The Case for an American Liberal Party

Along with many others, I recently called for a third party to provide a home for displaced Republicans exiled by the Trump invasion. I suggested it could be just a temporary measure for the special circumstances of 2016—or the basis for a long-term rebuilding of the center-right.

We keep getting news that suggests the long-term solution might be necessary. Take a report that one of the convention delegates selected for Donald Trump in California is William Johnson, a prominent white nationalist. So the next convention of the party of Lincoln might include a guy who advocates repealing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Certainly, Trump is not directly responsible for this. It seems more a result of his campaign’s incompetence and poor vetting than anything else. But it was Trump’s rhetoric and the way he campaigned that attracted guys like this. As Johnson told a reporter, “For many, many years, when I would say these things, other white people would call me names: ‘Oh, you’re a hatemonger, you’re a Nazi, you’re like Hitler. Now they come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re like Donald Trump.'”

So it looks like we’re going to need a new party, because by the time Trump is done with our old one, it might be indelibly soiled.

I discussed all of this with Ben Domenech last week—including an intriguing suggestion for the name for such a party.

I think now is the best opportunity in a long time for building a new party. The creation of a viable new national-level political party requires four things.

1. A large constituency of voters who are dissatisfied with and underserved by the candidates of the two main parties.

2. A critical mass of successful politicians in other offices—senators, congressmen, governors—who are willing to jump ship or run on a parallel track.

3. A powerful incentive for a broad coalition of ideological factions and interest groups to overcome their objections to each other and unite around a consensus candidate and agenda.

4. A big load of money to build an organization and ramp up a campaign.

Those are all tall orders and would have been inconceivable in previous years. But they are definitely on the edge of possibility this year.

As for the constituency, the two major parties are offering us historically unpopular candidates. A two-way contest between them is likely to be pretty close, but only because it’s so hard to tell which candidate is more repulsive. The only person Donald Trump could possibly beat is Hillary Clinton, and the only person Hillary Clinton could possibly beat is Donald Trump. That means a big chunk of voters might be looking for a palatable alternative.

It’s also likely that Trump is going to drag down candidates for other offices, giving them a compelling reason to disassociate themselves from his campaign by backing someone else.

As for the ideological coalition, Trump manages to alienate nearly every ideological faction of the right: serious foreign-policy hawks who realize that our allies are vitally important and that Vladimir Putin isn’t one of them; religious conservatives who don’t trust Trump on abortion and still hold the quaint notion that a candidate’s personal character matters; free-marketers who don’t like big-government cronyism; pro-business Republicans who like trade and don’t like defaulting on the national debt. He leaves them all out in the cold, and they all stand to lose almost as much with Trump as they do with Hillary Clinton. That makes them all desperate for a candidate who can bring them together behind some version of a traditional conservative “fusionist” agenda.

As for the money, campaign finance laws have ended up making it easier for big donors to pour unlimited funds into an organization outside the traditional party structures. It’s not that big a step from a large independent SuperPAC to a full-fledged third party.

I don’t know if this is going to happen, and it won’t happen just because you or I think it’s a good idea. But if enough of us talk it up, that increases the odds that people who are in a position to make it happen—prominent politicians, big donors, and power brokers—will see the opportunity and make it happen.

That leaves us with the interesting question of what to call the potential new party. Given the publication I write for, far be it from me to scoff at resurrecting the Federalist Party. I’d even settle for the Whig Party, although for some reason that seems a better name for the faction backing the Coiffed Avenger. Free Soil sounds pretty cool and would have the virtue of getting back to the Republican Party’s roots.

But Ben made a suggestion that seemed shocking at first, yet the more I think about it, the more I like it. So I want to make the case for an American right-of-center Liberal Party.

But wait, I hear you shout, the “liberals” in American politics are the left! Yes, and that has been one of the great historical mistakes we need to correct. There’s nothing “liberal” about today’s left.

That’s becoming increasingly obvious now that the left is openly the faction of illiberalism, in favor of cracking down on personal freedom and autonomy in every area of life. They’ve always been the party of government intrusion in our economic lives. Now they’re also the party of feminist neo-Puritanism, repressive speech codes on campus, and “safe spaces” purged of ideological opposition. They’re the party of forcing people to bake cakes or dispense birth control in violation of their conscience and religious liberty.

For those who have forgotten—and the legacy of the American left is to make you forget it—the word “liberal” comes from the Latin word for “freedom.” To be the Liberal Party is to be the pro-freedom party. That’s how the word was historically understood and what it still means in much of the world.

Britain’s nineteenth-century Liberal Party, for example, grew out of the Whigs and Radicals, who had abolished slavery and reformed Britain’s electoral system to make its government more representative. The main agenda of the Liberals was deregulation of the agricultural economy, free trade, and religious liberty. That legacy continues today. In Australia, the Liberals are the main center-right party, and in Europe, “neo-liberalism” is used to mean a vaguely pro-market, pro-trade agenda.

So how did we ever let this term get used to describe an ideology that is all about restriction and control—in economics, in trade, in religion, and in debate over the big issues of the day? Liberalism is a vitally important word that urgently needs to be reclaimed.

Calling our new right-of-center party the Liberal Party would have the advantage of bringing a certain amount of confusion and disarray to our opponents on the left. As I told a left-leaning friend today, part of the purpose of doing this is to make people like her uncertain about what to call themselves—to make them question whether they are truly “liberals” and what the idea even means. More to the point, part of the goal should be to entice centrist Democrats who still believe in freedom of speech and who haven’t quaffed Bernie’s socialist Kool-Aid. We should offer those people a new home as a moderate faction of the Liberal Party.

The point is to seize control of a name the left has begun to abandon—they prefer to call themselves “progressives” now, despite being conspicuously opposed to most forms of economic and technological progress—and to steal an agenda they have turned against.

Ah, but won’t the Trump supporters and the alt-right Internet trolls declare themselves vindicated in saying that Trump’s Republican opponents are really “liberals”? Sure, but they’re doing that anyway. After all, part of the point of creating a Liberal Party is to choose a label that will clearly differentiate us from their deeply unpleasant, regressive, and illiberal faction. The alt-righters keep reminding us that appeasing the Left won’t win us any more support. By the same token, appeasing the alt-right won’t win us any more support, either.

Let us openly fly the flag of our pro-freedom agenda by calling ourselves Liberals—and let’s set an agenda that will define the meaning of that word on our own terms. It might work a lot better, in the long run, than trying to rehabilitate the Republican Party after a loud-mouthed real-estate huckster is done running it into the ground.

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