There has been a great deal of discussion of late of the desire, on the part of many Republicans and conservatives frustrated by the nomination of Donald Trump, to form a new party. The temptation is understandable: the Republican brand has become an albatross for many of its members in the wake of a decade and a half of controversy, crises, and outright scandals. Republicanism has lost the adult-in-the-room brand it had prior to Iraq, Katrina, and the financial crisis, and a desire to slough off the negative drag of party members who have been known for their stupidity or villainy is logical.
That said, the possibility of a “Grand New Party” is pretty far-fetched, simply because there are so many elected Republicans who would have to leave their party for any newly formed one. For all of the problems that have dragged Republican identification down to 27% of the country (45% identify as Independent), the party has had enormous success at winning everything but the presidency: Republicans control both houses of legislatures in 30 states and at least one in eight more; they have the largest majority in the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover; and they have reduced the number of Democratic governors in the country to 18.
Even if Donald Trump goes down to a historic defeat in November, the massive shift that would need to happen for all of these officials to abandon the Republican Party, including abandoning access to its organization, fundraising operation, and databases, is extremely unlikely. A new party that sought to supplant the GOP would need to do so fully, or risk leaving the country with two weakened parties of the right without the capacity to balance against a unified party of the left.
The case for a new Republican Party is, therefore, unconvincing. There is a strong case to be made for the formation of a new third party, however – one that is markedly different from the existing third parties and looks to a historical model of how a successful third party functions in the American system.
Start with this question: what viewpoint is held by an enormous number of Americans, roughly half the country, but in the context of the 2016 election is opposed or barely tolerated by all of the candidates on a majority of ballots?
The answer is obvious. There are effectively no pro-life candidates for the presidency in 2016. Not Hillary Clinton, not Gary Johnson, not Jill Stein, and no, not Donald Trump.
This is a telling moment in the history of the pro-life cause, which has despite long odds retained a strong position in the American political fray in the 43 years since Roe v. Wade. For decades, the pro-life litmus test has been something Republican politicians with national aspirations had to pass, and pass convincingly. Failure to do so helped doom the presidential hopes of Rudy Giuliani and other candidates deemed too weak on the issue, and as recently as 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney had to repeatedly beat back opposition borne from his earlier support for abortion.
The Trump nomination changes that. His judicial nominations may be acceptable to pro-lifers, but the only presidential candidate in American history on record as urging his past girlfriend to abort his unborn daughter is most certainly not pro-life. His personal evolution on the issue is nonexistent – he has not even bothered to pander to those who oppose abortion on demand by pretending to oppose taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood. Coupled with his desire to weaken the GOP platform on the issue and the clear weakness of national Republicans on issues of importance to abortion opponents in recent years, Trump’s nomination is a clear indication that Republican politicians no longer need to even pretend that the pro-life cause is a priority in their agenda.
In the American political experience, where the two party system is dominant, third parties traditionally fall into one of three categories. One type of party functions as semi-permanent vehicles for a coherent ideological agenda, such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Socialist Party, or the Constitution Party. Another type functions as the temporary vehicle for an outsider candidacy, such as the Reform Party did for Ross Perot or the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party for Teddy Roosevelt. And another functions as a single issue party that prioritizes a particular issue above all else, seeking to drive home their issue and make it part of the agenda the other parties cannot ignore.
This final version of a third party is arguably the most historically successful of any of the varieties. Abolitionist third parties like the Free Soil Party and the Liberty Party elected multiple Senators and Congressmen who fought against slavery in the years before the Republican Party’s formation, and ultimately saw a founding member become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Prohibition Party elected a governor and helped compel the passage of the 18th Amendment, and the National Women’s Party helped push through women’s suffrage. And we have the Populist Party, which elected 11 governors, 45 members of Congress, and carried five states in the presidential contest of 1892, to thank for the national income tax.
The pro-life movement today has been successful by many measures at the state level, but its Washington, DC-based incarnations have been too willing at times to give the Republican Party a pass. Pro-life Americans are already completely ignored by the Democratic Party, thanks to the great sort that has pushed them out of the coalition. Now they are being ignored by the Republicans as well.
This creates an opening for a third party that would follow in a different tradition from Libertarians or Greens. Instead, it would hold to the old-fashioned approach to third party efforts: an agenda that is unified around a single issue, and otherwise open to a wide degree of differentiation among candidates on every unrelated issue.
The agenda of a Party of Life is easy to draw up: it is opposed to the destruction of innocent life, and seeks to make the practice illegal. Agenda items could include the appointment of pro-life judges; ending of state taxpayer funding of abortions via Medicaid; the institution of the Reagan Rule regarding federal taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood and other organizations; passage of 20 week bans on abortion at the state level; removing the employer funding requirement of Obamacare for IUDs; requiring additional oversight of abortion clinics; and ultimately, the passage of a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution.
A Party of Life would function in much the same way as the Conservative Party in New York state. In states where Republicans or Democrats nominated a reliably pro-life candidate, the Party of Life would decide whether to formally endorse the candidate, and in the eight states where multiple party designations are allowed on the ballot, could be listed as such. In cases where no pro-life candidate was nominated by either party, the Party of Life could run a third party candidate to force the issue into the conversation. These candidates may have views on fiscal, domestic, and foreign policy that may be widely different – the Party of Life could endorse a candidate with the views of Ron Paul and a candidate with the views of Pope Francis – but they would be unified in an opposition to abortion on demand.
The Party of Life would not need to run candidates everywhere. In a state like Pennsylvania, the Party could examine his record and endorse Pat Toomey’s re-election – in a state like Illinois, Mark Kirk’s 100% NARAL rating would absolutely earn him an opponent. The Party could also potentially perform well as a protest vote in blue states where Democrats are likely to win, particularly among religious voters for whom the issue is important even if they share the environmental and economic policies of the Democrats.
In the context of 2016, many pro-life donors are sitting on the sidelines or planning to focus their efforts on downticket races. A group of donors for whom this issue is a priority ought to seriously consider investing their funds in the creation of a Party of Life, which could piggyback on existing pro-life groups and organizations to find small donors and organize state chairs and ballot access efforts across the country in the coming years.
The point of transforming this cause into a single issue party would be to reassert the importance of the pro-life agenda after decades of it being a low priority for politicians. It would also be an attempt to undo the great sort that has led pro-lifers into a monopartisan alliance with Republicans, an alliance that has produced little good in the past three decades. And it would fill a market need for the views of half of the country on an issue of deep moral importance to consistently have a candidate to express their views on a state, federal, and presidential stage.
A Party of Life would have one more attribute that both major parties lack today: it would stand for something, a clear unifying agenda around a single idea. A vote for the Party of Life would have the virtue of being more than just a protest vote that expresses dissatisfaction with both major parties. It would be a protest vote on a specific issue, which would deliver a specific message – a message that despite how often they have been ignored, pandered to, lied to, and disrespected, many Americans still believe that every child is precious, and has from its conception a right to life that should be protected and honored by our law.