Friday, February 12, 2021

Anti-Trump Conservatives: Form a Faction, not a Third Party


Several news organizations have reported that officials of former Republican Administrations opposed to Donald Trump's continuing influence in the Republican Party are considering forming a breakaway third party. In this post, I explain why forming an Anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party is more likely to be successful than forming a new center-right third party.

Generally speaking, third parties tend not to win many elections in the United States because of our first-past-the-post electoral system. (Our electoral system is badly in need reform, but that is the subject for another post.) 

There are any number of small parties (e.g., the Libertarian Party and the Green Party) that regularly field candidates, but because of the way our electoral system is designed, they tend not to win very many elections.

In the past, influential third parties have been one-person affairs (George Wallace's American Party, Ross Perot's independent candidacy) that fade as soon as their leader's political power fades.  Other third-parties get absorbed into one of the two major parties: for example, the Populists joined forces with the Democrats in 1896, and thereafter were mostly spent as an independent force.

The last example of a third party becoming a major party that regularly wins elections is the Republican Party in 1854. That succeeded because one of the two major parties, the Whigs, imploded over the slavery issue, creating a political vacuum that the Republicans filled. In essence, the Republicans cobbled a new coalition out of former Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, disgruntled Northern Democrats, and members of other minor parties. Election laws also made it easy to start a third party in the 1850s. One didn't have to petition and jump through elaborate procedural hoops to get on the ballot in every state, as happens today. Instead, new parties simply prepared paper ballots listing their candidates and offered them to voters.

A new center-right party could form if the current Republican Party dissolved or imploded as the Whigs did in the 1850s. But it is not clear that Trump Republicans would join it. They would more likely form their own Trumpist Party. And they would be the far larger faction. The percentage of anti-Trump Republicans is comparatively small.

A better solution for anti-Trump conservatives is to form a durable faction like the Tea Party or its associated Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives.  A faction doesn't have to get on the ballot all by itself. It just has to win primary elections. The goal of the anti-Trump faction would be to do to Trumpists what Trumpists have repeatedly threatened to do to traditional Republicans-- wage a struggle over the party's candidates through primaries.

That will not be an easy task. As noted before, there are more Trumpists than Anti-Trump Republicans. But it has been done before-- just ask the Tea Party.

Moreover, in deciding who wins primaries, money still matters a great deal. Because of its connections to the older Republican Establishment, an anti-Trump faction may be more successful in the "invisible primary"-- gaining the support of corporations and wealthy donors who tend to decide who gets a party's nomination. It is true that candidates from both parties have learned how to use digital media to amass small contributions, but corporate and large donor contributions are still very important in the Republican Party. If the anti-Trump faction gains the support of these corporate contributors and significant portions of the Party's base of wealthy donors, it can exercise power and influence well beyond its numbers.

Many corporate contributors have pledged not to give money to candidates who refused to certify the Electoral College votes on January 6th. An anti-Trump faction could capitalize on these pledges, offering business-friendly conservative candidates who can be trusted to protect American democracy. Corporations will not stop giving to Republican candidates forever; they will want to find conservative politicians they can support. As a result, an Anti-Trump faction can benefit at the expense of candidates who will not publicly distance themselves from Trump.

As I am neither a Republican nor a conservative, one should take these remarks with a large grain of salt. Still, if it were my party, this is the advice I would give.

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