting the show. But what you’ve really emphasized, or the main point you’ve made regarding both examples of campaign finance laws and the Democratic Party’s allegiance to teachers unions, is that they allow wealthy donors undue influence. It seems you’re criticizing a system that allows wealthy donors disproportionate sway. Is part of your goal to reduce the influence of money in politics? That’s a major challenge in America today, especially in California.
Tom Campbell (15:10): It is absolutely my goal to decrease the influence of money in American politics. Bob, if I could accomplish only one thing, I would consider that a successful career in public policy. And the challenge in doing so is quite straightforward.
The people in power benefit from the current system, so they’re unlikely to change it. That’s why we need a third party and a chance to elect new leaders who will go to Sacramento, reduce the Democratic majority below two-thirds, and force them to compromise. Only then might we see real campaign finance reform.
I would like to propose a simple rule: If you can’t vote for me, you can’t donate to me. Imagine how that would work. If you’re running for US Senate from California, no funds from Nevada. If you’re running for California Attorney General, gambling interests in Nevada couldn’t donate. If running for LA assembly, couldn’t take money from the Bay Area up north. You could only get money from the people you represent.
This seems easy to explain, utterly fair. Everyone goes after the same funds and has the same kind of responsibility is imposed on somebody who’s raising money as when they are voting in the legislature.
Bob Zadek (16:44): You may risk violating the Constitution and the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that donating money to a political campaign constitutes free speech and expression, granting it constitutional protection. However, we are not discussing constitutional issues here. We aim to highlight ways in which the political process has failed us. So the overall point-that this process has failed-is well taken.
Part of your argument is that we need another major political party. Clearly, we already have many political parties in addition to the Democrats and Republicans. In fact, the Republican Party is increasingly becoming a fringe party, though not quite yet. But they’re heading in that direction-they’re trying their best but failing so far.
Aside from that snide comment, my apologies to the audience and for any harm. We have many current non-Democratic and non-Republican parties. So explain to our listeners why we need another non-Democratic and non-Republican political party when there are already so many.
Tom Campbell (18:24): The reason is that each of those third parties-even if they don’t like the term-restricts who they help financially to members of their own party. I was surprised to learn that when I checked the Libertarian Party bylaws. They are prohibited from giving a dime to any candidate who isn’t a Libertarian. The Greens won’t support anyone outside their comfort zone, and neither will the Peace and Freedom Party or any other third party. They are wedded to the ideology on which the party was founded.
In contrast, the Common Sense Party explicitly states in its founding document that it will support independent thinkers, including Common Sense Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, and Party candidates. The key is to support the candidate who best embodies common sense principles, regardless of political affiliation.
To reiterate what I said previously about the top two candidates, let’s say one Democrat running against another in a staunchly Democratic district. One of them is an independent-minded candidate. Bob, you and I know one candidate will be backed by Democratic Party leaders and the other will be the outsider. We’ll support the outsider. No other third party will endorse a candidate except in their own party. Our goal is to elect good people to the legislature who think for themselves, aren’t intimidated by party leaders and who demand that they sign on to an entire platform and agenda. We don’t really require that you even belong to our party for us to help you.
The CA Common Sense Platform
Bob Zadek (20:10): You gain strength from numbers. Obviously, you want many registered Common Sense Party voters. People register with a political party because they believe the party largely reflects their worldview. There will never be complete agreement, but you try to have the party mirror your views on political issues as closely as possible. Will you have a platform with consistent positions on issues like spending, taxes, foreign policy, although you’re a California party? Even though some states seem to have a foreign policy, California hasn’t pronounced one. Or what about the environment and related issues? Will you have a mission that reflects my views so that’s the group I want to associate with?
Tom Campbell (21:43): We will, and we have already begun working on it. I have a position paper on virtually every subject that has come up in public policy, including the three that you just mentioned. The way our party is structured is we wait to be officially established, then send out the bylaws to party members and a draft platform at the same time. If we get a majority of party members to say, “Yes, I agree with this,” then that’s our bylaws and platform going forward. In order to change it, you need a three-quarters vote. Now the reason why that threshold is high is because we don’t want to exclude people, and we don’t want people to feel that, “Well, if I can’t agree on this point, I’ll never be able to get the party’s support.” What each candidate then decides to do is up to herself or himself, as you correctly pointed out.
No one fully supports every position in any party’s platform. But in California, you have to strictly follow the demands of Democratic or Republican leaders if you belong to those parties. And I don’t want to deny support for someone just because we disagree on any particular party platform.
Bob, you’re right that you have to stand for something. We stand for openness. We stand for getting independent-minded candidates elected.
I’ll certainly tell you what I believe on any of these issues. I’ve already posted many of my views on our party’s website in the comments section. But if it’s going to be the party’s official view, it has to get support in a party vote, which we’ll get as soon as we’re approved by the Secretary of State.
Bob Zadek (23:33): Registered voters are not a zero-sum game. As the Common Sense Party acquires new registered voters, those voters were likely registered with other parties before joining the Common Sense Party. How would you convince a typical Democratic voter to feel more comfortable registering with the Common Sense Party? Would you say the same thing to a Republican voter the next day? Do you tailor your pitch based on whether you’re trying to persuade a Democrat, Republican, independent, or libertarian?
Tom Campbell (24:59): A logical question is whether there’s room for a candidate who doesn’t fully support their party’s positions. You might find a pro-life Democrat or a pro-environment Republican. The common appeal is this: Should we elect someone to the legislature even if they don’t strictly follow their party’s orthodoxy and thus won’t get party support?
The key issue is whether we should give candidates a chance to serve if they don’t always toe the party line. Do they deserve a shot at office even without full party backing?
I say that to everybody. I don’t speak with forked tongue. How I fill in the example will differ according to who I’m attempting to persuade: A Democrat interested in being more pro-business could be a good target for the Common Sense Party. A Republican wanting to be more pro-environment or pro-choice might be receptive to our party. It’s the willingness not only to tolerate but to celebrate standing up for one’s own views. That is common, and I say it to everybody.
Bob Zadek (26:33): I have discussed third parties for years with many guests. As an outsider, I’ve observed that political parties seem like little more than marketing groups. That is, they are central organizations that raise and spend lots of money and have extensive political know-how. What do they do? They try to develop a platform of unrelated issues that will get 50.01% of voters to vote for them. There’s no overall guiding principle. It’s just a mix of positions that polling shows will get 50.01% of the vote, giving the party control.
Therefore, in my experience, most voters seem focused on a single issue. By that I mean there’s one issue they care deeply about, and that determines their vote. Given that, how do you appeal to a majority or a sizable portion of single-issue voters who feel either the Democrats or Republicans align with their view on the issue they care most about?
Tom Campbell (28:38): You correctly observe the system of parties as a joint marketing device. I’d also say it’s a joint financial device, given what I just said about the campaign finance laws in California. You have a 10-to-one advantage if you are a political party in funding campaigns. The purpose of political parties is to label candidates in a way that will generally convey their positions to voters without requiring further research. Voters can simply vote for the Democrat (D) or Republican (R) candidate, and the candidates who want the D or R nomination will receive funding.
I believe that’s evolving, and the Common Sense Party is really at the forefront of that change. The reason for the change is that it’s now possible to learn far more about any individual’s positions via the internet than when I first entered politics in 1988 or while growing up. The parties primarily serve a general branding purpose, as you correctly noted.
I have to say with hopefully respect for all the candidates for judges, virtually none of us knows the candidates for judges that we vote on every time. And so we kind of look for a branding, like are you endorsed by prosecutors or defense attorneys? That used to be a proxy for information. Now, though, we can go online to good services like Ballotpedia. In under a minute, we can find a candidate’s positions on taxes, regulations, environment, guns, water, and more. We can make our own choice based on the candidates’ actual views. So, in a way, Bob, I don’t think I could have done this 20 years ago. Political parties used to dominate how we got information to vote. But now we have immediate access to infinite information on the internet.
“Do we need this from the government?”
Bob Zadek (30:53): It seems to me the best way to register Common Sense Party voters is simply to ask them privately, when voting, if they’re choosing the lesser of two evils or if the candidate fully represents their views.
All you need to do is say that with the Common Sense Party, voters will never have to hold their nose as they cast their ballot.
I often tell my guests that if an opinion bores me, I’ll say so. Your opinion may bore me. But why you think that way intrigues me. So I say, I don’t care what you think. Tell me why. You might change my mind or teach me something new.
So for a common-sense party, the key issue is why you hold a position, not just what it is. What motivates you? Are you swayed by special interest groups or do you believe it’s simply the right choice, and here’s why: No party appeals solely to voters’ intellect or emotions. And if that’s the core of your platform, it’s the age-old debate between heart and mind. As Jefferson and Socrates wrote about, there’s a constant battle between heart and mind. The other two parties appeal to your heart; we appeal to your mind.
Tom Campbell (33:19): You’re eloquent, Bob. Wouldn’t it be great to vote for a candidate rather than against one? That’s another way of putting it. Or as I call it, the Common Sense Party is the party for the rest of us. How often have we said, “I wish there was a better candidate”? The last two presidential elections left me with that feeling.
So what can we do to fix it? It’s not going to happen with the two-party system — or the one-party system actually, with an irrelevant Republican Party in California.
Bob Zadek (35:06): At the heart of politics, especially in California but across the country as well, is this fundamental issue of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Why am I raising this crucial issue? Because I believe in limited government.
The key issue is the central relationship between citizens and the government. How much should the government involve itself in our lives? How much freedom do I really have?
Can any political party base its position on such a core value? There is a Libertarian Party, but it’s kind of irrelevant to me. I can’t relate to it. Although I describe myself as libertarian, I’m not actually a member of the Libertarian Party. “Libertarian” describes my philosophy and values, not my political affiliation. So instead of discussing a specific issue like education, immigration, or the environment, speak to that broader issue of individual freedom and responsibility. Those specific issues aren’t really relevant to the core reason for forming and promoting the Common Sense Party.
Now, I know you won’t just tell the audience what they want to hear. You’ll give an honest approach.
Tom Campbell (37:29): It’s a core issue for me. The Common Sense Party is the vehicle that would allow me if I were running for office to express it. I’m not still running for office, but if I were, I could get to the finals and get elected holding the views that I do.
I begin with the premise that maximum freedom should be implemented in public policy for individuals. Nevertheless, there are times when the need for government intervention overrides individual preferences. Where to draw that line differs among people of good will.
A superior method for analyzing any public policy issue is to ask, do we truly need this government program?
When I was in Congress and the state senate, most of my Democratic and some Republican friends approached issues differently. They would say, “Well, is this a good idea?” Would it be a good idea to have more public education? Is it a good idea to have the government subsidize the production of silicon chips in the United States? I’d say, “You’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about whether an idea is good. It’s about ‘do we need the government to do it?” So we might agree that it’s a good idea to have more silicon chips produced in America so we’re not dependent upon imports from China. And that’s even more so if Taiwan’s supply becomes threatened by China.
My starting point isn’t “Is this a good idea?” but rather, “Do we need the government to implement it?” So Bob, I share your libertarian values, but I might conclude that yes, we do need the government — for example, to care for seniors who haven’t saved enough for retirement. Social Security was a good idea, if imperfect from a libertarian perspective. Yes, we need the government for Social Security, though reasonable people may disagree with me on even that. I began by asking, “Do we need this from the government?”
How the Two Parties Block Competition
Bob Zadek (39:47): As the builder and creator of a third party, you give our audience insight into how the system works against outsiders.
When any group — whether business, union, or political party — gets protection from competition by government action instead of exposing itself to voters’ choice, it must be selling an inferior product. This group, union, or political party doesn’t want to be tested in an open election, whether in the pocketbook or ballot box. Therefore, the two political parties have significant government protection against anybody intruding on their territory. It’s the same monopoly that governments gave to railroads and utilities, to the detriment of consumers. In this case, the consumers are voters.
Help the audience understand issues like ballot access, control of the debate stage, and related topics. Explain to our audience how the system favors the monopolistic Democrats and Republicans at the expense of other ideas like the Common Sense Party.
Tom Campbell (41:42): First, access to the debate stage is powerful. The Presidential Debates Commission, run by Democrats and Republicans, has kept the Libertarian candidate out of the presidential debates for the last three election cycles. This does not benefit America. When people say, “The presidential debates are on, I’ll watch them,” thinking the debates somehow provide fair exposure to different views, that is incorrect. The debates are run by Democrats and Republicans, and only they get invited. Ross Perot gained access in 1992 due to his high poll numbers and wealth, which allowed him to spend heavily to achieve those numbers. However, if you are not extremely wealthy, you do not make it onto the debate stage.
Second is access to the ballot by signatures. There is a very informative newsletter, likely you receive it, published by Richard Wininger in the Bay Area. He monitors how difficult it is to get on the ballot in all 50 states. Bob, again and again, state after state, it’s easier for the two major parties to keep their position on the ballot than for a new party to get on the ballot. Once you pass the threshold, you’re “grandfathered” in. Then, those in power, like the Democratic Party in our state, lift the threshold. The second big issue is the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot. Once you’re on the ballot, you stay on, but if trying to get on, those already in positions of power have made it nearly impossible.
Third, I should have emphasized it more: money. You correctly identified the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down limits on how much individuals can spend. But the Court said reasonable limits would be okay. Now in California, candidates get a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage if they have a major party’s help. Without a major party, independent candidates need personal wealth. The Democrats and Republicans passed these laws together in Sacramento.
I believe the Buckley ruling allows my proposed rule: if you can’t vote for me, you can’t donate to me. That’s an oversimplification, though. To pass Supreme Court muster, the rule could be: if you can’t vote for me, donate $100; if you can, follow $4,500 limits for legislative candidates.
So there are three issues: ballot access, who debates, and the 10-to-1 fundraising gap.
Bob Zadek (44:58): The reason I brought up this topic is that these laws, federal and state, were enacted by a legislature dominated by either the Democratic or Republican Party. It’s infuriating but unsurprising that the two parties which hold all the political power in our country passed legislation to ensure no one disrupts their duopoly. No one can ruin their two-party rule. As voters, we should be offended. We have to ask ourselves, why are these two parties so afraid of giving voters access to other candidates and viewpoints? You only need legal protection if you know your product is flawed and fear competition. In this case, competition at the ballot box.
Laws and rules make it nearly impossible for third parties to compete with Democrats and Republicans. They serve no purpose but to protect the major parties. Support third parties and their right to ballot access. Let them make their case to voters, who can then decide whether or not to support them. What could be more democratic than giving voters real choice and holding parties accountable?
The Future of Politics
Bob Zadek: Tom, regarding the Common Sense Party, what’s the latest? Tell us about your experience with Andrew Yang and the Forward Party. Update us on the Common Sense Party and how our listeners can learn more about it and consider other viewpoints.
Tom Campbell (47:47): Visit our website at commonsense.org. The Common Sense Party joined with the Forward Party, led by Andrew Yang and former Governor Christie Todd Whitman. Andrew Yang was formerly a Democrat and Christie Todd Whitman was formerly a Republican. Our goal in partnering is to establish the Common Sense Party in California since we share the same principles, especially providing more access to the political process. The Forward Party in California decided it makes more sense to work with us rather than duplicate our efforts. They would have to start from scratch. By helping us instead, they can tell their members to register with the Common Sense Party in California. Once we meet the requirements, a Forward Party candidate can run in California. If most in the Common Sense Party choose, we can even change the party’s name. But the Forward group thought it smarter, as a party, not to replicate what we’ve done. We found it a wonderful partnership. They have energetic volunteers and we have experience. Together we are stronger. Note we are in California; Forward is nationwide.
Bob Zadek (49:29): I found it interesting that you identified Christie Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, and Andrew Yang, a presidential candidate. Yang ran in the Democratic primaries from New York. I mentioned them after you did because I admired Whitman simply as a public figure. Though I don’t necessarily support Republicans, I admired Whitman as a candidate. I liked her positions.
Yang, a Democrat, ran in the primaries. He had to pander somewhat to the extreme wing. I put that aside; I just plain liked the guy. He was smart. I felt comfortable with him. I likely disagreed with him on several issues, but putting aside our differences and seeing him only as a fellow human, I feel at ease with him.
So if this is any indication of the caliber of public figures drawn to the concept as well as the party, it’s a ringing endorsement for the Common Sense Party. Tom, whatever you did to attract that caliber of supporters and proponents of the Common Sense Party, you’re on the right track.