Early this month, a stealth group of about 100 Republicans “met” on Zoom to discuss forming a new political party. Nice idea. Noble, even. Imaginative. Maybe even inspiring.
Also a complete waste of time.
One of the notions that has been tossed around promiscuously in recent months involves restoring America to the concepts on which it was built. The truth is that the American political system was built to have two parties – not more. Though, as I will argue later, we might be better off with fewer, like none at all.
That, of course, is what the founders wanted: no parties at all. There never has been an introductory course on American government that did not include the reading of Federalist No. 10, which talks about factions, “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens” – a long way of describing political parties. James Madison, who wrote this entry, deplored factions, and in fact the Era of Good Feelings, which excluded parties, might be thought of to have begun in the last year of the Madison presidency.
Not that parties have been a scourge on our politics. The Republicans of Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen gave civil rights a boost that the Democrats wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democrats and Ronald Reagan’s Republicans asked searching questions about the role of government in our lives.
Now back to the idea of a new party, split off from the Republicans who are at the moment in the thrall of Donald J. Trump.
There are, to be sure, true differences between the Trumpers and the Never-Trumpers. And it is likely true that the GOP secessionists feel grave discomfort in a party where, according to last week’s Quinnipiac poll, three-fourths of Republicans want Trump to play a big role in the party. One of the leaders of the group exploring a new party called his old party “irredeemable.”
Interesting choice of words. The Redeemers were a Democratic splinter group in the South after the Civil War who opposed the Republican-dominated governments created under Reconstruction.
In any case, third parties truly prosper only if they replace one of the major parties, as the Republicans did by 1860 with the election of Lincoln. Usually their views are subsumed into one of the big parties, as the Populists, who in 1892 captured 22 electoral votes behind James B. Weaver, were by the Democrats who nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
Third-party presidential candidates have won electoral votes 10 times; the most recent successful third-party entrant, Ross Perot, won 19% of the vote in 1992 – but he didn’t receive a single electoral vote. The electoral vote champ was Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1912 led his Bull Moose faction out of the GOP and captured 88 electoral votes, thrusting the Republican candidate, President William Howard Taft, into third place. In 1968, George C. Wallace won 46 electoral votes on the American Independent ticket.
Today a potential new anti-Trump party that represents at best a fifth of an established party – which itself represents only about a quarter of Americans – is not exactly poised for victory.
But that is not because of the power Trump has over Republicans. It is an American political system that favors two parties because there is only one prize in our elections: victory. We do not operate under a proportional representation system, as Israel, Italy and Belgium do. And Israel (which seems to have an election every few months), Italy (which has had more than five dozen governments since World War II), and Belgium (which last year broke its own record for time without a government – 592 days) are not inspiring examples.
There is, however, a place for those Republicans discomfited by Trump and by the remarks of Sen. Lindsay Graham, who last Sunday told Fox News, “We need Trump-plus.” And for those like Pete Wehner, who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Presidents Bush and who, in his 2019 book “The Death of Politics,” wrote, “Many Americans have lost hope that we can solve our problems using the traditional means of politics.”
Calling Angus King.
King, from Maine, is a former two-term governor who is now in his ninth year in the Senate. He is an Independent.
“I was uncomfortable with the fiscal and regulatory policies of the Democrats and the social policies of the Republicans, so I decided to go up the middle,” he told me the other day. “It has been liberating.”
His experience as governor (1995-2003) illuminates the advantages of a none-of-the-above profile, even though he had no natural allies in the state legislature.
“I could appoint anybody I wanted – judges, cabinet members, members of boards and commissions,” he said. “In the normal partisan world, you make 99% of your appointments from your own party. These days, over 40% of the people are unenrolled in either party. If you appoint only people of your party, you’ve eliminated 40% of the talent pool.”
My bet is that the potential Republican exiles won’t leave and will stay and fight. They might prevail if the partisan temperature drops a bit and if Trump fades a bit in the Mar-a-Lago sunshine.
Then again, some of them might drift into the Democratic Party, though not many.
There’s no one, except perhaps Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, more out of step with Trump and his allies than Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a relentless critic of the former president who last summer prompted Trump to threaten to support a primary candidate against her next year: “Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing,” the president tweeted. “If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”
When Murkowski, the daughter of a Republican senator, was asked whether she might defect to the Democratic Party, she told reporters last month, “I can be very discouraged at times with things that go on in my own caucus, in my own party. But I have absolutely no desire to move over to the Democratic side of the aisle. I can’t be somebody that I’m not.”
But a woman who truly is independent can be an Independent. Before long she might be. And she might not be alone.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.