What Do Nevertrumpers Do Now? 3 Paths of Reform Conservatism
The mad king is deposed but not before his madness infected the Republican Party.
The new center-right that united to help defeat Trump now has three choices: 1) reform the GOP, 2) join the Democrats, or 3) join or create a third party. Each of these streams can, in different ways, promote our shared goals of building a civil society that values truth, rule of law, individual liberty, and human dignity.
Let’s look at the advantages of each of these.
1) Reform the GOP
Since the Republican Party has almost entirely embraced Trumpism, those who take this route will be paddling upstream. This approach is sensible, nonetheless, given our electoral system.
As long as we have winner-take-all elections, we will have a two-party system. Here’s another way to think about it: All democracies must build a majority coalition to govern. In multi-party systems, the coalition is formed after the election. In two-party systems, the coalition is formed before the election by the party that eventually wins.
If we lived in a multi-party system, reform Republicans would likely have their own party that might join a coalition with other Republicans, or other Democrats, after the election. In our two-party system, reform Republicans are one coalition among many seeking to influence the direction of the party.
The main advantage of this option is that the institutional structures are already in place. It becomes a matter of gaining enough support to gain control of those institutions, but you wouldn’t need to build new institutions, which can be costly and time consuming.
A conviction in Trump’s impeachment trial and consequences for the Cruz et. al. coup caucus would go a long way toward helping the GOP reform effort.
2) Join the Democrats
This path is the most pragmatic. As Tim Miller pointed out in, “The Trade: Meet the New Red Dog Democrats,” this trade already happened anyway, whether we wanted it to or not. Nevertrumpers were part of the coalition that helped President Joe Biden win election. The question before us now is, will we help him govern?
Or another way of looking at it, if we want Biden to govern as a moderate, we should help him govern as a moderate. Biden will face enormous pressure from the far Left of his party. If he feels like the center-right has abandoned him, that will only strengthen the far Left.
This approach doesn’t require silence on areas of disagreement. We needn’t become never-never-Bidens. It only requires helping the current administration become successful on the areas of agreement.
3) Join or Create a Third Party
This is the most difficult path but it is also the best way, maybe only way, to bring major reforms. One of the biggest misunderstandings in politics today is the belief that voting third party is a “wasted vote.” Throughout U.S. history, third parties have been the source of major governmental reforms, especially reforms to the institutions themselves, as opposed to just changes in policy.
It’s no coincidence that the Progressive Era saw the most amount of political reform and had a large amount of third party activity. All the big reforms of that era — women’s suffrage, income tax, direct election of senators, open primaries, 8-hour workday, to name a few — began as third party platforms.
Major parties aren’t likely to support major systemic reforms because their candidates were elected under the status-quo — Why change the system that got you into office? — unless something disrupts the major parties’ ability to maintain government control. This is why third parties can be so effective at bringing about reform even without winning elections (and even more so when they do win). When third parties capture enough votes, major parties struggle to stay in power, making the status-quo no longer tenable. They must adopt the third-party platform in order to attract their voters. The oft-repeated “it’s a binary choice”-myth helps the major parties maintain the status-quo by tamping down the potential for third party threats. (Though we have a two-party system, as long as there are more than two candidates on a ballot, it’s not a binary choice.) It’s only when voters realize the power they can wield by backing third party candidates that the major parties back institutional reforms.
What’s the best stream?
All three of these streams will be and should be tried, but we shouldn’t think of them as in competition with one another. They’re mutually complementary, when done the right way.
The goal, keep in mind, is reform, not gaining and keeping power. Winning elections as the end in itself is what led to the GOP’s current state as the party of xenophobia, deceit, and sedition.
You needn’t stick to a single path. It can vary depending on the issue or the race. In the 2022 Election, for instance, you might back a third party candidate for the U.S. House, a centrist Democrat for U.S. Senate, and a reform Republican for governor.
The tricky part in all this, as Spengler warned in “Ghostbusters,” is to not cross the streams. A centrist Democrat, reform Republican, and third party candidate all running in the same race would help the extremists win (unless the race has ranked-choice voting, which is a reform we should all support).
How do we keep the streams from crossing?
For my doctoral dissertation, I studied Christian Right interest groups during George W. Bush’s first term. This period was a high point for Christian Right influence. I noticed they punched way above their weight, given that they were not well-funded and had few staff compared to other major lobbying groups in D.C. Much of the political science theories at the time treated interest groups as individual units seeking to influence public policy. Those theories couldn’t explain the effectiveness of these groups. So instead of political science, I went to sociology for an explanation. I argued that the Christian Right groups all understood themselves as part of something larger — they were part of a social movement. It was their networks, their ties to each other, their common purpose, that gave them strength. They had learned how to work together. Through weekly meetings, they strategized, divvied up the workload, and learned how to support each other.
Reform conservatives should take the same approach. Thankfully, much of those networks were already built, as evidenced by the Convention on Founding Principles. The key, as in any relationship, is to maintain them with open and regular communication among all the groups. And don’t cross the streams (unless the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacks New York City).