Stick around long enough in politics, and you will probably find yourself forced to endorse at least one idea you have always opposed. This awful year is forcing me to embrace a whole bunch of ideas I’ve always rejected in the past.
I have always argued for a fair amount of optimism about the ultimate outcome of our political battles—but this year is certainly grounds for a greater degree of pessimism. I have criticized those who think they are above the unpleasant task of voting for the lesser of two evils—but this year I can’t figure out which evil is lesser. And I’ve been contemptuous of third parties, which I regarded as futile endeavors in our political system. Now, after Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination, I think we need a new third party right away.
No, I don’t think a third party presidential nominee is likely to win, particularly given the difficulty of getting a candidate on the ballot nationwide at this late stage, not to mention how difficult it will be to raise the money to run a national campaign.
The primary, immediate reason we need a third party is for races down the ballot, as a mechanism for Republican candidates to survive the fierce downdraft of the Trump candidacy at the top. For the longer term, it’s also necessary to provide a base from which to either wrest back control of the Republican Party after the Trumpenburg goes up in flames, or to build a new constitutionalist party from its ashes.
What I am proposing, in short, is a third party that will serve as a Republican leadership in exile, waiting to either reclaim our occupied homeland or to build a new home for our band of ideological refugees.
Let me be more specific about what such a third party might accomplish.
First, it would provide a parallel track for local, state, and congressional candidates. The Obama years have been a huge success for Republicans on every level below the presidency. In several wave elections, Republicans have reclaiming statehouses across the country and both houses of Congress. Now all of that is in danger.
Trump’s damage so far has been to prevent us from regaining the presidency, and that in turn will almost certainly cost us the Supreme Court, a blow which could take decades to reverse. But the shoe that’s waiting to drop is down the ballot. David Harsanyi lays out the scenario very clearly: every Republican in every race is going to get slimed by association with Trump. Associating themselves instead with a new third party would give them a credible way to disavow the association, freeing them from the necessity of answering for Donald Trump’s policies or character.
This kind of parallel political track already exists in a few states. In Minnesota, the national Democratic Party operates in parallel with the state-level Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, with its appropriately anachronistic Progressive-Marxist overtones. In New York, there’s the Conservative Party, which usually endorses candidates in parallel with the Republican Party.
So a Republican candidate for office can still be the official Republican nominee—while also accepting the support of the new third party and declaring that he is answerable only for the (presumably) wiser and more sober views of that party’s leaders.
The second function of a new third party would be to give the sane right-leaning media something constructive to do. While much of the right’s broadcast media is on the Trump Train—including a lot the talk radio entertainers and Fox News talking heads—very little of the right’s print and online media is budging in his direction. An informal survey of my colleagues over the past few days shows that very few have abandoned their #NeverTrump stance or seem likely to do so. (No one affirmed that with more style than this.) For people who make a living off of nothing but the force and clarity of their ideas, Trump is too much of an intellectual embarrassment. We just can’t make ourselves support him.
For us, Trump vs. Hillary is the Iran-Iraq War of politics. It’s a shame they can’t both lose, and there’s neither fun nor profit in cataloguing the carnage. This means that a lot of us are going to drop out of commenting on electoral politics for the next six months, because we have no one who is even close to being a standard-bearer for our ideas.
A properly constructed third party would give us someone and something to talk about in a positive way. I don’t mean this just as a Full Employment Act for Disgruntled Pundits. I mean this as a way that we can continue to advocate for our political principles in a year when ideas and principles have gone AWOL.
Most of all, a third party could provide the germ for a new, improved ideological coalition on the right.
The reason I have opposed third parties is that I understand that in the American system, the major parties are supposed to be broad, diverse ideological coalitions. So complaining that your faction doesn’t get all of its own way and threatening to take your ball and go home ignores what a political party is all about.
But in this case, we got here because one particular political faction decided it wanted its own way and left everybody else out in the cold. Call it the curse of the Reagan Democrats. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating into the 80s and 90s, the Republican Party absorbed a disaffected faction of people who were used to voting for Democrats but were alienated by the far left’s takeover of their old party. This included many Southern Democrats, but the classic Reagan Democrats were urban and Northeastern. They were union workers who had once been FDR Democrats, but who were open to appeals based on traditional morality and American patriotism. The Democratic Party, by contrast, was increasingly built to appeal to smug college kids who looked down their noses at these old-fashioned blue-collar types.
The problem is that at some level the Reagan Democrats are still FDR Democrats. They are pragmatic and non-ideological and just want a political leader who will represent the interests of “guys like me.” So they are open to the manipulations of a demagogue who promises to be a strongman on behalf of their tribe. This was not too damaging while they remained part of a larger Republican coalition. Candidates would make emotional appeals to the Reagan Democrat types and try to show that they were regular guys who understood the man on the street—but they would also give policy speeches to show that they understood tax policy and free-market economics, or the importance of global alliances and American leadership.
Trump is the candidate who threw out this rulebook and won the nomination with a plurality heavily weighted toward just that one faction.
The Reagan Democrats had previously served mostly as a swing vote in the general election and had not dominated the Republican primaries. It’s entirely possible that when the Trump campaign crashes and burns in November—as it is very, very likely to do—this faction will go back home and drop out of politics again, allowing the usual ideological coalition to reassert control of the Republican Party. But it will be helpful to have a base from which to return, an ideological establishment in exile.
And what if they don’t go home? Success breeds imitation, and I doubt Donald Trump is the only ambitious public figure who knows how to pander to the mob. This past year also revealed the extent to which the Republican Party and the “entertainment wing” of the political media is filled with opportunists who will jump onto a populist bandwagon. So we may end up with no choice but to abandon what’s left of the Republican Party to this rump faction and start over again somewhere else.
If the old ideological coalition cannot reclaim the Republican Party, it will need a new political home, and we’d better start building it now.
But what about the Libertarian Party? The problem is that the Libertarians already have a distinct ideological identity, and if you’ve spent much time with Libertarians, you may have noticed that they are very committed to the idea of their superior ideological purity. There is certainly a value to intellectual consistency. If there is one lesson from the Trump phenomenon, it’s that it’s a bad idea to acquire the habit of combining contradictory thoughts in the same brain. But in the American system, a political party has to be a coalition that brings together an electoral majority from differing ideological factions, who have to negotiate and compromise in order to find issues on which they can make common cause.
The Libertarian Party is too narrowly focused to be suited to that goal. It could easily take on the free-marketers, for example, but would be unlikely to be able to make common cause with national-security hawks or religious culture warriors, who are key parts of the old Republican coalition and without whom it probably cannot gain a majority. This old Republican Party coalition has been fractured, perhaps irrevocably, and we need a base from which to assemble a new one.
That may be difficult to do. It may be difficult to overcome rivalries and resentments and ambitions and rally around a single uniting figure. If we could have done that, you would think it would have happened in the primaries. But perhaps the prospect of losing everything will induce the party’s factions to make reasonable accommodations with each other. And perhaps the knowledge that a third party presidential candidate has no real expectation of winning this year would attract a sober, responsible elder statesman who has no actual ambitions for office—sort of like Dick Cheney, but without the baggage—who would be willing to volunteer purely for the purpose of helping to piece back together a viable ideological coalition for the right.
That’s the kind of attitude we need right now, not just from a potential leader, but from ourselves. We need the spirit of George Washington, who rallied the Constitutional Convention with advice that turns out to be the best answer to our dilemma today: “If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”