Passions, Principles, and Parties
It’s rare in American history for a political party with national reach to splinter and a new party to emerge from the wreckage. But we may be witnessing one of those rare moments.
Most of the Founders had deep misgivings about political parties. George Washington famously warned that parties would enable “ambitious and unprincipled men…to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
James Madison worried about the “mischiefs of faction.” He defined that word “faction” as any group of citizens “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” (That sounds a lot like what we would call a political party.) He conceded, however, that the “causes of faction are…sown in the nature of man.”
In that light, it’s no surprise that political parties emerged early in the life of the American Republic. Madison himself founded one such party. The emergence of parties, from this side of history, seems inevitable given the divergent views of what came to be known as the Federalists on one side and the Democratic-Republicans on the other: One faction wanted a strong union, with a strong central government and a strong constitution that the government could wield to act on behalf of a growing nation. The other faction wanted power to reside in the states, sought to limit the power of the central government, and demanded a Bill of Rights to protect the individual and the states from the central government.
While those two parties emerged almost organically, other national parties would not find it so easy to take root. The way our Constitution defers most of the election process to the states, the predetermined timing of elections, a system of governance designed to discourage momentary passions from triggering too-rapid political change—these are some of the factors that make it difficult for new parties to take hold. What usually happens instead is that new political movements are subsumed under existing national parties.
Thus, the presidency has been traded back and forth between just two parties the past 164 years (the Democratic Party and Republican Party). The same held true in the early years of the Republic: From 1792 through 1839, the presidency was held by just two parties (the Federalist Party and variants of the Democratic-Republican Party, which was rebranded the Democratic Party). Put another way, for about 90 percent of our nation’s history, America’s chief executive has been from one of three parties. A similar picture emerges in the party makeup of Congress.
Some of the Founders’ worries about parties were well-founded. Parties have indeed been used by “ambitious and unprincipled men” from time to time. And they have spawned factions that are, at times, “adversed to the…aggregate interests of the community.” However, political parties have also played a constructive role in our system. A healthy two-party system, Americans have learned, helps promote stability and organization, often checks political overreach, serves as a watchdog over the majority-party, and allows for differing views to be represented. Madison himself noted that people naturally gravitate to parties (or factions) due to differing views of government, religion, industry and so on.
All of that is to say two things: Parties are important to our system. And their birth, division or death is no small matter.
A party divided is susceptible to splintering, and that’s where the Republican Party finds itself today.
The Republican Party’s massive primary field in the 2016 election cycle—numbering 18 candidates at one point—allowed the most anomalous candidate to separate himself from the pack, divide the party’s primary-season electorate, outmaneuver the party establishment, win the nomination and take control of the party.
President Donald Trump would leave a deep imprint on the party. This happens with most presidents and their parties. For example, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican Party became more activist and more progressive. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic Party became more diverse, more willing to intervene in the economy and less deferent to states. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican Party came to accept safety-net programs. Under President Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party returned to its free-market, individual-liberty roots. Under President Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party became more centrist and more practical. Under President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party returned to the statism Clinton sought to abandon.
In a similar way, the Republican Party under Trump became more populist and less wedded to certain core conservative positions. Trump supporters welcomed this change and argued that it was key to winning the presidency—and key to a number of policy successes. They point to a judiciary stocked with original-intent judges, a burdensome regulatory machine rolled back, a tougher approach to China, a stronger military with a smaller global footprint, a humming economy (at least until the government-ordered COVID shutdowns), and a nimble and successful vaccine-development effort.
However, Trump left lots of debris in his wake. Establishment Republicans and traditional conservatives point to his penchant for praising strongmen and criticizing allies; public statements that undermined NATO; episodes where he seemed to accept the words of foreign leaders over the counsel of American statesmen; a pandemic response that, aside from Operation Warp Speed, seemed adlibbed and somehow ended up disappointing defenders of individual liberty as well as advocates of public health. Then came the 2020 post-election chaos. Trump refused to accept the outcome of the election, even after every state legislature certified the vote and 86 judges denied his court challenges. He urged Georgia election officials “to find 11,780 votes.” He whipped up his supporters for a “wild”—and oxymoronic—post-election campaign rally on January 6. During the subsequent siege of Congress, he failed for two hours to call off his supporters, thus leaving exposed to violence Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and others in the presidential line of succession.
For establishment Republicans and traditional conservatives, January 6 was the breaking point. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan is now dealing with the consequences of what that day laid bare, which brings us back to the likely emergence of a new party.
“We are not starting new parties,” Trump promised last month. “We have the Republican Party. It is going to unite and be stronger than ever before.”
But several factors raise questions about that.
First, Trump is mercurial—reveling in chaos, dangling a promise here, reversing course there. In short, what he thinks today about a breakaway party could change tomorrow. As evidence, just days after vowing to unite the Republican Party, he sent cease-and-desist letters to party organs demanding they “stop using his name and likeness for fundraising and merchandise sales.”
Second, Gallup recently found that 63 percent of Republicans favor starting a third party (a record high); 70 percent of independents want a third option; and just 46 percent of Democrats want a third party, suggesting a relatively high level of satisfaction. In short, the Republican Party is anything but united.
That leads to a third thing we should keep in mind about a third party: Many establishment Republicans and traditional conservatives believe the Trump-led Republican Party is, in effect, already a new party (more specifics on that below). As a result, 120 “former elected Republicans,” “officials” and “ambassadors” who served under President Donald Trump, President George W. Bush, President George H.W. Bush and President Ronald Reagan, according to a Reuters report, are holding “talks to form a center-right breakaway party.” They envision a party built on “truth, reason and founding ideals,” according to one participant.
One of those former GOP officials is James Glassman. In a recent interview, he described how a new party could be rapidly launched, and he explained why the Republican Party needs not just to be renamed, but reimagined. So advanced are these party-building talks that the breakaway group is floating possible names for their new party, including “Integrity Party,” “Center Right Party” and “Center Right Republicans.” Their goal is a party committed to “principled conservatism.”
That word “principled” is an important one. Great and enduring political parties, as Tocqueville observed, “are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences…to ideas and not to men.”
The “principled conservatives” argue that Trump’s Republican Party abandoned core conservative principles, while Trump supporters argue they are defending a different set of principles. Both things can be true, which helps explain why these groups—these factions—are parting ways.
Indeed, at the very same time “principled conservatives” are exploring whether to launch a new party, Trump’s supporters are laying the groundwork for a new party of their own. They, too, have floated possible names, including “Patriot Party.” This Trump-centered party already features all the ingredients third parties usually lack.
First, this nascent Patriot Party isn’t led by some libertarian PhD or single-issue oddity. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is a household name, a former president and a proven campaigner who has displayed a mastery at connecting with voters.
Second, 74 million people voted for Trump. To be sure, he lost some percentage of those voters on January 6. But just as certain, tens of millions continue to support him.
Third, Trump has political machinery in every state. He has a grassroots base. And like other parties, his backers are building a constellation of organizations—think tanks, foundations, PACs, issue-advocacy groups—to provide the financial and intellectual infrastructure to solidify that base.
Of course, there are asterisks: Trump insists he’s not interested in a third party—an asterisk which has its own asterisk, as discussed earlier. He’s surrounded by a legal minefield. His negatives are high. The 74 million votes he garnered in 2020 represent his high-water mark. He will never have, as a splinter-party candidate, the reach he had as a sitting president.
Consider TR’s splinter-party presidential bid in 1912. Although TR’s popular vote total, combined with that of Republican William Taft, was larger than Woodrow Wilson’s tally, Wilson crushed both in the Electoral College. If a popular, unifying former president like TR was unable to build a winning party, the possibility of an unpopular, polarizing former president doing so seems beyond remote.
But that’s not going to stop Trump’s supporters from trying. They have the means and intent to field candidates in primaries and general elections. Indeed, Trump seems eager to play the role of spoiler-kingmaker, having recently endorsed candidates who are mounting primary challenges inside the Republican Party.
Turning back to that quote from Tocqueville, the “principled conservatives” believe the party they once called home is no longer centered around principles and ideas, but rather a man.
Consider the decision by party leaders to forgo crafting a platform in 2020, declaring instead that they would “continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.”
The party never before traveled down such a path, not even when it was led by giants. Abraham Lincoln saved the Union, freed 4 million people from slavery and extirpated America’s original sin. Yet the Republican Party still adopted a platform at the end of his first term, and he supported it. Dwight Eisenhower liberated Europe, served as the first commander of NATO, ended the Korean War and opened a new era of prosperity. Yet the Republican Party still adopted a platform at the end of his first term, and he supported it. Ronald Reagan revived America’s economy and self-confidence, unleashed a freedom revolution that swept the globe, called the Evil Empire by name, set about the task of tearing it down, and won the Cold War. Yet the Republican Party still adopted a platform at the end of his first term, and he supported it.
For “principled conservatives,” the juxtaposition of that history with the 2020 platform decision serves as proof that the GOP has ignored Tocqueville’s warning about parties built around men rather than ideas and principles.
Trump’s supporters would counter that they are promoting new ideas, updating principles and changing political tactics for a new era: a populist style to challenge the status quo and defend America’s “forgotten men and women”; a nationalist philosophy aimed at protecting America’s sovereignty, borders and workers; an America-first, localist politics that pushes back against Washington centralism and globalism. In Trump’s own words, the guiding principles of the movement he began enfold fair trade, low taxes, deregulation, “strong borders, “protection for the Second Amendment,” “a strong military,” “strong families,” “safe communities,” “patriotic education” to promote “the belief that this is an exceptional nation,” “standing up to China,” and “bringing back our factories and supply chains.”
Applaud or reject them, those ideas do form the foundation of a political philosophy. And they obviously resonate with a large segment of the country. Not only did Trump win 74 million votes; recent polling reveals that 48 percent of Republicans want Trump to remain leader of their party.
“These are the convictions that define our movement,” Trump declared in February, “and must define the Republican Party in the years ahead.”
While “principled conservatives” share some of those convictions—a quick canvass of past Republican platforms reveals longstanding support for deregulation, lower taxes, individual liberty, property rights and a strong military—“principled conservatives” don’t want their party to be defined by Trump’s populist style, nationalist-autarkic philosophy or America-first localism. In short, the differences between these two groups are irreconcilable.
One, Two, Three
History provides a strong counterpoint to the argument that a new national party is inevitable. After all, both the Republican Party and Democratic Party have endured times of convulsion, cratering, even humiliation and yet survived—the Democrats after the Civil War and during the chaos of the late 1960s, the Republicans during the Great Depression and after Watergate.
But this moment in history seems different. Powerful forces have been set in motion. The “principled conservatives” oppose Trump and want a party built around a certain set of ideas. Trump’s backers want a party built around another set of ideas—and indeed around him. Both groups—or factions, to borrow Madison’s word—have national reach and deep pockets. And neither group wants to cohabitate with the other inside what used to be known as the “big tent.”
In short, we have all the ingredients here for a new national party—or two. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how it all unfolds.