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A third party is not the solution

Moderate conservatives should focus on intra-party mobilization rather than third-party pipe dreams

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Jim Walsh of Watertown Conn., wears a elephant hat draped with American flags over his ears at a campaign event at Crosby High School in Waterbury, Conn., Saturday, April 23, 2016. “There’s a Trump-sized hole in the Republican party after the 2020 election,” writes Breck Wightman, but starting a new party is not the solution.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press

Americans’ support of a third party reached a new high in mid-February, according to a new Gallup poll. Sixty-two percent of U.S. adults say that the mainstream parties “do such a poor job ... that a third party is needed.” Since the awful events of Jan. 6, moderate Republicans continue to cede ground to the MAGA crowd, believing that Trumpism will dominate the party come 2024 and beyond.

As much as I reject the populist nationalism present in the Republican party, I am convinced that a third-party solution is not only impractical, but also fails to address the core problem. 

A third party is impractical because our entire government — from top to bottom — is predicated upon majority rule and the two-party system. Even the most formidable third party would fall far short of obtaining a majority in this system unless one of the other two parties died out, much like the creation of the Republican Party in the first place. Thus, major structural reforms would be necessary if three parties are ever to survive simultaneously. 

As it stands, the current system would require a center-right party to caucus with Republicans anyways if they want to achieve any kind of majority. If the two groups constitute a single voting bloc in practice, what exactly is the virtue of a third party? How is this different than a fractured single party?

Columnist Jonah Goldberg describes what should be moderates’ chief concern: “Politics in a democracy, at its most basic nuts-and-bolts level, is just about numbers. If you can get a majority of congressmen or senators to caucus with your party, you’re in the majority and you can get more of what your side wants accomplished. ... (I)f you need one more person to get you to majority status, it’s better for that person to be a very liberal Republican than the most conservative Democrat. And again, vice versa. This was why James Madison changed his mind about parties. They serve to force generally like-minded factions to compromise on common interests.”

The core problem is that politicians of all stripes seem to care less and less about numbers. Rather, they seem to prefer a loyal minority to a fractured majority. This is obviously the case for extremists who attempt to dispel the moderate members of their party. But it is also the case for disaffected moderates who threaten to leave the party or create a third party. In either case, these individuals often fail to ever obtain the currency that any politician needs in order to effect change — a majority. 

Now, I am not naïve to the means-ends trap that this can create. I strongly believe that it is better to stand alone on principle when required; we’ve seen several recent examples of conservatives who have been willing to do so. But more virtuous than standing alone is trying to persuade others to stand with you on shared principles. And it is always easier to find shared principles within a single party than across the aisle.

For this reason, moderate conservatives should focus on intra-party mobilization rather than third-party pipe dreams. In a National Affairs essay, professors Steven Teles and Robert Saldin outline what this type of mobilization looks like:

Put simply, there’s a Trump-sized hole in the Republican Party after the 2020 election. The first to mobilize the party will fill it.

“Given the futility of forming a third party, moderates of all sorts can only counter those on the ideological poles by finding leverage within the two major parties. To accomplish this, moderates will need to organize as a coherent bloc, recruit attractive candidates, mobilize moderate voters in each party to participate in partisan politics and develop ideas to inspire their bases. Without strong, durable, organizationally dense factions, individual moderates or even entire state parties will not be able to distinguish themselves from their respective national brands or fight for leverage in national politics.”

Is this kind of mobilization possible? Certainly. Remember that Trumpism itself developed within the party. Though the methods Trump used were repugnant (even militaristic), the same need not be the case for moderates. Take, for example, the promising group of young conservatives profiled by Deseret News opinion writer Samuel Benson who are doing exactly what is suggested above: organizing, recruiting and developing ideas that inspire the base. 

Put simply, there’s a Trump-sized hole in the Republican Party after the 2020 election. The first to mobilize the party will fill it. 

Breck Wightman is a public affairs doctoral candidate at Indiana University and a graduate fellow at the Rumsfeld Foundation. He holds a master of public administration from the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at Brigham Young University.