For people who value principles (and basic human decency!) over politics, 2016 has been a disaster of a year.
At the start of the election season back in 2015, both parties seemed poised to listen to the principled consciences within their ranks.
On the left, Bernie Sanders – a relatively obscure independent-socialist Senator from relatively-rural Vermont – surged in popularity with his sincere, above-board, and above-reproach campaign that lashed out at what it deemed to be glaring contradictions in the promise of the American Dream, as well as glaring hypocrisy in the application of the rule of law between the haves and the have-nots. Even though I disagreed with much of his policy platform (as well as his soft-peddling of legitimate issues with Hillary Clinton), I appreciated his sincerity and agreed by-and-large with his indictment of the current status quo.
On the right, Rand Paul – scion of a Texas codger (who himself enjoyed a quixotic Presidential run in 2008 based on a synthesis of left- and right-of-center populist views inasmuch as he preached ending the wars alongside calling for a return to the gold standard) – had graced the cover of Time magazine more than once in the lead up to campaign season, preaching the message that limited-government, fiscal, constitutional conservatism was the answer not just to right-of-center concerns about government overreach but also to left-of-center concerns about lingering civil rights issues facing our country.
His rise came on the heels of a period of serious introspection within the GOP, still smarting from its defeat in 2012, wherein it reflected on how it could do better to communicate its principles to groups (such as African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQs, etc.) not typically associated with the GOP. Back in those heady days, one Donald J. Trump criticized the GOP for being too “mean-spirited.” There was even chatter about there being a “libertarian moment” both within the GOP and in the country more generally.
Once the cookie crumbled at the end of primary season, however, the two parties had decided to go with an inveterate, unrepentant, pathologically-dishonest plutocrat, and a dangerously ignorant and xenophobic circus clown, as their nominees. Outside of their respective hard-core supporters, these candidates are highly unpopular, with most people expressing disappointment at having to choose between these options.
I’ve written elsewhere why I think that that’s a bad way of thinking about it given we have more than two options, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. What I want to address at present is the fact that I think it’s time for a new political party.
The GOP has, since Reagan, slowly been losing support – even if it continued to garner votes – from its core constituents. Social conservatives were disquieted with the party’s failure to do anything to slow down or stop what they perceived to be moral decay within society (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Limited-government-minded types were upset that the party only seemed to offer a different flavor of big government compared to Democrats – favoring “tax expenditures” and defense spending instead of fiscal liberalism and social welfare spending – instead of being a truly limited-government and fiscally conservative party. And, following the Tea Party’s rise at the tail end of the Bush administration (which was essentially a collaboration between these two constituencies who were sick of “establishment” Republicans), the moderate Chamber-of-Commerce set distanced itself from the “wacko birds” representing the other two constituencies. And now, in 2016, a populist demagogue who represents none of these three wings that traditionally constituted the GOP somehow became the presidential nominee, simply by channeling the id of the base, 140 characters at a time.
This makes me think that the GOP finds itself where the Whigs found themselves in 1852. The sitting Whig president had proved deeply unpopular with many in the party (reminiscent of George W. Bush), with the issue of slavery creating serious dissension within the ranks, leading to a serious schism that presented an existential threat to the party. Northern Whigs by-and-large glommed onto the newly-founded Republican Party, while Southern Whigs joined the (aptly nicknamed) Know Nothing Party. The former maintained many of the principles of the party (originalist constitutionalism, pro-business policies, protection of minorities, etc.), while the latter degenerated into a populist, anti-immigrant, anti-“elite” movement that quickly fizzled (does that latter bit sound familiar?). As a result, the Whig party became all-but defunct in the 1856 election, and it had disappeared by 1860 when a country bumpkin and prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln – formerly a Whig – became the nominee of the Republican Party.
2016 feels like a similar moment for the Republican Party. And, as a pretty consistent libertarian, I’d love to see the Libertarian Party gain traction this election cycle, with Govs. Johnson and Weld at the helm, and fill this void. I think that Johnson and Weld are both decent and respectable individuals who check most (but definitely not all) of the boxes I have when considering voting for someone for president. Unfortunately, I recognize that the Libertarian Party itself just can’t shake its own obsession with seeming wacky and out-of-touch, and as such it does not appear to present a viable option for attracting consistent interest and support moving forward (barring a radical change in the Party’s disposition this election cycle). In addition, many planks of libertarianism generally – particularly its socially liberal positions on sex and drugs – do not appeal to many in the GOP who value traditional values and conservative social mores (and even some Democrats who, I suspect, simply find such issues “icky” to deal with and thus do not want to be associated with them). To boot, the incrementalist approach to reform – which most Americans seem to prefer by virtue of them not caring enough about certain issues to want to upset the apple cart too much (see, e.g., End the Fed) – tends to rule out support for a party that debates the validity of driver’s licenses.
Nevertheless, there is a serious void in our current political environment. Especially with most (but not all!) GOP party leaders having conceded to the know-nothing populist upswell within its ranks, run-of-the-mine principled conservatives feel like they have no one representing them on the national stage. And, though only time will tell, I suspect Trump’s successes under the GOP brand will prove to have permanently discredited the party in the eyes of most; and unfortunately, this discrediting will likely spread like a contagion to many of the otherwise-legitimate political positions typically associated with the GOP, if leaders insist on trying to reclaim that mantle. Sometimes, there’s just no point in going through the arduous rehabilitation process. Better to let the dead bury the dead and move on.
So here’s to hoping that those who have not lost their minds on the right, along with those who have not decided to collude with the devil within their midst for short-term gain, decide that enough is enough, and that it is time for a new political party which will actually and adequately represent the limited-government fiscal conservatism of many currently disillusioned members of the GOP. No doubt the question of social conservatism will continue to prove contentious among members of the Christian right who cling to these mores, members of the libertarian right who largely reject them (at least in the context of politics), and members of the moderate right who simply want to quell the dissension over these issues to focus on other matters. What these three factions at least can agree on is that the federal government shouldn’t involve itself in these matters; and perhaps, if they are able to do so, they can re-form a party that can actually embody the big-tent, compassionate-conservative vision the GOP has long endeavored to present.
This disillusioned, right-of-center individual can hope, anyway.