Good Friday Morning, especially those of you who stayed up late like me watching the spectacular finish to the Giants-Dodgers game, where the Dodgers pulled it off on a controversial check-swing call by the umpire. It’s a shame that the series can’t go seven games because it delivered on all fronts. We’re finally in the time of the year where there’s football, baseball, hockey, and basketball all on television. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Late Thursday, Joe Biden signed the legislation that punted the debt ceiling debate for another two months. That gives Democrats time to crank out a deal on their infrastructure and reconciliation bills — but it doesn’t appear they think that will happen. Democrats are already telling Politico they believe McConnell will cave on the debt ceiling again. There’s no evidence for this belief, just a hard-headed insistence that it will happen.
Again, here is reality. Bidens’ approval ratings continue to plummet. Both RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight show the same thing: Biden’s support has collapsed, it’s not recovering, and we know more bad news is coming. Inflation data remains high, and the warning signs of failing supply chains, higher heating costs this winter, and high food and gas prices ahead of the holiday season are a toxic mix for approval ratings. That all adds up to an increasingly tricky atmosphere to pass controversial legislation. And if you think it’s hard to get Democrats to move in this kind of environment, why would McConnell bail them out?
In any event, this week, I’m going to talk through the idea of third parties and the political reasons it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of a binary choice (something I’ve changed my mind on over the years). Links will follow.
- One quick hit: I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a more perfect storm of economic downturn ingredients lining up at the moment. Inflation continues surging, China is on the edge of a Lehman-style liquidity crisis, the global supply-chain is mucked up and behind by at least six months and growing, Democrats are intent on pouring gasoline on inflation, and the pandemic continues impacting everything. I plan on putting out my larger thoughts on this soon-ish, the podcast was my first foray into the Evergrande liquidity crisis. But I’ll say this: the time to prepare for a potential downturn is now. Christmas shopping should be done well ahead of time, and you should have supplies. I haven’t had this intense notion of a storm brewing since February 2020, when I wrote a friend a letter to prepare then. Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing in the economy looks good at the moment. And I don’t trust China to do anything right, because the politics at issue don’t necessarily require them to do so. Rough seas ahead.
Where you can find me this week
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McConnell brilliantly locks Democrats into more infighting – The Conservative Institute.
What happened to Biden’s vaccine mandate? – The Conservative Institute.
Third parties won’t solve anything.
I want to start this newsletter by saying that I want to write about the Evergrande liquidity crisis in China. I dove into that topic on the podcast this past week. It’s a story that has rapidly raced up my list of the most important stories. But I’m not writing about it because we’re in a weird middle moment where everyone is waiting to see if Evergrade defaults (very likely) and what China will do when that happens (no one knows). We’re going to learn some new things in a few days/weeks, so I’m holding off for now. The threat is another Lehman Brothers moment, except originating in China. File the ongoing Evergrande liquidity crisis in the back of your mind as the most important story that’s not the top story in the news.
With that out of the way, what we’re going to dive into here is the topic of third parties. Specifically, we’ll talk about a column written by Jonah Goldberg that suggests the way towards a post-Trump GOP is a third party.
Jonah pitches the idea of a third party because he’s concerned that Biden has pivoted to the far-left side of his party (true), and there’s no place for old-school conservatives in the modern Democratic Party (also true). Further, Jonah is responding to a column in the New York Times by two grade-A grifting morons (my words, no Jonah’s), Miles Taylor (who wrote the “Anonymous” column and book during the Trump years), and has-been Christine Todd Whitman. Those two claim that the only way “to battle pro-Trump extremists is for all of us to team up on key races and overarching political goals with our longtime political opponents: the Democratic Party.”
That’s an idiotic argument, and Jonah says as much. Empowering the far-left of the Democratic Party doesn’t preserve American conservativism or the current position of the United States any more than a dam bursting preserves a valley. Jonah pitches a third party as a check on Republicans. I’ll let him describe in full:
Perhaps there’s another way. The primary system is the GOP’s Achilles’ heel because it makes a mere plurality of the vote a de facto majority of the vote. A recent Pew survey found that 44 percent of Republicans want Trump to run again. As 2016 showed, that’s more than enough to win the nomination in a crowded field. The same dynamic explains why Republican congressional candidates kowtow to Trump—they’re afraid of his primary voters. And right now, there is no countervailing pressure within the party.
So why not create pressure outside of it? Specifically, a third party with a simple, Reaganite conservative platform combined with a serious plank to defend the soundness of elections? For simplicity’s sake, think of it as a GOP minus the Trump personality cult.
If a Republican candidate met its requirements, a new party of the right could endorse the Republican, the way New York’s Conservative Party does. If not, a non-Trumpy candidate could play the role of spoiler by garnering enough conservative votes in the general election to throw the election to the Democrat.
I have always been—and remain—a skeptic of third parties, because they punish the party they have the most in common with. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously quipped, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”
But in this scenario, that’s a feature, not a bug. The point is to cause the GOP some pain for its descent into asininity. Giving conservatives turned off by both the Democrats and the Trumpified GOP a way to vote their conscience in the general election would put political pressure on Republican candidates to curtail their Trump sycophancy. It would also serve to remind the GOP that if you abandon conservative principles, conservatives might abandon you.
Jonah wrote up a response to some of his critics, who pointed out various flaws, most of them former National Review colleagues. If you enjoy the back and forths, it’s quite an interesting read. It’s also, except for The Bulwark’s contribution, friendly banter.
David French joined in too. He offered nothing of value to the debate because he instantly made it about himself. That’s about all you have to know about his writing at the moment.
I disagree with them about the third party. I don’t think it will work, especially as presented, nor do I believe there’s even a need for this. More to the point, either you’re committed to radically reshaping politics and changing people’s minds, or you’re not. Half-measures like third parties used to punish a major party don’t work.
The reality of American politics.
America is, at its core, a democratic republic. The Founders set out to build a system that balanced all factions of society that always existed. The popular meaning of this says they were trying to balance the executive, legislative, and judicial arms of government — which is true, to an extent.
But the Founders understood that they were balancing something else too: societal divisions. Culturally, in societies, there are always those who function as executives, aristocratic orders, and the masses. In the past, when building a government, the thought was that you always had to choose some form of a monarchy, republic/oligarchy, or democracy. The Greeks even had a cyclical order called anacyclosis. These forms of government evolved/devolved into different regimes over time. The way ancient governments swung wildly between the kinds of government was a grave concern for the Founders; Hamilton wrote in Federalist 9:
It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed.
Enter the concept of mixed regimes: a government with forms of all regimes in it, republic, democracy, and monarchial. A mixed regime balances the best and worst and keeps everything running smoothly. Hamilton continued:
The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.
Over time, particularly with the advent of the progressive era in American politics, we’ve introduced more democracy into the mix. Andrew Jackson introduced the first significant expansion of the right to vote, removing land ownership restrictions. The Civil War Amendments ended slavery and legally brought voting to Blacks. However, the full realization of this right would take another hundred years. And the progressive era brought the right to vote to women.
Additionally, the direct election of Senators got introduced, and the two major parties essentially moved towards an open vote in the primary system. These are democratic reforms (small “d”), which elevates more choices to direct democratic decision-making.
How third parties work.
I go through that history to make this point when it comes to American politics. Jonah Goldberg’s argument pivots around a third party. In a democracy, third parties are theoretically possible but politically impossible. The reason is straightforward. Democratic decisions are fundamentally binary choices: you either vote for a piece of legislation or against it.
To win, all you need in a democratic order is 50% + 1. Since there are only two answers, and you only need the thinnest of margins to win, that necessitates coalitions that can meet that barrier at any given time. In America, that has necessitated a two-party system. Even in parliamentary systems with many parties, the groups form governing coalitions with two sides — failure to accomplish this leads to a collapse of leadership. One of the counters to Jonah’s 3rd party argument is that it’s better to engage in primary fights and win elections, an idea Jonah rejects because he views this as a losing strategy — which might be true.
That said, my argument is not that my proposal will work, but that Jonah’s won’t. In particular, if a strategy of waging these fights in the primaries is unsuccessful, it necessarily follows that an organized movement to abandon Trumpist candidates in the general election will also fail to persuade primary voters. At the end of the day, the problem with this or that election may be the candidates, the party establishment, the donors, the mainstream and ideological media, or simply the circumstances; but if the direction of the party persists over time and is validated repeatedly in party primaries, then the problem is with the voters.
If you believe primary challenges will not work and that you cannot persuade a base of voters — who formerly voted for your candidates — to return, what makes you believe these people will magically appear in a general election? Democracy necessitates a binary choice.
When someone like David French states, absurdly, “It’s time to seriously ponder third-party options. It’s time to stop thinking about binaries.” He might as well be denying the very fact of democracies.
There’s an additional problem too, and it’s the one of seriousness. The counter to the argument I’ve made so far is that third parties have appeared in America. They have overridden the debate and replaced one of the big parties, either in name or function. The Whig Party collapsed ahead of the Civil War, replaced by the Republican Party. Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party formed as the first party system collapsed. There are other examples too (for a full reading on how the party system in America works, I recommend The Next Realignment by Frank DiStefano).
For a third party to replace one of the major parties, two things must occur. 1) The existing two-party system has to be crumbling, and 2) The replacement party must have strategies that answer the defining issue of its time. The DiStefano book breaks this down thoroughly. For instance, when the Whig Party collapsed, the US was headed towards a great conflict over slavery and secession. The Republican and Democratic Parties had constituted themselves around answering those dilemmas, and everything else fell into place.
Jonah Goldberg’s proposal only seeks to damage the current Republican Party, which leads to electoral victories by the Democratic Party (at least in theory). That’s not going to change the direction of either party, and it will only change how certain people groups vote and what they believe. The best example of this is The Bulwark and Lincoln Project crowd, who started as splinter Republican groups united under a #NeverTrump banner, now spend their time supporting Democratic politicians and progressive causes.
The irony for the Bulwark crowd is that they oppose Jonah’s solution because it hurts Democrats. They don’t want a third party because they want conservatives to join the Democratic Party. If principles truly mattered to them, they wouldn’t care. That should tell you a little about their motivations and their version of “conservatism.”
The only way to change the Republican Party (or Democratic) is to understand the organizing issues of the time and present a compelling case for your vision. The third-party advocates, it’s worth noting, aren’t doing that. And I say that as a person who largely agrees with Jonah on the big things! But modern conservatism arose as a challenge to FDR’s New Deal and formed a winning coalition around defeating communism.
Those arguments and issues are long gone. China is the central geopolitical power of our time. The internet is reshaping how we interact with each other in interesting and potentially harmful ways (I believe in the next decade, we’ll get to witness civil lawsuits against social media companies that will rival the tobacco lawsuits). And, not to be outdone, if the Supreme Court strikes down or severely wounds the Roe/Casey abortion case law standards, that will re-introduce abortion as the primary dividing social issue of our time.
You cannot present 1980s Reaganite conservatism to those challenges unchanged from their time. Ideas have to be updated, and solutions aimed at hitting the issues of our time. China is not the USSR; it is unique and must be approached as such. There are so many intricate differences of our time in comparison to previous ones. Yet, the wisdom of conservatism (as I think Jonah and I would agree) is that it recognizes the principles at play, which haven’t changed in centuries.
One last point: Do you know how you move to a post-Trump party? You elect someone new. Maybe that will happen in 2024. Perhaps we have to wait until a later time. But no politician’s impact is forever. Some have long reaches, but none have an eternal grip. That’s also one of the truths understood by conservativism, it’s sad so many have forgotten it.
Links of the week
N.F.L.’s Top Lawyer Had Cozy Relationship With Washington Team President: Jeff Pash, the league’s general counsel, brokered penalties, discussed a cheerleading scandal, and received perks in emails with the former president of the Washington Football Team. – NYT
Evergrande Debt Crisis Is Financial Stress Test No One Wanted: China’s real estate powder keg threatens President Xi’s drive for stability—and may yet force a too-big-to-fail moment with global implications. – Bloomberg
Xi Jinping’s War on Spontaneous Order – Scholars Stage
Xi Jinping Scrutinizes Chinese Financial Institutions’ Ties With Private Firms: Inspections aim to ensure full Communist Party control over what is seen as the lifeblood of the economy, say people familiar with the plan – WSJ
Katie Couric covered up RBG’s dislike for taking the knee: Anchor says she edited 2016 interview to ‘protect’ the justice after she said people who kneel are showing ‘contempt for a government that made a decent life possible’ – Daily Mail
‘Hiding the Ball’: Hunter Biden Complicates White House Anti-Corruption Push: Questions about the First Son could detract from the president’s efforts to position himself as a global good-government crusader. – Politico
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!