Whichever major political party loses on Election Day likely faces a period of soul searching.
Let’s say Republicans lose. Do they keep the populist nationalism path forged during President Donald Trump’s tenure, and advocated by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, or return to the neoconservatism advocated by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Bill Kristol? Is Texas Senator Ted Cruz correct in suggesting populism and libertarianism needs blending? Do smaller, weaker government advocates return?
What if Democrats fail in their pursuit of the Senate and the White House? Is their future one featuring the democratic socialism of “Independent” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Does the “moderate” progressivism of former Vice President Joe Biden survive? Will Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren figure out a way to push her brand of populism and heavy-handed government into the forefront?
It’s been quite fascinating (and horrific) watching the transformation of both major parties over the last 25 years. Neither party believes in individual liberty (despite promises of Republicans), nor do they hold fast to smaller, weaker government. Congress’ inability to do its job, whether by desire or design, only encourages the executive and its bureaucrats to gobble more and more policy decision making. Polarization reigns supreme along with voter discontent.
“The system is dysfunctional but not broke,” Reason Editor-at-Large Nick Gillespie told me weeks ago when asked if the two-party system is irreparable. “By that, I mean the Democrats and Republicans continue to act more and more alike despite rhetorical and ideological disagreements (the size, scope, and spending of government continues to increase geometrically and that will not change regardless of which party wins the White House and Congress in a month). More important, even though record or near-level record of Americans refuse to identify as Democrat or Republican, the two parties have an absolute lock on elections and offices.”
Some of that is by design since the major parties are the ones who write ballot-access rules. Why Democrats and Republicans automatically get on the ballot while Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and other minor parties struggle for ballot signatures is laughably frustrating. The game is rigged and not likely to change unless certain conditions change.
“It would take a lot of money, sustained commitment and public appetite to break through,” POLITICO contributing editor Bill Scher wrote to me after being asked about the current American political climate. “[T]he people currently dissatisfied with their two major party choices are not an ideologically uniform bunch, so they can’t easily band together. The failure of Ross Perot’s Reform Party is a classic example. He was enough of a cult of personality, with enough financial resources, to attract a disparate coalition and make a dent in the 1992 election. But he couldn’t hold that coalition together.”
“The way it tends to work is that there are two major parties whose ideology may change over time,” The Libertarian Gillespie said. “Occasionally one of the parties will be replaced (e.g. the Whigs), but there are always only two parties vying for 90 percent or more of votes. I’m excited by the prospect of one of the major parties changing what it stands for, but I don’t think there will more parties in the hunt.”
History is on Gillespie’s side. Federalists and Anti-Federalists dominated the American political landscape after the Revolution but were replaced by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Democratic-Republicans in the early 1800s. The DRs died with John Quincy Adams with Andrew Jackson’s Democrat and Henry Clay’s Whig parties rising from the wreckage. The Whigs collapsed before the Civil War and were replaced with the current Republican Party with Abraham Lincoln, although he was elected in 1864 as a National Unionist. The NU returned to the GOP after Andrew Johnson’s tenure in office.
Scher, a liberal, suggests Republicans and Democrats’ primary problem involves the so-called “big tent” solution.
“[I]t’s not ludicrous to think that at some point, some factions [of both parties] will want to get out,” he theorized. “As Republicans are the ones about to get a beating, perhaps certain factions will conclude the Republican Party is no longer worth saving and try to put it out of its misery (these are, in theory, folks who will have access to money). On the flip side, Democrats are about to be in a position to govern, and governing is messy. The moderates will go in with the upper hand, but if they can’t deliver (as they will need a small degree of Republican cooperation), the socialist-populists will get very restless. If the far left can’t get their way, they may try to take a walk.”
There’s precedent in Scher’s theory although the major parties still end up the eventual winner. Theodore Roosevelt left the Republicans for The Progressive Party in 1912 but returned to the fold by 1918. George Wallace broke away from the Democrats in 1964 to form his own American Independent Party. That party eventually fell apart and Wallace returned to the Democratic Party.
It’s possible Americans witnessed two new parties emerge when Republicans and Democrats flipped ideologies by the late 1970s. The GOP claimed adherence to a smaller, weaker government under Reagan while Democrats promoted larger government. Republicans returned to their Big Government roots (a cynic would suggest they never abandoned them) in the 2000s with rising social and neoconservatism. Voters temporarily revolted.
“In the mid-2010s, it seemed possible, even likely that the GOP would move in a libertarian direction, de-emphasizing culture war issues and pushing fiscal responsibility and lower spending on everything, including and especially defense (with entitlement reform starting to come into focus),” Gillespie said pointing towards Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s popularity and the Tea Party. “That didn’t pan out, partly because Paul couldn’t decisively break with social cons and because Trump came along and pushed things in a nationalist-populist direction.”
Which returns us to the 2020 race and whatever direction both parties take in the postmortem.
“The GOP has totally made peace with being a party of big spenders as long as it pays off their interest sections,” Gillespie summarized. “The Democrats looked like they might lurch far left under Sanders/Warren. Biden is considered centrist/moderate despite calling for a massive amount of new spending on top of the swollen budgets of the Trump years (Joe wants $11 trillion in new spending over the next decade!). There’s still a chance that the Dems might veer super-progressive if he wins and takes the Senate but it’s even more likely if he loses and they fail to take the Senate.”
Gillespie, echoing comments from Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash in 2016/2017, thinks a large faction of people incensed about supreme executive power on both sides eventually emerges may the parties completely re-align. It’s possible, however, the current state of American politics tends to suggest otherwise. For now.
This does not mean smaller, weaker government advocates should end their quests. People want to be free and left alone by the government, evidenced by certain protests against police brutality, coronavirus lockdowns, gay marriage bans, and gun control restrictions. Free trade, justice reform, fewer wars (why are we involved in Yemen?), increased immigration, reduced government spending and regulation, and an end to government subsidies are all worthy goals and need to be advocated. Congress needs to do its job, follow the Constitution, and stop the centralization of power within leadership. Courts shouldn’t be politicized. The executive needs weakening.
Two questions remain. Will the parties decide to truly ideologically diverge, not in rhetoric but action? If not, will one finally die and be replaced with something new?