From GOP to Grand New Party: Starting A New Party With An Old Name
It’s My Party Too.
That was the title of a book written in 2005 by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman about the direction of the Republican Party and her stand against the far right. It won a lot of praise from many quarters and it led to the creation of a political action committee of the same name which then merged with the dormant Republican Leadership Council. Other GOP luminaries like former Senator John Danforth, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge and others. There were hopes it would become an organization that would elect more moderate Republicans to leadership.
The RLC ended up dissolving in 2011.
The book and the organization are part of a long line of attempts to create a moderate faction in the GOP to counter the growing Religious Right. A new book or new organization would spring up and then vanish into the ether.
For years I wondered why this was happening. Why was there no fight in people to offer another voice in the party? The question extends to the modern-day. Why has the NeverTrump movement taken itself out of any fight for the party?
But what if we are asking the wrong question? Maybe the question isn’t why the fight for the Republican Party hasn’t panned out, but is the Republican Party worth saving?
Before I go any further, I should say that this question doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m not saying that it is time to create a third party. I’m also not saying we give up on the Republican Party and join the Democrats for the sake of democracy. But I am asking if the current Republican Party is worth saving and maybe its time to create another Republican Party.
In the years following Donald Trump’s ride down the Golden Escalator, I and other NeverTrumpers believed Trump took the party over and away from its true roots. He did take the party over. As to allowing it to stray from its roots, well that’s debatable.
It’s debatable because as political scientist Frank DiStefano notes in a new essay for American Purpose the parties that we call Democrat and Republican have changed several times in the course of their histories. Brand new parties are created from the husks of the old in most cases taking the name of the old party.
“Sometimes new party movements overthrow a party directly, replacing it as an institution. But sometimes they simply capture a major party, replacing its coalition and ideology while stealing its better name and brand, like when SBC Communications acquired and took over the brand name of AT&T,” DiStefano says. “What makes a political party a party isn’t the name but what it stands for and believes, and who it seeks to represent.”
The Republican Party that we know now, is one that was created in the late 1950s and fully came into its own in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. It was a party that rejected an overreliance on the government to solve problems and pushed for lower taxes. It was more hostile to labor and more open to free trade. That Republican Party was successful for decades until the global crisis of 2008. People lost homes, lost jobs and had to accept lower standards of living. The financial crisis showed a GOP that didn’t know how to respond the crisis other than leaning on what became old bromides. When the Big Three automakers were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, many conservatives believed the companies should fend for themselves and if they fail, they fail. Japanese manufacturers have plants here as well, so it’s not like we are losing our manufacturing base, they believed. “Today, Japanese, German, and Korean manufacturers all operate plants here — employing 93,000 American workers from Kentucky to Alabama. In other words, a bailout for a Detroit company is no longer essential for maintaining America’s auto-manufacturing base,” wrote Henry Payne in National Review in November 2008. In their minds, it wasn’t up to government to pick winners and losers. But of course, not making a decision, was in effect picking a winner and a loser.
The party of Ronald Reagan came at a time when people were losing faith in America. The New Deal consensus had broken down. It was time for something different. People can argue whether the policy of less government intervention and low taxes was the right course, but it was a successful policy for the GOP…until it wasn’t.
Distefano notes in his essay that the policies of a political party has an agenda that last for a time, usually decades, and then something happens where that policy no longer works. The old party continues using the old policy until something happens where it is pushed out usually by the new party.
That something happened in 2016 with Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination. Every other GOP candidate was running on the same policy that Republican candidates ran on since 1980, less government and less taxes. But Trump sensed the electorate was not looking for that. They wanted something different and Trump spoke to that.
Now usually, the new party that arises from the old will displace the other party. In 2016, the party was displaced, but it wasn’t displaced by a new party. Instead, it was displaced by a false prophet, a personality cult. While Trump sensed the dissatisfaction out there, he had no real plan to alleviate people’s economic pain. What he had was a way to stir up resentment among his voters. They already lost trust in most institutions and people, so Trump could echo that distrust and in turn reshape the government to serve his purposes and his needs.
What happened in 2016 was a detour from the normal changeover from one “party” to another. Trump is trying to derail the normal processes of democracy. The problem among many NeverTrumpers is that they are focused on Trump, the resentment he stirred up, the racism, and his contempt for democracy. Trump is someone we should be concerned about. But the focus on Trump obscures why Trump won the GOP nod and later the White House. Trump is not the reason the GOP is in a mess, but he is a major symptom why the GOP is a mess. He shows that the GOP was dying and that a new one needs to be born. But NeverTrumpers who are invested in this old system, can’t see that.
This is a major problem with NeverTrumpers, a tribe that I belong to. We are invested in the old Reganite party and we want it back. But unlike science fiction, you can’t resuscitate a dead party. The current party is just that: dead. A dead party can no longer provide answers for an America that is different from the one where the “new” party started.
Earlier this year, Michael Wood an army veteran ran as a candidate in the GOP Primary for an open congressional seat in Texas. He ran as an old-fashioned conservative, supported with an endorsement from the Dallas Morning News and from anti-Trump Congressman Adam Kingzinger. He got just 3.2 percent of the vote. People didn’t buy what he was selling: the Reagan consensus of the 1980s and 90s.
If NeverTrumpers want to defeat Trumpism, it means letting go of the old Republican Party and openness to a new party that might go against the cherished ideals of the old coalition. It means coming up with new ideas that might give the old small government/low tax types palpitations. It means looking current events and coming up with ideas to solve current problems.
It means listening to the lives of the middle and working class that feel like the American Dream is falling away from them. Hank Thayer notes the massive changes taking place in the American economy might have been good for owners of industry, but terrible for workers and middle managers:
Here is a basic run down of what has happened in the last 50 or so years: There used to be three major companies, and one minor company in the United State making passenger cars. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler dominated the American auto market and had a major presence overseas. AMC also made competent cars, including the still iconic JEEP.
Now, there is only one American company (GM) still making passenger cars in the United States. Ford still makes trucks and Mustangs, but does not make passenger cars anymore. Chrysler is owned by Fiat and produces so few passenger cars that a Dodges is less common on the roads than the Fiats they sell through their remaining dealerships. You can still get a JEEP, but it is made by Chrysler, which again, is owned by Fiat. The reality is that the US auto industry has been destroyed by a combination of mismanagement, bad luck, myopic government policy, and predatory foreign completion.
One can disagree with Thayer on what he’s saying: but the heart of his argument is clear: massive consolidation has meant the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and that in turn has led to the downfall of a number of communities like my hometown of Flint, Michigan. You don’t have to support protectionism and tarrifs to see that among the middle and working classes, life is far more insecure than it used to be.
We aren’t going back to life like it was 50 years ago, but looking at towns like Flint, it’s hard to believe that what is happening now is working for everybody. New ideas have to be created to answer those who are looking for someone to listen to their needs.
A “new” political party is going to have new ideas and it’s going to have thinkers are that currently heterodox to the current regime. A new Republican Party will have intellectuals and policy wonks that are crafting new ideas to meet the needs of today. In 2008, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam came up with the book Grand New Party where they came up with an actual working-class agenda that just might work in appealing to these workers. But the party went towards a libertarian moment and Paul Ryan’s agenda of taking on entitlements. Trump never really cared about the working class and neither do many of his imitators like Josh Hawley and JD Vance. But if they don’t bring up the bread, they can put forth the circuses. Ross Douthat has said that Trump has offered the evil twin of his working-class conservative agenda.
Jerry Taylor and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center believe in offering new ideas that can get the GOP away from what they call “zombie Reaganism. “Transcending Trump starts with a recognition that there’s no going back to the stale, threadbare brand of Conservative Inc. that he warred against in 2016 to great effect,” they argue. Their observation is that Trump built his MAGA movement based on the despair plaguing the working class. This means providing an agenda that offers needed “bread” to Donald Trump’s “circuses.” This would include a child allowance like the one proposed by Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney, universal catastrophic health insurance, a focus on struggling parts of the United States and Federal revenue sharing.
Taking an old party and making it anew means organizing. It needs people who can recruit candidates to run for the statehouse and Congress. It needs volunteers to staff campaigns and tactitians that can run the ground game. It needs writers that can write essays and speeches that can inspire the public to vote for their new party with an old name.
No matter how you cut it, defeating Trumpism will take work. It was always going to take work since the party has been in distress long before Trump was a major player.
Donald Trump can be beaten. He isn’t all powerful. NeverTrump conservatives don’t have to wallow in despair. But we have to be willing to let go of the old GOP and be open to new ideas that can take root in a new party within the old party. We have to not only get rid of the former President, but change the conditions to ensure no other Donald Trumps will arise.
A brand new party is out there — if we are willing to say goodbye to the old party. American democracy is at stake.