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April 27, 2015

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Rebirth of a relic: Whig Party rises again in Nevada

Let's get this party started

Registering as a minor political party in Nevada is a fairly simple process: Under Nevada statute, all one has to do is file a “certificate of existence” with the secretary of state that includes the name of the party, the names of its officers, the names of the people on the executive committee and the name of the person authorized to file the names of candidates the party sponsors in the future.

Filing that certificate lets a party start registering voters. To actually get candidates on the ballot, however, there are a few more hoops to jump through. First, the party has to give the secretary of state a copy of the party constitution, or bylaws (the Whigs already have done this). Then the party must field candidates — and those candidates must collect the requisite number of signatures to get on the ballot. (In Nevada, this is 1 percent of the total number of votes that were cast for the office being sought the last time there was an election.)

Come election time, if the party’s candidates can pull at least 1 percent of the votes cast, they are set for the next election. If not, they have to petition the secretary of state to continue to maintain ballot access in the future. But it’s a straightforward process — really, the only thing minor parties, even low-performing minor parties, must do to maintain their ballot access is not miss the deadline to file their notice of continued existence.

In fringe politics, throwbacks are in fashion. Libertarians gained strength in their call to return to original constitutional principles when Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a believer in the cause, championed it in the 2012 campaign. Tea Partyers have donned tricorn hats and called for revolutions like it’s 1776.

Yet despite the surge of historical homage, no one in Nevada actually has tried to resuscitate a past political movement.

Until now.

As of Monday, the Whig Party — which fell into political extinction around the time of the Civil War — is back in Nevada, recognized as an official minor party, open to registrants and, potentially, ballot access.

The Modern Whig Party of Nevada, as it is calling itself, essentially is one man: Jim Bacon, a 59-year-old software engineer who moved to Nevada from California in 2007.

He has made a sleek website, featuring chat boards and articles that jovially poke fun at his organization with phrases such as “Gettin’ Whiggy With It.” He also has grand plans for the party’s expansion.

“I really think that the Whig philosophy is a natural fit with Nevada’s streak of libertarianism,” he said in an interview.

Turning the party into a significant political power may seem a little ambitious for a guy who admits to having only about 50 names of people who have expressed a passing interest in the Whig Party.

But Bacon is linked into a much broader national movement of Modern Whigs, which claims to have chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, though it is not clear how many have official recognition from their state governments.

“The Modern Whigs were started by active-duty servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq. For my own involvement, I basically was very disappointed with the quality of candidates we had for Senate in 2010,” Bacon said. “I looked at the Libertarians, but there are a number of policy stances they have that I just can’t agree with. And then my stepson said to me, ‘You’re just an old Whig!’ So I went digging, brushed up on my history, and I realized that he was right.”

The Whigs were a prominent political party from the 1830s through the 1850s, formed in opposition to the democratizing politics of President Andrew Jackson, who expanded voting rights to white men who didn’t necessarily own property or pay taxes; promoted Westward expansion, laissez-faire economics and more individual state responsibility in government; and ended the national bank. Whigs, by contrast, had their base of support in the professional and merchant class, believed in centralized national government that actively invested in state infrastructure and education, and maintained a central bank.

The Modern Whigs, who officially got off the ground in 2003, are well aware of their roots when they list their core principles.

“Education,” Bacon said, when asked to identify the Modern Whigs’ most important issues. “I think it’s absolutely vital that every child receive a well-grounded education so they can be responsible voters.”

Next in line: investments in infrastructure, a category Bacon says includes military spending and paying for renewable and nuclear energy.

“It goes back to fiscal responsibility — responsibility, not conservatism. Some expenditure is necessary. Grants for research are not an evil thing,” he said. “If the country is receiving benefit and improved infrastructure, the extra money is worth coming up with.”

And like the Whigs of old, the Modern Whigs are very protectionist when it comes to their stance on foreign trade. Bacon advocates raising tariffs on imports so that they are at least equal, if not greater than, the tariffs U.S. companies pay for exports.

“If you are continually spending more money than you are bringing in, you’re going to go broke. Our current trade policies are still written as if we were the world’s largest exporter. We’re paying higher tariffs than they pay to us,” he said. “We need to get our trading partners on an equal footing. We simply are not the world’s sugar daddy.”

But on everything else, the Modern Whigs of Nevada are sort of crowdsourcing their platform.

“Most people have a sense that they don’t have a say on who runs or what happens in the party. So the membership is going to have a much greater input as to how policy is formed and picking candidates to put on their ticket,” Bacon said. “I feel we’re more open to people who wish to join with us.”

But until he gets some members — Bacon says he has only about 50 names on paper of people who are behind Nevada’s latest minor political party, and the true number of interested people is far less — the Modern Whigs are hawking a pretty familiar-sounding political line, or simply none at all.

Here’s a sampling of Bacon’s thoughts on various issues:

The fiscal cliff: “Before we can start talking about adjusting tax rates, we feel that the tax code has to be reformed.”

• Nevada’s unemployment and housing problems: “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t have good answers to those yet. I’m not as strong an economist as I’d like to be.”

• Carting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain: “Oh, that one’s across the map. ... It’s quite likely in Nevada you will have eight different opinions. The state chapters are free to address an issue in our own way. ... The executive committee (members) aren’t going to say, ‘Well, gee, you have to go along with this.’”

In the Internet age, open-sourcing a party platform might not seem like that far-fetched an idea. But attracting a following without a core philosophy and a hard stance on the issues is tricky business.

“That’s one of the reasons the Whigs disappeared: It was hard to determine what they stood for,” said Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at UNR. “Were they conservative? On some issues they were. Or were they liberal?”

The answer is: all of the above. The party’s most famous leader was Henry Clay, the one-time speaker of the House from Kentucky. It also held the interest and allegiance of some of the country’s greatest intellects: Horace Mann, the education reformer who shaped the country’s free public school systems, and Horace Greeley, the hugely influential editor of the New York Tribune, were Whigs. So were four U.S. presidents: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Even Abraham Lincoln had his roots in the Whig Party, and John Quincy Adams gravitated toward them in the latter stages of his career.

But the party splintered and began to fall apart as U.S. politicians grappled with the idea of slavery in the years preceding the Civil War. The Whigs, who had agreed to disagree on slavery when it wasn’t front and center, began to splinter along geographic lines. Whigs in the North began to move toward the Republican Party, while Whigs in the South moved toward Democrats. By the time the Civil War started, the Whigs were no more. By the time the war was over, the two-party system was well in place.

“It’s kind of ironic, right?” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “They used to be the Republicans, so ... they’re evolving, or devolving, back to their roots.”

Bacon describes himself as an early Republican who became disillusioned with the party in the 1980s, when he said “dogma began dictating a lot of the Republican Party and their stance.” For the next decade, he voted for Democratic presidential candidates.

“I like things about both parties, but I can’t agree with either one to a great extent,” Bacon said.

He describes himself as a fiscal conservative — “though I prefer the word ‘sensible,’” he said — and a social liberal.

Bacon’s political schizophrenia isn’t surprising, considering that when the Whigs broke up 150 years ago, they splintered across party lines. There are parallels to the Whigs’ dissolution at other points in Bacon’s political development as well, such as how he has struggled to resolve competing sentiments about race — the modern-day legacy of the slavery dispute that dissolved the original American Whigs — into a position appropriate for a more modern, enlightened age.

“At the time I was a kid, the Los Angeles school district was starting a really strong push to try to dampen racism, to teach that this isn’t something that you should tolerate, which I agree with,” he said. “But at the same time, when I got home from school, I was living in a household where the nicest word I heard used in everyday conversation was ‘colored folk’ ... not out of hate but because of how she was raised. It’s always something that’s in the back of my mind, that I can’t help but see color; it’s just automatic. But it’s something that I need to make a conscious effort to set aside and not hear my mom.”

Recently, Bacon has gone back to supporting Republicans — a choice he credits most to how much he doesn’t like Sen. Harry Reid’s positions, though the two do have strikingly similar positions on trade. Though for president, these days, he votes none of the above.

He said Obama’s ethnicity had nothing to do with his decision not to vote for him.

“No,” he said. “That I can honestly say.”

Bacon says the Whig Party does not have its sights set on the White House.

“A presidential candidate is not a top priority for the Whigs right now,” Bacon said. “We hope to identify candidates to place on the ballot in 2014. Our primary focus is going to be on the state and local level.”

But there, he has a problem. The Modern Whigs haven’t been able to field any candidates.

And in Nevada, it seems they’re not even sure what they’re up against. Bacon admitted he doesn’t know who his state senator and assemblyman are.

He himself isn’t interested in running.

“No. I have skeletons in my closet that make that an impossibility,” he said, though he would not detail what they might be. He does, however, think he has found some good prospects to tap from people he regularly converses with in the comments section of Las Vegas Sun articles.

Considering that, political experts remain very skeptical of just how far the Whigs could go.

“This sounds like it’s someone who’s got a blog and a website,” Damore said. “In American politics, you need a geographic component to a representation, you need to have your people in one spot.”

Bacon admits the cards may be stacked against his political effort.

“It isn’t a great time for third parties right now, but maybe the right one hasn’t come along yet,” he said. “If we don’t try it, we’re not going to find out. It’s better than sitting back and doing nothing.”

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  1. I must admit that I winced a couple of times when reading my responses above, but I can not complain.

    This only underscores something else I said, that my personal goal is to find better trained and qualified people who are attracted by the principles the Modern Whigs stand for and to hand over the reins as soon as possible.

    You can find the core principles of the Modern Whig Party here:

    A recent story about the national Party mentioned in passing that the way a policy stance was arrived at was just as important (and possibly more so) than the stance itself. That is a reasonable statement to make. Any final position on a given issue must be the result of rational argument stemming from premises based on the core principles.

    Yes, there are rough edges right now as Ms. Demirjian points out, but that does not mean the Modern Whigs are wrong in making the effort to break the mold of two and only two major voices in politics today.

    Jim Bacon
    Chairman, Whig Party of Nevada

  2. mred,

    You might find it interesting that the bylaws for the Nevada Whig Party requires that "None of the above" appear on all nomination ballots and that if it should the first time, a second nomination ballot with new names must be presented. If it should win a second time then no candidate will be put forward for the office in question.

    I would like to see "NOTA" have some real teeth in our State elections.

  3. The last President of the Whig Party was Millard Fillmore who is consistently ranked historically with the bottom ten US Presidents. After the Whig Party ceased to exist, Fillmore joined the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party, the political organ of the Know-Nothing movement.

    The Millard Fillmore Medal of Mediocrity Award is given each January around the time of Fillmore's birthday. It honors "mediocrity to combat the rising tide of overachievers."

    So what is the purpose in using the name "Whig" if it does not have substantial connections to the previous Whig party - which is little more than a corrupted fossil in the archive of political parties?

  4. (Mallard Fillmore is the comic strip by Bruce Tinsley)

  5. So who says the media and reporters are not influenced by commentary?

  6. Bradley,

    Everything has to start somewhere. This is a grassroots effort, or if you prefer, a bootstrap operation. (If our policy stances can be said to be "open source" we might as well keep the computer terms in play.)

    I am not dismayed by the negative comments on this story. If nothing else they indicate that people are reading it, and there are other indicators that some, at least, are looking at it further.

    The important thing is to take action in some fashion instead of merely complaining about and then accepting what one considers a sub-optimal situation.

    On a side note, I want to point out that so far as I know the Whigs are the only party that allows both members and non-members alike to comment on the party website in response to policies and open forum discussions. Not even the Libertarians do that (as of the last time I checked.)


  7. Who says "Old Hippies" and "Skinheads" can't find common ground ;-) ( only Jim will get that joke, folks ! )

    Great article on the party there, Jim. Congrats! Now let's go produce a few candidates !

  8. Nick wrote : The Modern Whigs are GOP to the core. Against womens right to choose, against marriage equality and virtually all social issues are for a church state. Whigs are religous righters.

    um ... I count myself on the Whigs side. I'm not GOP, don't particularly like the GOP nor the Dems, am for women's rights (to choose or otherwise), for marriage (by any definition you want to call it), and for many social programs, and I'm not religious .... but, as Jim already mentioned, I'm for being responsible and being a good steward and doing what is practical, not what makes the masses overjoyed.

    And guess what Nick, there are a lot of other folks just like me and just like Jim in Nevada, as well as in the lesser parts of these United States;-) Deal with it... times, they are a changing.

  9. Bradley,

    No worries, I understood what you meant. I was referring to negative comments by others. That is the problem that any centrist or moderate party is going to face.

    It is not in the nature of being a moderate to become especially active, and independents tend to not want to group up. The objective now is to encourage people to break out of the mindset that only the two current major parties are legitimate.

    Again, for those reading, there are significant numbers of moderates in both the Democrats and Republicans who are not that far apart from each other. Combine them with the centrist independents, and there is the makings of a strong, pragmatic party like the Modern Whigs.

    We don't want, or need, the extremes from any party, we do want and need the rational middle.

  10. Dan,

    I saw that post and had to laugh.

    From our core beliefs: "5.Social Acceptance -When the government is compelled to legislate morality (laws), every citizen should be considered as equal. Our Constitution empowers us to be the vanguard of social acceptance, and here we should be leading the world BY EXAMPLE."

    Again, from our stances: "While our members range from deeply religious to completely secular, we are realistic. .... The Constitution is steeped in natural law and guarantees freedom of religious expression and a secular government."

    I doubt very much that the religious right-wing of the Republican Party would accept either of those statements in their entirety.

    Rather than rely on some comments made here, I urge people to read our stances for themselves and then decide where the truth lies.