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July 29, 2015

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POLITICS:

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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