After the Republican National Convention last July, I resigned my position as a local GOP precinct committeeman. I spent nearly three decades voting and volunteering for Republicans in Texas and then Illinois. My reasons for becoming a Republican have not changed, though the party has abandoned those values. I still have far more faith in commerce and business as tools for public good than in the influence of a central government. If anything, the elevation of a man like Donald Trump to the presidency merely reinforces my belief in the merits of markets and my suspicion of concentrated government power.
I find myself voting for Democrats as a defensive measure, but I will not be joining that party. There is no longer a major political party in America that shares my values.
Forces of bigotry, authoritarianism, and outright delusion that haunted the margins of the Republican Party in my youth now occupy the center, dictating every party position. Nothing remains of America’s party of commerce and free enterprise but a few tired slogans. Thanks in large part to a generation-long party switch by Southern conservatives who brought their small-minded bigotries with them, the Republicans are now irrevocably America’s White Nationalist Party. We have fought wars to rid foreign countries of political forces less toxic than today’s GOP. Decent people clinging to the Republican Party increasingly reek of cowardice and complicity, as every day brings a new moral outrage they must either ignore or embrace. Remaining a Republican is a moral compromise beyond defense.
For all its problems, there remains space in the Democratic Party for basic human decency, scientific realities, and the empathy essential to sustain civil society. Preserving the republic through this miserable moment means defeating Republican politicians wherever possible. But what comes after that? If voters from all over the spectrum unite to push the Republican Party out of power, what vision for the future will we embrace? Absent such a vision, Republicans facing electoral disaster need only wait for another swing of the pendulum to recover power. The Democratic Party does not have such a vision. It can’t. The structure of our partisan system makes innovation extremely difficult.
Democrats may create more room for sanity than Republicans, but they are no more aware of America’s changing needs. Just like the Republicans, Democrats are selling nostalgia. Powerful unions, high income taxes, an enormous and ever-expanding federal bureaucracy, they are forever recycling a New Deal agenda. Our two major parties are the political equivalent of rentiers, squeezing the last drops of value from a rapidly depreciating asset. No force in our system presses them to adapt.
Our two-party system protects each organization from the risk of failure that would otherwise drive innovation. With a large, geographically dispersed, culturally diverse public trapped between only two options, neither party can grow beyond a certain size and neither party has room to collapse. Both parties enjoy a guaranteed floor of support regardless how irresponsible or dysfunctional they become. Like a Hollywood studio churning out their 547th remake of Spiderman, neither party needs to risk their capital on a new script.
George W. Bush should have been our warning of unsustainable partisan dysfunction. A presidential administration cannot possibly be more measurably, empirically disastrous than Bush II. Republicans, no matter how good-hearted, intelligent, or insightful could not halt his rise or blunt his administration’s catastrophic decisions. Democrats, despite a rising tide of disasters, never formulated any convincing alternative to his agenda. By the end of his administration we were mired in multiple losing wars and facing economic collapse on a scale that threatened the survival of the global financial system. In response, Democrats continued to occupy the same political space they’d held for thirty years, waiting for the political pendulum to swing back in their direction.
The Obama administration was never more than a political janitor that swept away the broken glass and mopped up the blood. Possessing veto-proof power for two years, their only major achievement was to pass a health care plan formulated by conservatives and originally signed into state law by Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Handed the power to remake America’s political and economic landscape, they did virtually nothing.
Having utterly ignored the warnings of the Bush II Era, now we get Donald Trump. In response, Democrats are simply replaying the script from the Bush II years, waiting for their turn to once again occupy better office space. Our political status quo is unsustainable. We will not continue to be trapped under two sclerotic political parties. As commentator David Frum once pointed out, “Things can always get worse.” If we fail to achieve some broader form of political representation, our system will continue to careen between Republican insanity and intermittent Democratic patch-work until something breaks.
French voters, threatened with the possibility that their next government might be led either by Neo-Communists or Fascists, achieved a feat that would be nearly impossible in our system. In the spring of 2016, an entirely new centrist political party emerged. Barely a year later, their candidate won the presidency with two-thirds of the vote. They then swept the National Assembly.
Our system blocks this kind of third-party political adaptation, but it is possible to achieve something similar without changing our election laws. In fact, our government already incorporates features of a parliamentary system. There is an opportunity hiding in the structure of our system that could create space for political sub-parties, distinct institutions that could negotiate legislative coalitions.
Congress today is arguably being led by a European-style Prime Minister. A Republican faction, or sub-party, calling itself the Freedom Caucus, deposed our previous Speaker of the House and negotiated to select a new one. What prevents coalitions of like-minded Democrats and Republicans from building similar sub-party coalitions across existing party lines? Nothing more than a failure of imagination.
Our national ideological divide is a myth. Solid electoral majorities exist in favor of sensible policies to fight carbon pollution, create a universal health care system, tighten gun regulations, and dozens of other overdue 21st century reforms. These steps are being blocked by partisan gridlock, not public gridlock. It makes no sense whatsoever for Republican Senators like Ben Sasse and Susan Collins to be forever trapped defending and promoting a policy agenda embraced by Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton. They are casualties of an antiquated partisan duopoly that locks them into irrelevance while cancelling the will of their voters. Our present system awards control to the noisiest, most obnoxious, and increasingly the most cultish forces in our system. Anyone who pauses to consider subtleties or consequences is neutralized.
A change as modest as sub-partisan collaboration could break our legislative logjam and isolate extremists. Making sub-parties effective would require a combination of precinct-level organization and legislative cooperation. Candidates and officials might come to identify themselves more by their sub-label than by their party affiliation. Urban-Republicans, Suburban-Democrats, or unhyphenated identities like the Freedom Caucus might exist under the already weakened infrastructure umbrella of the existing parties. Their power could force leadership and legislation to be built on a broader foundation of ideological compromise, larger than each party.
Donald Trump is a symptom, not a disease. Our existing political infrastructure distorts public will, stifling democratic processes. Pressing our elected leaders into coalition-style arrangements could give our politics the flexibility of parliamentary systems without waiting for changes in election rules. Someday Donald Trump will be gone. If the dysfunction that created him remains unacknowledged and unaddressed, he will be replaced by something worse.