The Third Party Moment

Two spectacular book-signing tours by prominent conservative figures are currently in progress: Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. They share many of the same ideas about the decay of the American system, and how to reverse it, but one striking difference is their approach to the Republican Party. Palin wants to revive the party, while Beck has already taken a seat on its death panel. In Florida on Sunday, he gave a speech calling for an end to the two-party system, and has often spoken of the futility of counting on the Republican Party for any meaningful assistance in rescuing America from socialism.

The confusion and weariness of the Republicans doesn’t automatically mean the third-party moment has arrived. It’s possible to be fed up with the GOP, but still opposed to investing serious energy in the formation of an alternative party. I don’t disagree with most of Beck’s criticisms of the Republicans, but I favor Palin’s approach to reforming them, instead of abandoning them. For me, the third-party moment will be one of absolute despair, aimed more at salvaging the remains of a broken country than averting disaster. It will be more about resurrection than reformation.

The current environment is one of peril, not despair. The Republicans have improved their game considerably since the dark days of 2006, partially due to the dead wood cleaned out in a couple of bad election cycles. They’ve maintained a respectable amount of discipline in the House and Senate votes against the Democratic health-care takeover. People like John Boehner and Jim DeMint have displayed intelligence, leadership, and parliamentary skill. When even Lindsay Graham can tap into the ring and put Obama’s Attorney General on the mat with the Soft On Terrorism Suplex, it’s tough to declare the party completely devoid of energy and courage.

The most ardent critics of the GOP say that its worst elements outweigh its best – the RINOs and disguised Democrats in the lower decks will always sink the ship, no matter who takes the helm. When the Republicans give in to their worst instincts, a little tough love is called for, as we saw in the recent New York District 23 race. Conservative insurgent Doug Hoffman didn’t lose because he leaned too far to the right. He lost largely because of backstabbing from masked Democrat Deedee Scozzafava, a lack of campaign funding and organization, and some perceived weakness on local issues… all things a faithful Republican Party could have helped him with, if they weren’t busy weaving a million dollars of Scozzafava campaign money into a noose for themselves.

Hoffman wasn’t trying to destroy the GOP. He wanted to run as its candidate, and he lose because the party failed him. If Hoffman runs again, with the money and political assistance of the Republican Party behind him in 2010, he’ll win. If the party cruises ACORN ballot-stuffing parties, looking for another union organizer’s wife to put on the ticket, they’ll lose. We’ll soon find out if they learned their lesson.

Talk of building a new party to escape the RINOs is akin to talk about secession to escape from disastrous liberal policies: how do you keep the same people from migrating into your new party or nation-state, and starting the whole miserable process again? How does a third party of conservative purity defeat both the Democrats, and the enraged rump of an embittered Republican Party bent on revenge? If you think the media gives disproportionate attention to liberal Republicans now, just wait until it can use them as clubs to beat the Third Party… a mission those liberal Republicans will gladly volunteer for. As the NY-23 race showed, it’s better to defeat the Republican left from within the party, rather than give the Democrats ringside seats at a Conservatives vs. Republicans smackdown.

I’ve always wondered how a conservative movement that essentially concedes defeat against liberal Republicans, and withdraws from the party, could expect to defeat the much larger and more powerful Democrat Party. If we can’t handle Olympia Snowe swooning before “the call of history,” I don’t like our chances against the guy on the other end of the line.

Glenn Beck’s call for dissolving the two-party system is unlikely to make any headway, because one of those two parties has no intention of dissolving. The Democrat coalition has its fault lines and bitter rivalries, but they are united in defending the growth of the State. The members of that coalition are willing to set aside their differences to support increasing the size of government as an inherently desirable goal, then fight among themselves for influence within the immense government they have created. The challenge for conservatives is to reach the independents and moderates who orbit the fringe of the Democrat coalition, and show them why their faith in Big Government is misplaced. At the same time, they must provide a coherent philosophy that can unite those who already mistrust Big Government. A Third Party wrapped up in a messy divorce from the GOP would not be in a stronger position to do either of those things.

A political party is a mixture of money, tradition, and political machinery. The two major American parties have been brewing for a long time, accumulating assets that would not be easily replaced or duplicated. The Republican Party, for all its flaws, is a valuable instrument for conservatism. Changing the attitude of the people who control the party will be a less formidable task than persuading the rest of the nation without it. Glenn Beck says that his goal is to reform government by changing the hearts and minds of the people who vote it into existence. If he can accomplish even a fraction of that goal, he won’t have to worry about creating an alternative to the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, middle-class voters are tired of being dismissed as mindlessly angry white people by sneering journalists. They want someone who understands their concerns to express them with eloquence and passion, giving them a voice that would never be willingly provided by a partisan media culture. That’s why they like Sarah Palin so much. Her remarkable journey took her completely outside a party apparatus that was already polishing its alibis and planning how to dispose of her remains, even as it demanded the impossible from her last year. More of the GOP establishment should try “going rogue,” and finding the party’s future in the vast crowds waiting to get Palin and Beck to sign their books. The Republican Party is America’s home team, in the contest to re-define its essence. By the time we could replace them with another team, we’d be playing an entirely different game.