My final act of adolescent rebellion was to join the Republican Party.
Raised in a Massachusetts family that voted for Senator Ted Kennedy for decades, I made the switch from Blue to Red around the end of college. It turns out I didn’t make a very good Republican – both because I wasn’t politically active and because I ended up voting for more Democratic candidates than Republicans. For about fifteen years I was comfortable with my status as a Republican-In-Name-Only, until the presidential election of 2016. With Donald Trump’s crass, cruel, and mendacious rhetoric, I could no longer in good conscience associate with the Republican Party even just in name only, so I became officially “Independent.” This resolved the RINO issue but created another one: I was left with no positive political affiliation.
Until I found a home with the American Solidarity Party (ASP).
I was drawn to the ASP because it envisions a positive role for government in shaping society but also acknowledges the primacy of family, faith and friendship in determining the quality of people’s lives. It is that rare unicorn of a political party that is pro-life and pro-poor; it is pro-private property and pro-labor. Smitten with this idea, I took the baby steps of meeting fellow ASP members in North Carolina (where I live), and trying to introduce the party to a handful of friends. But as I waded into doing small scale political engagement, one question began to nag at me: What are the concrete actions a small third party can take to grow, get votes, and ultimately win elections and shape policy?
To begin to answer that question, I reached out to the leader of the ASP state chapter that had the most success in the 2020 presidential election: Wisconsin. There the ASP ticket of Brian Carroll and Amar Patel received 5,259 votes, which is a lower absolute number than in Illinois (9,548) but still the highest percentage of any state (0.159%). By way of comparison, the Libertarian Party received less than 0.1% of the national vote in its first presidential election in 1972 and then 0.2% in 1976.
Dr. David Bovee is the chair of the Wisconsin state ASP party—and before him, his wife, Marianne, was the chair. A semi-retired professor of history and a practicing Catholic, David Bovee says that he is a political novice, “[I’m] kind of winging all this stuff, just trying to do the best I can.” And yet, with a state party membership around 100, he and a few volunteers managed to raise the party’s visibility enough to earn more than 5,000 votes in the presidential election and then run two candidates this spring—one for state senate and one for a local school board seat.
A key factor for the party was making a push in the summer of 2020 to get the Carroll-Patel ticket on the ballot, which in Wisconsin requires 2,000 signatures.
“It’s practically a miracle that we got Brian Carroll on the ballot here in the pandemic,” Bovee said when I spoke to him on the phone.
To achieve ballot access, Bovee and the party had a ground game. He rented a booth at county fairs, handed out flyers outside of the pro-life movie Unplanned, canvassed in neighborhoods and gathered signatures in a Wal-Mart parking lot – until he was asked to leave on the second day of signature gathering.
“My wife and I went out almost every day, but it was tough because of the pandemic,” he said. “We often only got ten or fewer signatures a day.”
The Bovees collected about 100 signatures in total and other volunteers got another 100. With progress slow, David Bovee contacted the ASP national committee for help in hiring a professional canvasser.
“We did it—we got over 2,000 with the paid signature gathers, and then the 200-some that we gathered by volunteers,” he said. “My wife and I drove to Madison and turned them in on time.”
“In Wisconsin, the ASP ticket received 0.159% of the vote, compared to the Libertarian Party, which received less than 0.1% of the national vote in 1972.”
Another part of the equation was gumption.
Along with party member Riley Drew, the Bovees rallied at a park near the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee. There David gave a speech and was interviewed by two news organizations.
A final factor was luck. In one instance, the representative for Kanye West’s campaign arrived minutes late to turn in the signatures necessary to get on the ballot, so West’s name was not included. This meant that besides the Democratic and Republican candidates, only the ASP, Constitution Party, and Libertarians ended up on the ballot–and this in a state with a relatively low bar for ballot access. In Taylor County, Brian Carroll came in third.
From his experience in 2020, Bovee draws a few lessons.
Firstly, when canvassing for signatures, the most receptive demographic turned out to be families in lower-middle class neighborhoods. “We go to small towns and try to find the least well-off places, but still places where they own their own house. But also apartments because that was efficient,” Bovee said. “Places with families – you know, places that had parents with small kids because we’re, you know, we’re pro-life, pro-family.”
Secondly, paid signature gatherers work, and it’s most effective to hire them directly rather than going through intermediaries.
The experience also taught Bovee about how best to present the party to strangers. He avoids topics such as gun rights and immigration at first, instead focusing on the ASP as an alternative for anyone dissatisfied with the two main parties. “You have to be a little more specific then, so we’re pro-life, but also pro-worker,” he said. “And then pro-environment and pro-peace – I see those as adjuncts to the main two.”
Bovee explains that he came to the ASP’s positions by way of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. It’s something he lays out in an article titled “The Middle Way: Catholic Social Teaching and the American Political Spectrum” in the Winter 2019 edition of Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. In it he concludes:
“Republicans are right on the most important issues – the life issues – but fail in the broad-ranging economic area. A laissez faire approach to the economy ignores a human reality tainted by original sin and ignores dictates of social justice for workers, the poor, and the vulnerable. To achieve these important goals, faithful Catholics might benefit from a third party.”
In terms of what is next for the party, Bovee says recruiting experienced candidates and leaders to the party – while retaining the party’s principles – will be important.
“It’s amazing we have done as well as we have,” he said. “I want the party to be a success, and to be successful you need people who have done it and have been successful and know how to do it.”
Speaking with Bovee for this article, one comes away with the image of a nascent political party as a seedling that needs to grow in two directions simultaneously.
The roots that grow down into the soil are the ideas, debates, and principles that give the party depth. When I became involved in the party, I began reading up on economic distributism, Catholic social teaching, and G.K. Chesterton (as well as the pithy tweets of the national ASP Twitter account), as well as attending monthly ASP meet-ups over drinks with free-flowing conversations about politics and culture. This is how the roots grow downward.
But a plant must also grow upward and outward.
Here one can take inspiration from Bovee’s determination to simply step out into public venues and take stabs at presenting the party to whomever they found. The plant grows outward when you show up somewhere – almost anywhere – wearing an ASP shirt, or sticker and attempt to explain the party to a passerby. There is a version of this that could be done online but Bovee’s experience reminds us about the importance of physical presence, even during a pandemic.
The growth of a young political party, it seems, can’t be engineered according to a standard set of plans. It will inevitably have a life of its own. But it can be watered with sweat and nourished with deep conviction.
James Todd lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and children. He has been working in higher education communications for more than twenty years. You can find samples of his work on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter at @JamesToddNC.