The Republican Party has some problems.
In the last four years, President Donald Trump has surged the national debt, initiated forlorn trade wars and failed to deliver meaningful free-market solutions to ongoing crises such as exorbitant health care costs. He coarsened our political discourse with a steady stream of personal attacks and outrageous lies. He gave cover to racists and bigots.
Republican politicians, especially in Iowa, have steadfastly supported Trump through it all. Even in his failed bid to subvert the Constitution and throw out legitimate election results, they cheered him on.
What’s an anti-Trump Republican like me to do? Leave the party, some people are saying.
U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, Republican of Michigan, announced last week he’ll serve as an independent for the remainder of his term. His fellow Michigan U.S. Rep. Justin Amash left the GOP last year in protest of Trump, and later joined the Libertarian Party. Both will be gone from Congress in January.
Also leaving the party is Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, which ran ads this election to attract disgruntled Republicans to Joe Biden. She announced her decision last week in a USA Today column headlined, “Why I’m leaving the Republican Party.”
And Evan McMullin, a former Republican who ran as an independent for president in 2016, published a New York Times guest column this month urging Republicans to make a political home outside the party.
“From there, we can continue working with other Americans to defeat Trump’s heirs, help offer unifying leadership to the country and, if the GOP continues on its current path, launch a party to challenge it directly,” McMullin wrote.
It’s a three-part plan: First, leave the Republican Party. ... Third, restore democracy. But the all-important second step is missing. No one is articulating how changing our party affiliation will bring about any tangible change.
Saying you’ll start a new party is easy, but doing it is much more difficult.
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By design, it’s a two-party system. First-past-the-post voting — where voters select one candidate per race, and a simple plurality is enough to win — tends to produce two dominant parties. Plus, the establishment parties have devised regulations and norms to make it difficult for independent and third-party candidates to get on the ballot and appear in debates.
There’s hardly ever been more than two national parties in the United States. Startup parties have occasionally supplanted one of the major parties, but it’s been a really long time.
There has been no significant party shake-up since Abraham Lincoln won reelection in 1864. The duopoly as presently constructed is much older than women’s suffrage.
The GOP does not have as broad a national coalition as the Democrats. Just once in my lifetime has my party’s presidential nominee won the popular vote. The party’s power in federal government is buoyed by the Electoral College and the Senate, which give favor to voters in less populated states.
Yet the elephant party is hardly at risk of going extinct. The party grew its membership in the U.S. House in last month’s elections, and Trump earned the second-most votes in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, the coalition of conservatives who reliably oppose Trump — the group we call “Never Trump Republicans” — is vanishingly small, probably less than 3 percent of all voters. The number of Americans identifying as Republicans has remained steady over the past four years, while Trump still enjoys 90 percent approval among Republicans, according to Gallup polls.
If we leave the party, we relegate ourselves to second-class political status. No-party voters and politicians are systematically excluded from full participation in the electoral and governing processes.
Most states do not allow independents to vote in Republican primaries, so we would forfeit the nominating process to the most ardent Trump supporters. And independents in Congress and some state legislatures are not invited to participate in the committee process where legislating actually happens, as Rep. Mitchell recently found out.
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If someone tells you to leave the Republican Party but they don’t advocate for independent and third-party inclusion, they’re really telling you that they don’t want you to participate in our republic.
We can’t radically reform the Republican Party by evacuating all the people who acknowledge the grave defects of Trumpism. If all the anti-authoritarians leave, it’s a party full of authoritarians, and still one-half of our political system.
In the near term, anti-Trump Republicans should double down on our involvement in primaries and party business to lend support to sensible candidates.
Long-term, we have to tear down the barriers that keep independents and third parties out of the system. That includes relatively minor stuff like ballot access laws, and also big stuff like alternative voting models and reimagining the committee process in Congress.
Most often, people calling on Republicans to leave the party don’t address any of those structural problems. They don’t care about winning or enacting policy, they just want to “send a message.”
Political parties do not have souls, honor or any other kind of metaphysical value. They are amoral instruments we use to achieve political ends. This one has some serious problems, but it’s still the best we have.
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