As Donald Trump continued to steamroll to the GOP nomination, talk started about creating a third option for conservatives, a presidential candidate that people could vote for. The talk of a third-party campaign grew louder in the wake of Trump’s Indiana rout last week.
Predictably, the naysayers have started saying that a third party is either a dream or a waste of time. The naysayers argue that it would be better to vote for the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, or just sit it out.
Now, third parties don’t have a glamorous or successful history in the US. Our two major parties have historically acted as party coalitions, therefore nullifying the need for more than two parties.
But as we have seen, 2016 is a different political animal. The rise of Donald Trump to the head of the GOP has made a third option necessary if one wants to see center right politics remain viable for decades to come. It is not enough to simply wait for some hoped-for demise of Trump’s campaign, intending to then come back and pick up the pieces.
There are a number of reasons that there should be a third party in 2016, and I will map them out here.
First off is the most obvious, at least to people of color. Trump has stoked the resentment of the white working class against minorities. His disdain toward immigrants, especially Mexicans, his flirting with racist groups like the KKK and his proposed ban on Muslims will make the national GOP a toxic party for persons of color. While some campaigns have used racial animosity, that hasn’t been the case with all GOP candidates and politicians. George W. Bush, for example, wanted to expand outreach towards Latinos. But Trump and the millions who voted for him show that there are people who want someone in power that speaks up for the white guy. What might have been at the margins of GOP campaigning will without a doubt be at the center of the party. The result is a much smaller party.
Matthew Yglesias wrote recently in Vox about how the GOP lost California. While it is considered a solidly blue state today, there was a time that the Golden State was a swing state. But then relative moderate GOP Governor Pete Wilson introduced a law aimed at immigrants that changed everything. Yglesias writes:
Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were statewide elected officials before ascending to the presidency. From 1968 to 1988, the GOP carried California in every presidential election. It swung to the Democrats in 1992 as part of Bill Clinton’s larger revival of the Democratic Party’s national fortunes.
But in the 1990s California had a Republican governor, Wilson, who had served as the state’s US senator for most of the 1980s. In the 1994 midterm elections, the GOP even swept into a majority in the state assembly.Wilson and his Republican colleagues were closely associated with a law enacted via ballot initiative known as Proposition 187 that sought to create a state-run citizenship verification system and bar undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. It was, at the time, the very first effort to create a state-level immigration control policy, and it’s no coincidence that the trend came first to California — the state had a lot of immigrants, residing there both legally and illegally. So many that the state was close to tipping over into “majority-minority” status, which surely heightened the salience of immigration-related concerns to the state’s white conservatives…
…what makes Wilson remarkable is that he was also the last Republican to win a statewide election in California under anything resembling normal circumstances. Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger sneaked into office in 2003 as part of an unusually structured recall election, and governed completely independently from the conservative movement.
Beyond that — nothing.
Not because Prop 187 became hideously unpopular per se, but because it became emblematic of the California Republican Party’s transformation into a vehicle for white identity politics, a transformation that rendered the GOP unacceptable to a majority of the state’s voters.
The same thing could happen nationwide after Trump. Even if he loses in November, he will have reshaped the party from a conservative party to one focused on white-identity politics. That will cause an exodus not only of persons of color, but also of whites who don’t want to be painted as bigots. Yglesias spells it out:
This is the real risk Trump poses to the GOP. Not that he’ll lose in a landslide so bad the party can’t recover — Wilson didn’t lose at all, and the party bounced back easily from a big defeat in 2008 — but that its brand will be more or less permanently tarnished in the eyes of many Americans.
After all, the message of the party of small government saying it wants to build a wall of unprecedented scale and then create a deportation force large enough to round up 11 million people is pretty unambiguous — he doesn’t want people of Latin American ancestry living in the United States. Both Trump’s trade policy and Trump’s foreign policy seem grounded almost entirely on hostility to foreigners, and his rise to prominence as a figure in conservative politics is based entirely on his assertions that Barack Obama is not genuinely American.
Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is transparently based on an effort to narrow the definition of who counts as an American. And while Republicans can easily shed specific policy stances that their likely 2016 nominee takes, if they stand shoulder to shoulder with Trump in a campaign whose main subject is whether non-white Americans count as genuinely American, that won’t be forgotten.
People who are part of the #NeverTrump crowd don’t want to be part of what might become America’s version of the Front National. They will need a new home, even if it is temporary.
Secondly, a third party will move Clinton towards the center. Right now, she is viewed as a default for conservatives who can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump. If she is the only choice for exiled Republicans, she doesn’t have to budge to welcome these refugees. She can still push a more liberal agenda and former Republicans have no choice but to accept. But a center-right candidate will challenge her. If she wants the votes of former Republicans, she will have to work for it.
The final reason that there needs to be a third alternative is pretty straightforward: hope. The #NeverTrump movement is dispirited. When you are down and depressed, you can become susceptible to temptations. The first one is to simply give in. I could see a number of folk start to reason that maybe Trump isn’t so bad and end up supporting him. The longer there is no viable place for the center right to go, the more the temptation is to settle.
The other temptation is to accept fate and do nothing. This is the view being put forth by liberal writers like Damon Linker who thinks that it makes no sense to start a third party. He pretends to care, saying that a third party would give the presidency to Clinton. That’s probably true: but as I stated earlier, this isn’t necessarily about winning; it is about trying to keep the center right a viable force in America. Linker thinks the option is basically to deal with the fact that the conservatives are a spent force:
By encouraging a kamikaze mission against the party’s nominee for president, these movement conservatives will only end up hastening their own demise. Instead of accepting their perhaps temporary status as junior partners in the party (limiting themselves to writing critically about the 2016 election while personally sitting it out), or seeking to carve out a new home and place of influence in the Democratic Party, they would instantaneously transform themselves into martyrs for the conservative movement and outright exiles from (and traitors to) the GOP.
Both options seem terrible. The first is to write critical articles that no one will listen to since they aren’t doing anything to stop it. The second, finding a place in the Democratic party, is laughable. If this was the late 90s, when the party was more centrist, it would make sense. But as the party has moved left, it would be hard for people with different philosophies to somehow be able to make a home, especially when there are some on the left that can’t tolerate conservatives. I also have to think that Linker would not offer this advice for liberals, if the parties’ places were switched.
Any third party will probably lose, but it will be able to help rebuild a center-right movement, and maybe even make it better.