There is a blame game afoot about whose fault Donald Trump is. Some blame Trump on the inner demons of the Right—Robert Kagan calls him the Republican Party’s Frankenstein monster. Republicans voted for him, and conservative media enabled him, the natural result of years of obstructionism, conspiracy theories, and ideological fervor.
Others blame the Left for provoking a backlash against their extremist agenda—against political correctness, identity politics, softness on terrorism, and more (in December I weighed in to explain “How the Left Created Donald Trump”).
Of course, both sides are right, which is a perfect illustration of why it is time for a new political movement. It is time to resurrect the Federalist Party.
R.I.P., GOP: 1854 – 2016
The Republican brand will be irreparably tarnished by this year’s election if the party nominates Trump. When the prohibitive frontrunner for the party’s nomination actually hesitated before denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and re-tweeted Benito Mussolini on the same day, that party has lost all moral credibility. It can no longer expect to be trusted by voters, which means it can no longer expect to win elections.
This is a welcome opportunity. The problems of the Republican Party have been piling up for years. Much like the Whigs in the 1840s, the party was a ramshackle hodge-podge coalition, not a coherent movement, and like the Whigs it failed to articulate and organize itself around a clear policy stance on the central political issues of the day.
Each piece of the old Republican Party had its own shortcomings. Social conservatives overestimated their strength, underestimated how much the country had changed since 1952, and sometimes forgot that democracy means majority rule, even when the majority is socially liberal. Libertarians and Tea Partiers lived in their utopian fantasy that continues to be impressive on paper and is still nowhere remotely plausible as actual public policy.
The party obsessed about taxes and the budget because it was the least common denominator, the one thing they could all agree on and the most visible sign of the implacable growth of the state. In truth, fiscal policy is more a symptom than a cause, and even if Republicans ever succeeded in shrinking spending (they never did), it would have been easily reversed in the next budget cycle.
The party’s foreign policy vision foundered on the shoals of Iraq. It is remarkable how still, a decade after the surge and a half-decade after the withdrawal, the party has yet to come to terms with the legacy of Iraq. Some, like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have responded by foreswearing democracy, “intervention,” and America’s unique role in the world altogether, throwing the baby out with the bathwater; others, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, embraced the internationalist vision without acknowledging what went wrong or giving any signs they’d learned important lessons from America’s recent failures.
Finally, the party simply got it wrong on some policy issues. I voted for Republicans because I cannot in good conscience support the progressive worldview embodied by the Democratic Party—but I always had to live with the discomfort of knowing that Democrats did a much better job emphasizing the importance of environmental conservation and alleviating poverty. They never had good ideas about how to protect the environment or solve poverty because Democrats have a blind faith in the power of bureaucracy, but at least they gave the issues the attention they deserved.
Critics are fond of accusing wonks like me of being RINOs for saying such things. Turns out they were right. The Republican Party has settled its mind on these issues, and it is wrong—just one more nail in its coffin.
Third Parties Do Succeed
There is a myth that third parties never succeed in American politics. The long record of failed candidates—Ross Perot in 1992, John Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, Strom Thurmond in 1948, Robert La Follette in 1924, Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, James Weaver in 1892, John Bell and John Breckinridge in 1860—apparently proves that the Republicans and Democrats have an invincible duopoly over the U.S. government.
The myth is false, but it appears true because when third parties succeed, they do so either like demon possession, by taking over one of the two political parties from within, or like a gorilla, by challenging and killing the alpha to take its place. Either way, there are still only two parties.
The progressives tried and failed to act the gorilla in 1912 and 1924 but found success as the possessing spirit of the Democratic Party, through which they governed the nation under every Democratic president from Woodrow Wilson through Barack Obama.
The most dramatic example in American history of third-party-as-gorilla was, of course, the Republican Party itself. The Republican Party was the original “third party.” It started life as a tertiary contestant in what had been, up to that point, the primary political conflict of the day. That conflict was between the Democratic Party, born in 1832 as the political arm of President Andrew Jackson’s White House, and its opponents, led by senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and Rep. John Quincy Adams. Clay, Webster, and Adams cobbled together a movement from fragments of the old Democrat-Republicans, anti-masonic alarmists, evangelicals zealous for moral reform, and libertarians alarmed at what they saw as Jackson’s autocratic tendencies. The Whig Party was born.
The Whigs failed because they never articulated a coherent policy towards the central political issue of the day: slavery and its expansion. The Democratic Party had no such weakness: it was frankly the party of white imperialism. Democrats marched towards the conquest and colonization of the American West at the expense of the Indians to make room for their growing slave empire.
They provoked and won a war with Mexico and annexed two-thirds of that nation’s territory for the same reason—but balked at annexing “all Mexico” as some hawks in Congress advocated because they disliked the idea of granting citizenship to millions of non-white Mexicans and Indians in the heartland of southern Mexico.
In the face of the Democrats’ growing racist empire, the Whigs threw up a few speed bumps and offered compromises, but never coalesced around a single coherent policy—much less concerted opposition to slavery—in large part because of their own compromises with the institution. They talked at length about other issues, such as internal improvement, tariffs, and trade. The Whigs barely held together to limit the spread of slavery with the Compromise of 1850, but foundered completely on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
The Republican Party was founded that year from the broken fragments of northern Whigs and Free Soil Democrats. It was immediately more coherent, energetic, and viable because it had a clear, straightforward, and morally defensible position on the central issue of the day. Just two years later, the Whigs had vanished and the Republicans had replaced them as the only viable national political alternative to the Democrats’ empire of white nationalism.
Towards the Rebirth of the Federalist Party
A new political movement might succeed as either the animating spirit of a completely reformed overhauled Republican Party, or as the gorilla that finally puts the old elephant out of its misery. Either way, it must start with a common understanding of the central political challenge of this generation. The topic deserves an entire book, but here is the first draft of my answer: The central political issue of our generation is the assault on human dignity and self-government by the “progressive” left and the Trumpist right.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the progressive left undermines human dignity because it is premised on a false reading of human nature. Human beings, in their view, are infinitely malleable, essentially good, and best devoted to individual autonomy, self-fulfillment, and self-expression. This is simply wrong as a philosophy, damaging as a lived ethic, and unsustainable as public policy.
The progressive left undermines the culture of self-government through the relentless growth of government, particularly the federal government and the executive branch. Progressives grow government because it serves as the primary instrument for the coercive propagation of their ideology and the reengineering of American society according to their utopian blueprint. Progressives’ willingness to use legal force to reengineer American culture endangers basic principles of self-government, civil liberties, and American democracy.
The Trumpist, quasi-fascist right undermines self-government and human dignity from the opposite direction. It assaults human dignity through racism, xenophobia, and its demonization of political opponents and minorities. It undermines self-government through its open adulation of authoritarianism, contempt for checks and balances, and admiration for executive “strength.”
There is a silver lining, as Rachel Lu helpfully points out. The increasingly evident dangers of the two extremist movements may teach Americans to value their heritage of limited government, checks and balances, pluralism, and decentralized power. These values will have to be central to the new political movement that must arise.
That is why the new movement should take the name of The Federalists. The Democrats and Republicans have both taken as their name political principles important to the American system of government—and we all believe in both of them. But there is another principle that was equally vital at the founding and has been gradually discarded over the past century: federalism.
A federal system is one in which power is divided between levels of government. This was an important part of the American experiment because the Founders intended the checks and balances to operate not only among the branches of government, but between the levels of government, as well. The states were to check the federal government and vice versa. In the multitude of centers of power, there was freedom.
This was so important that the “Federalists” became the name for America’s first organized political movement and the republic’s most prominent architects. The Federalist Party was the party of George Washington, and the first party secretary was Alexander Hamilton.
The great danger today is that the central government in Washington DC, has grown all-powerful. The progressives want to seize federal power and use it to remake America as a progressive utopia. The Trumpists want to seize federal power and remake America great again, which seems to mean to remake the cultural consensus of white, twentieth century, middle America.
What if, instead, we stopped looking to the federal government to engineer our national culture? Our nation is big, broad, and wonderfully diverse. Why in the world should we all have a single education policy? Why not let lower levels of government make their own social policy?
The virtue of this approach is that it lets cultural pluralism flourish within the framework of an overarching political unity. Put another way, it lets people get on with their lives with less interference from a far-away central capital but more responsiveness from local authority: it is more democratic and more self-governed than either of the alternatives. At the same time, by not trying to force a model of national culture—either progressive or Trumpist—on anyone, it is also more respectful of human dignity.