I left the Republican party just over four years ago. I think I officially changed my party affiliation to Independent the week before the GOP convention. I had fought the good fight, but primary voters had their own preference.* But not only had the voters selected someone whom I opposed morally and ideologically, it was apparent even as early as July 2016 that the party was morphing into a political cult revolving around Donald Trump.
*Funny thing about that. If non-Republicans had not been allowed to vote in so many primary states, it is quite likely that Donald Trump would not have been the nominee. At least in the early states, most of which had open primaries, Trump’s biggest base of support were non-Republicans. I haven’t run the numbers in the while, but those voters likely gave him the margin of victory in a lot of states. I may be old-fashioned, but it seems to me that it should only me actual members of a political party who get to choose their party’s nominees. And I say this as someone who is a registered Independent in a closed primary state.
Four years later there remains little chance I will rejoin the party anytime soon. And judging by what is happening in the Democratic party, there is even less of a chance I would go anywhere near it. The Republican party is closer to where I am ideologically, and I will likely be voting for the GOP where I can down ballot, but right now I feel politically homeless.
We’re already beginning to see a flourishing of think pieces of where the GOP is headed post-Trump, whether that means 2021 or 2025. I’ve touched upon that to some degree here. I am not filled with a lot of confidence that the party will be headed in a good direction regardless of what happens this Fall. The extreme ends of the party are being tugged on one hand by Never Trump Republicans who fail to recognize the conditions that gave rise to Trump, and seem insistent on a return to the mundane policy framework which angered so many in the first place. On the other extreme are those who are either dispositionally in accord with Trump or who at least have adopted a nationalistic framework without the bombast. Neither of these extremes is one a classical liberal can feel entirely comfortable with.
On the other side of the aisle, liberal Democrats cannot be thrilled with the state of their party. While Joe Biden himself represents something of a return to normalcy, so to speak, no one can say with certainty who will dominate the agenda moving forward. Several “moderate” Democratic incumbents have already been defeated this year in primaries by candidates closely aligned with “The Squad” and who all have adopted the most extreme progressive policy positions associated with that wing of the party. Of course, even with these additions this wing of the party remains firmly in the minority within it, but it is certainly ascendant. And while John Kasich bleated about the party’s supposed centrism last week, that’s not really where the party is.
The forces of illiberalism are thus increasing, not decreasing, their hold on both major parties, and it may be time for liberals associated with either to ponder if a new alignment is necessary to protect the liberal order.
In a certain sense this seems unlikely. Though the broad coalition of liberals may agree on a philosophical level about first principles, we may disagree strongly on specific issues like abortion, healthcare, gun control, and the like. It may be impossible to assemble a political coalition doomed to immediate infighting over policies.
Perhaps this alignment can function outside of the party system, although it’s difficult to envision how this would work functionally. But there is precedent in American history for at least a momentary coalition of convenience for people who share basic core beliefs.
I am talking specifically about James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. At no point prior to 1786 and especially after 1788 would they be described as co-partisans, yet they joined forces at the most important point in American history precisely because they had a shared belief in the necessity of forging a strong national government.
Though they would split at the outset of the Washington administration and become the central figures of America’s two political parties, it is their collaboration during the run-up to and the aftermath of the constitutional convention that helped forge the American republic as we know it. Their vision for what this republic would be did not differ all that substantially. At their respective cores, both men wanted a stronger national government that was nonetheless limited in scope, and which curtailed the excesses of majoritarian democracy. Theirs was a quasi-Burkean philosophy respectful of tradition and wary wide-eyed utopian and revolutionary ideas.
Though Madison would later join forces with Jefferson due to a shared agrarian economic philosophy, as well as skepticism at Hamilton’s financial plans, Madison remained much more tethered to a somewhat more conservative philosophical approach. Jefferson was the radical democrat who advocated continual revolution. That was not Madison’s bag.
Now may be the time for classical liberals to reverse engineer this dynamic. Whereas Madison and Hamilton worked together first to create a republic, and then split over partisan politics, classical liberals of today who are divided by party need to reunite to stem the tide of anti-liberal sentiment that threatens to undermine the very fabric of our republican order.
I can’t deny there are several roadblocks to this potential unification. First and foremost, as already mentioned, classical liberals are sharply divided on core issues. I am not certain how it will be possible to resolve certain intractable differences of opinion over, for instance abortion. Our respective approaches to the constitutional question of abortion might provide an area of agreement – pro-choice liberals tend to be skeptical of the legal reasoning in Roe v. Wade – but that would be the limit of our agreement.
A bigger stumbling block is the nature of the two-party system. Though parties have come and gone, and the parties of today have both changed much over nearly two centuries, America has basically been a two-party country since its the founding of the American constitutional republic. Could classical liberals come together to forge a third party, thus upending the two-party dominance seemingly inherent in our system? As unlikely as that is, I am not sure it would be possible to “take over,” so to speak, either the Democratic or Republican parties. The latter still seems slightly more amenable to such a turn, but only barely, and less so each day.
What’s more, are we even a significant portion of the populace to be our own political force? Anti-liberal populism certainly seems to be the id of the moment, and the political dynamics of our moment only seem to reinforce increased populist sentiment, as each extreme becomes even more extreme when the other side seemingly gains an upper hand at any given moment.
Then again, maybe social media makes us feel like more of a remnant than we truly are. Maybe the reality is that most Americans are more sympathetic to our general framework, but they don’t tend to be the ones who lash out on Twitter.
Maybe a more modest effort is what this moment calls for. Rather than forming a third party or trying to take over one of the existing parties, we just need to forge more alliances of convenience. For example, I will take my own (current) home county of Montgomery County in Maryland as an example. It is a uniparty county in which Republicans have virtually no voice. Getting a Republican elected as a county commissioner seems unlikely, and it’s difficult to see a GOP takeover of the county council anytime soon. Yet the county government – the very one which tried to block private schools from in-person instruction this Fall – has hardened into a hard-left block. Based on many a conversation in-person and online I suspect there are many Democrats who are not happy with this situation. Republicans of a classical liberal bent are better off working with Democrats of such a bent on getting a more sensible and, yes, perhaps even Democratic governing coalition elected than working futilely to elect Republicans. Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are outgunned in the primaries. They would be better off working with Republicans to help get better candidates into office.
*And yes, I wrote about how I am opposed to open primaries. This is where uniting behind a “third party” candidate may work.
This dynamic can certainly also work in reverse in Republican-dominated areas that have also hardened into an anti-liberal block.
None of the options are particularly easy and free of potential stumbling blocks. Yet, liberals of all stripes are going to have to figure out some way of working together where we can lest the country be completely riven by two competing anti-liberal forces.