Political Parties and the Future of the GOP

When Political Parties are Born

Even before the Constitution, there were Federalist and anti-Federalist factions. In George Washington’s administration, the government was divided between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. In his Farewell Address, Washington warned Americans about the danger of factions, but early Americans ignored the administration and rushed to form political parties.

The history of political parties in American history is referred to as political alignments. There are generally four recognized periods of alignment and realignment. The first alignment was a polarization between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, ending with the Era of Good Feelings. The second alignment was between the Democrats and Whigs; in 1852, Lewis Campbell of Ohio declared the end of the Whig Party: “The party is dead—dead—dead!” Out of the vacuum left by the collapse of the Whig Party, in 1854 John C. Fremont created the Grand Old Party dedicated to Federalism and the end of slavery. The party of the third alignment quickly became better known as the Republican Party. By 1932, however, the progressive Republican Party had become the party of laisse fair and small government. Almost incredulously, the fourth alignment occurred when President Franklin D. Roosevelt transformed the Democratic into the party of Federalism and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson transformed the old party of the Confederacy into the party of Civil Rights.

He Did! So Can We!

The two enduring questions in the study of political parties in the United States are will there ever be a viable third party, and when will the next realignment occur? The Know Nothings, the Greenbacks, the Populists, and the Progressives have all failed to become permanent fixtures in American political history. One reason is that the two dominant parties have absorbed the issues of successful smaller parties.

Two of the most successful third parties in history, however, were not issued-based as much as personality-based. In 1912, the Cool Moose Party of former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt split enough of the Republican vote that the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, was elected President of the United States. The other significant third-party candidate, Ross Perot, won a significant portion of the popular vote in 1992, but it has never been completely clear whether he took more votes from President George H.W. Bush (R) or Governor Bill Clinton (D).

Popularism versus the Establishment

Both the Republican and Democratic Parties have internal divisions as well as their external struggles with each other. Most often, this is manifested as a battle for the soul of the party between populists and the establishment. The party that becomes more populist is usually the party that is out of power. The populist energy is often then harnessed into an electoral victory, wherein the populist party becomes the establishment and fuels the populist frustrations in the opposition party. Since the end of the Cold War, this dynamic has also been represented in the debate over internationalism as well.

The Fifth Alignment

There are those who believe that the fifth alignment has already occurred, whether it was the Reagan Democrats and the movement of Catholic voters toward the Republican Party or the Clinton electoral victory in 1992 and the Democratic embracing of Wall Street. However, in both of these situations, there was a movement from one pre-existing political party to another. While that is similar to the fourth alignment, the other three alignments occurred with the creation of a new political party ex nihilo.

In 2016, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said that Donald Trump should have dropped out of the presidential race and let (then) Governor Mike Pence lead the ticket. Another Republican presidential primary candidate, John Kasich, never endorsed his party’s nominee. In fact, Kasich reportedly voted for John McCain in the presidential election. Both former Republican Presidents Bush reportedly voted for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Conservative journalists like George Will and Max Boot have left the Republican Party. Less famous Republicans like Susan Bevan and Susan Cullman have also publicly announced their departure from the Republican Party too.

The Libertarian Party has often thought to be the beneficiary of this fraternal division in the Republican Party. And, yes, Gary Johnson received 4,489,233 total votes (3.27%) of the national vote, coming in third in the election, and set a record for the Libertarian Party’s best performance. The other touted third-party candidate in 2016 was Evan McMullin. McMullin did receive 21.54% of the popular vote in Utah and 6.7% in Idaho. Yet neither candidate received a single vote out the 538 possible in the Electoral College or the necessary 270 votes to become President of the United States.

So, Who and When?

While the Freedom Caucus, Rand Paul (KY), and many so-called conservatives actually espouse a more libertarian philosophy than a traditional Republican platform, these politician and pundits are still affiliated with the Republican Party, not the Libertarian Party. Senator Paul is acutely aware that when his father ran for president as a Libertarian, there was not enough traction for a plausible victory. These Libertarian-Republicans are thus staying within the Republican Party to remake it in their image. With the victory of a populist Republican as President of the United States and the Freedom Caucus hold on the House Republicans, the question still remains: what will John Kasich, George Will, and traditional conservatives do in 2020 and beyond?

If Donald Trump, in fact, runs for president in 2020, there is little doubt that John Kasich will mount a Republican primary challenge. But could Kasich upset a sitting president? The evangelical wing of the Republican Party will support Trump because, among other motivations, the presence of Mike Pence on the party ticket. This is, of course, mere political conjecture. The potential Republican primary battle will be shaped by the outcome of the midterm elections in 2018 as well as the eventual Mueller report. If Trump wins another presidential election, however, many conservatives will likely just wait out the end of Trumpism and hope for a return to conservatism in 2024. After all, Trump neutered the Congressional Republicans by signing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and nominating Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, the fifth alignment will likely not appear anytime soon. There are no term limits on Congress; traditional Republicans will wait out the Trump Presidency, whether Trump is a one-term president or a two-term president. The loudest critics Kasich and Will are still employed, and others like Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) are merely shooting backward while riding off into the subset. Perhaps the soon-to-be U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) will battle on the floor of the Senate Chambers for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, but there is not a viable third party on the horizon. Americans may have ignored Washington’s aversion to political parties, but Americans are loath to allow more than two parties or abandon the parties that have governed the United States since 1854.