A Further Reply to Jonah Goldberg on Reaganite Third Parties

POLITICS & POLICY
President Ronald Reagan delivers his address to the nation on Space Shuttle Challenger, January 28, 1986. (Ronald Reagan Library/National Archives)

I wrote on Tuesday a response to Jonah Goldberg’s call for a third party to revive Reagan/Buckley classically liberal conservatism against the illiberal aspects of Trumpism within the Republican Party. Charlie and Michael responded as well. Now, Jonah has written a reply over at The Dispatch. I will quote his reply to me:

Dan’s proposed solution is to duke it out in the primaries. I loathe the primary system, but that’s an argument for another day. The salient point here is: That’s not working. I understand why Republicans who care solely about winning have no particular interest in monkey-wrenching the party. But for conservatives who care more about conservatism’s survival, this strikes me as, at minimum, a second-order concern. Parties’ demand loyalty when they reciprocate it. If the GOP isn’t going to fight for its integrity, I see no reason why conservatives should rush in to prop it up. My point isn’t that conservatives should abandon the GOP, it’s that they should practice politics seriously. Right now, there are no mechanisms for doing that within the party/primary system. Imposing those from without may be the wrong way to do it, but, again, I’d like to hear the right way to do it.

First, I think Jonah understates the workability of primary fights. I made this point about Trumpism in GOP primaries earlier this year:

Trumpist candidates other than Trump have won some races, but they have lost a great many of their high-profile tests of strength so far. They were unable to oust McCain, Rubio, or Ryan in 2016. Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio failed to take down Martha McSally in 2018. Steve King lost his seat in a primary. Kris Kobach lost the Senate primary in Kansas in 2020. Chris McDaniel lost the Senate primary in Mississippi in 2018. Corey Stewart lost the gubernatorial primary in Virginia in 2017. When they did advance to statewide races, Kobach, Moore, and Stewart all got destroyed. That suggests that the future of statewide Republican candidates has yet to be claimed for most of the toxic varieties of Trumpism.

That said, my argument is not that my proposal will work, but that Jonah’s won’t. In particular, if a strategy of waging these fights in the primaries is unsuccessful, it necessarily follows that an organized movement to abandon Trumpist candidates in the general election will also fail to persuade primary voters. At the end of the day, the problem with this or that election may be the candidates, the party establishment, the donors, the mainstream and ideological media, or simply the circumstances; but if the direction of the party persists over time and is validated repeatedly in party primaries, then the problem is with the voters. Jonah, in fact, acknowledges that dynamic when discussing why Bill Kristol’s approach to fusion with the Democrats won’t work: Kristol’s approach to Democratic Party elites cannot overcome the messages that Democratic politicians get from Democratic voters:

The “work with the Democrats to save democracy” argument rests on a slew of faulty premises, starting with the idea that a handful of scribblers like me or Mona [Charen] can have much effect on moving large numbers of voters in the first place.

None of this is to say that voters always get what they want from their parties, but if party primary voters won’t buy what you’re selling, the party will listen to the voters and not to you even if you play spoiler in the general election. And I think Michael in particular is right about the psychology of political coalitions: While you can occasionally extort concessions from your coalition partners by threatening to walk out or withhold your vote, in the long run, if you keep playing that gambit, eventually people will tell you “good riddance.” Donald Trump’s own recurrent use of this tactic is, I suspect, already wearing thin the patience of a lot of Republican voters.

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While I share some of Jonah’s desire for stronger political parties, the primary system’s flaws are democracy’s own flaws. We talk a lot about the value of majority rule in a democracy, and we talk a lot about political principle, but you can never have a pure commitment to both, because majorities do not have principles; or at any rate, any principle shared by a majority is unlikely to be contested. The best we can do is a balancing act: join with those who most share our principles, offer principled leadership within the constraints of what the people want, and know where you will draw the lines. I often come back to Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan as my role models in dealing with this balance, because working toward it was the long struggle of both men’s careers. It helped that they came from outside the political elites, and they charted their own courses of conversion over time, so they appreciated that principles must be persuasive to the ordinary voter. Lincoln flirted with the Jacksonian Democrats in his early youth, was a Whig partisan in his his young adulthood and growth into political maturity, and a vigorously anti-slavery Republican only in his mid forties. Reagan flirted with socialists when he first came to Hollywood, grew into an anti-Communist Democrat as he became politically engaged, and became a full-spectrum conservative Republican only in his fifties. The way out of illiberalism within the Republican Party will have to come from listening to the party’s own voters, persuading them anew of the merits of the liberal order, and giving them a fair share of what they want rather than holding them hostage.

As to Jonah’s broader concern about the relative priority of cleaning up our own side versus fighting the other side: I confess that I do continue to see illiberalism within the Republican Party as a survivable event and a reversible process; illiberalism within the Democratic Party has already won, and empowering it tends to produce permanent harm. Ask yourself how many liberal and progressive victories in the courts, in the culture, or in the budget are ever reversed. As I wrote last year:

Trump, after all, is an essentially weak and personally indolent president, unfamiliar with how the levers of power work. At every turn, when he does good things or bad things, he finds himself thwarted by a solid wall of opposition from the judiciary, the legal profession, the federal civil service, the mainstream media, the universities, and a constellation of other powerful American institutions. Our nation has a strong immune system against threats of the sort Trump presents. It has a very weak immune system against threats of the sort [Kamala] Harris presents. Virtually every abuse of power she champions would have all of those institutions lining up to support her.

Illiberal Republicans may not always be as disorganized, lazy, and inept as Trump, but we are a very long way from them having the sorts of institutional power that the illiberal Left has. We see, even now, how the Democrats’ tiny congressional majorities, owing their existence in good part to voters personally repelled by one man, are trying to make permanent changes to the nation’s governance and budget, changes designed to be impossible to undo. So, yes, I’m willing to risk the long slog within the Republican Party over the greater risk of empowering Democrats to further narrow the list of things that future electorates will ever be permitted to decide.

Primary fights are, I admit, an uneven and imprecise tool for influencing the direction of the party; some of them will always fail, and past movements within each party have often taken many years to really make an impact. But much as with arguments about reducing Trump’s personal role within the party, we work with the least-bad tools at our disposal.

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