I used to be cautious about making predictions. This is partly because history is a complex, open system and predictions almost always come to grief in some important detail. It is also hard to take seriously the Chris Matthews school of punditry: make a series of wild predictions. Supposedly, everyone will forget the clangers, but if you luck into a correct one, the chattering classes will hail you as the next Nostradamus.
Nevertheless, I will now venture one categorical prediction that seems to run counter to the Deep Thoughts of some in the political class.
The Republican Party, with or without Donald Trump, will not factionalize, and—apart from a few marginal figures whom the media will falsely proclaim as the future of the GOP —will remain overwhelmingly united behind its present ideology and be competitive in national, state, and local elections.
What’s more, the “principled conservatives” that the press rhapsodizes over couldn’t fill a phone booth relative to the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump (the most any presidential candidate in history has ever received apart from Joe Biden), and the millions in state races who robotically pulled the lever for toxic imbeciles like Tommy Tuberville, or saturnine villains like Mitch McConnell. The disaffected few just might form a third party, but it will be an insignificant factor, like the Vegetarian Party or Kanye West’s recent attempt at being elected as our singing Messiah.
Which brings us to Thomas Friedman.
Friedman is The New York Times’ resident expert at always being wrong—but always in a manner acceptable to elite opinion. The last time anyone can recall Friedman doing anything noteworthy, he was cheerleading the invasion of Iraq—because we had to knock over some Middle Eastern country (it didn’t really matter which) to ensure that people like Friedman could enjoy their fantasy of being vicarious tough guys.
Now he has joined the chorus of savants hailing “principled conservatives” as the future of democracy. Shorter Friedman: A principled conservative third party could become kingmakers in Washington, and I want it, because it would be so cool.
This is the kind of spit balling that less than bright members of the chattering class indulge in because they think it’s boldly counterintuitive. This springs from the deep emotional impulse of elite opinion-makers to canonize that mythical unicorn, the “realistic” fiscal conservative who talks gravely about the deficit, is tough on crime, and is a foreign policy hawk — yet this fabulous creature is also a social liberal who approves of gay marriage and shows compassion for the poor — as long as the help at the country club doesn’t get any cheeky ideas about eating at the quality folks’ table rather than just quietly serving the food.
So it’s hardly surprising that during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Friedman endorsed Michael Bloomberg, who has never been quite sure if he is a Democrat or a Republican. The endorsement came in for the derision that so frequently accompanies Friedman’s writings when he explains that, gosh-darn it, we shouldn’t be so mean to hard-working billionaires.
Startling to think that only a few seasons ago, a guy who fit the Friedman profile to a “T” was Rudy Giuliani—now only a pathetic punch line and a comic, low-grade fascist (say, on the level of Putzi Hanfstaengl). Likewise, overacting Hamlets like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse had their day in the sun as consciences of the Senate until the evidence of their charlatanism could no longer be denied.
Friedman’s notion is not only wrong in attempting to find a sizable nucleus in the GOP who fit his criteria. Quite apart from his fundamental misunderstanding of conservatism, it is highly implausible because of the very structure of our political system and the nature of the electorate.
Let’s look at the real correlation of forces:
Third parties don’t fit the American political system. Countries like Germany can support more than two political parties because they have proportional representation. At all levels of government in the United States, “first past the post” is the overwhelming norm.
Why can’t it be changed? Because state legislatures control election laws, and given the current two-party duopoly, why would they change it? Similarly, states continue to have a lock on determining ballot requirements and will set onerous hurdles for a third party just to get on the ballot.
At the national level, the Electoral College makes it all but impossible for a third party to win. Good luck with ratifying a constitutional amendment to change it. This is quite apart from the institution’s built-in structural bias that will keep Republicans electorally viable and discourage any potential third party that simply looks at the odds.
Finally, a third party can never be a policy arbiter from the position of elective office. For the reasons cited above, very few will ever hold office. The sole claim of third parties to making a major impact is to act as a spoiler; this explains Republicans’ efforts to get the aforementioned Kanye West on state ballots. This dynamic ensures that once the election is over one party or the other of the two-party duopoly will call the shots.
The electorate doesn’t want a center-right third party. There are virtually no disaffected Republicans or swing voters hankering for a moderate, center-right party.
Record turnout in 2020 hardly suggests widespread dissatisfaction. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for Trump, Tuberville, and the rest of the menagerie because the base likes what they represent and wants more of it. The record turnout, with Trump and down-ballot Republicans outrunning what most polls projected, suggests that they were picking up demographics that don’t ordinarily show up in surveys or that don’t even ordinarily identify as Republican. Why is this phenomenon not more widely understood?
The Republican Party is not remotely recognizable as a conservative party; it is now somewhere between radical-reactionary and fascist.
I suspect the reason is that journalists, academics, and the like blanch at the conclusion that must be drawn from the data. Nearly half the electorate seems to really like the idea of being ruled by fascism wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross. But this evidence—that a near-majority of Americans scoffs at the rule of law, flocked to the polls in 2020 in the hope that it would be the country’s last presidential election, and still hopes for a violent coup—is an intolerable thought. So the punditry creates a fantasy world with a happy ending: the rise of a new party that is an amalgam of Eisenhower, Jerry Ford, and Everett Dirksen.
The facts before our eyes tell us that Republicans held the Senate (assuming the Georgia special election outcome doesn’t beat rather long odds), gained seats in the House, and maintained their bastions in state legislatures. This is unusual for a party losing a presidential election. So why would Republican officeholders, whether “principled” or pragmatic, stampede for the exits?
Indeed, the party is well positioned for 2022. If past is prologue, the American electorate will vote Republican. Why? Typically, they vote for divided government two years after the beginning of the first term of a president (never mind that they spend the rest of the presidential term bitching about the gridlock they voted for: logic has never been an American virtue). As for Democrats, they’ll may stay home as they did in 2010 and 2014, either from complacency, dissatisfaction, sheer stupidity, or from the fact that their party didn’t bother to mobilize them.
The conservative party is the Democrats. A favorite sport among progressive Democrats is to decry the bulk of their party as corporate sellouts (key phrases: “Democratic Leadership Council,” “something-something Bill and Hillary”). The party establishment, meanwhile, imitates a long-suffering schoolmarm trying to keep her unruly charges from burning down the classroom whenever it contemplates progressives spoiling what the leadership fantasizes (usually wrongly) is its brilliant plan to sweep the next election.
The point is not to say who is right, but to remind everyone that the Democratic Party is what Ronald Reagan claimed he wanted of the GOP 40 years ago: a big-tent party. It is more tolerant of differing views than the Republicans—think of Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—so that claims that both parties are equally polarized are nonsense. The party did not move nearly as far to the left as the GOP has lurched to the right, and it did not quash dissent to anywhere near the extent of the Republicans.
The Republican Party is not remotely recognizable as a conservative party; it is now somewhere between radical-reactionary and fascist. Given this asymmetric drift, the Democrats are America’s conservative party based on the sheer geometry of the political spectrum. A closer examination of policy and political disposition bears this out.
Here’s how Michael Oakeshott, a conservative political theorist much quoted by the likes of Bill Buckley and George Will, described conservatism: “To be conservative . . . is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
Whatever the self-congratulatory aspect of that epigraph, it more nearly describes the Democrats than their opponents. They respect well-established programs of the past like Social Security and Medicare; they are cautious incrementalists, as the Affordable Care Act showed (a bill whose fundaments were taken from a Heritage Foundation plan of 20 years before).
Democrats have greater respect for the Constitution and the rule of law; they more strongly obey the traditional norms of decorum; they recognize the fact that revenue is obtained by taxation rather than the supernatural mystery of the Laffer Curve, a pseudo-law resembling the Biblical story of the fishes and the loaves. Republicans are the genuine utopians; the fact that sane people would consider GOP nirvana to be a living hell is a detail.
This conservatism spills over into cultural categories as well. The two highest officials in the Democratic Party, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, are devout, traditional Catholics. And Donald Trump? Mitch McConnell? (We pass over the religious fundamentalist extremism prevalent in the GOP base: it has degraded Christianity to the theological level of Aztec ritual cannibalism).
The GOP is no longer the party of small-town accountants in three-piece suits and matrons wearing corsages and big hats; the cast of a MAGA rally typically resembles the extras in the director’s cut of Deliverance.
Finally, as I have argued before, the Republican Party has descended into pure nihilism, the diametric opposite of what conservatism claims to be.
None of this will be redeemed by “principled conservatives,” creatures that, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, many people claim to have seen. And just as with those cryptic icons of popular lore, the purported witnesses have never provided any evidence for their existence.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.