Steven Wedgeworth has written a stirring piece declaring that now is the time for Christians to finally escape from the Republican Party. That I was supposed to desire an escape was news to me so I paid attention. Wedgeworth’s argument is largely centered on protecting the “Christian moral witness” that he considers undermined by the Republican Party’s past exploitation of evangelicals. With the rise of evangelical support for Trump—whom he calls both the death of the Republican Party and the death of ethos—inevitably comes the obliteration of any semblance of moral witness Christians might have before the world.
Though I consider the moral value of voting to be greatly exaggerated and a prevalent myth in our civic religion, I understand his point. Christian support for a man such as Trump—who not only lies, but lies with the poorest manners the United States has ever seen in a presidential candidate—demonstrates that many evangelicals care less about character and manners than about the willingness and ability to flip the bird to those who conspire to limit the range of acceptable speech. For those who have been called every name ending with “-phobia” and been accused of racism, bigotry, and nativism Trump’s antics are (reluctantly) satisfying.
Indeed, I wish more conservative politicians would fight the narrowing window of discourse with some sarcasm and strength. But Trump’s antics, even if toned down, are not a sufficient reason to vote for him (and are decent reasons not to), and Pastor Wedgeworth is probably right that evangelical support for Trump will harm Christian moral witness.
The long war against the Republican Party has now reached a pivotal moment: Christians should “begin seriously thinking about and constructing an alternative to the Republican Party,” writes Wedgeworth. But is that actually a reasonable way forward for evangelicals? Third-parties are bound to fail, not only due to the power of parties in the two-party system, but mainly due the nature of the two-party system itself. Christians should instead begin a movement within the Republican Party rather than wasting time and resources on an alternative party.
Trump will not be the death of the Republican Party, though he will harm its image at least in the short-run. The presidential race is the most important race for both parties, but it is not the only race. There are fifty governorships and thousands of national, state, and local races that do not have trump-like candidates. And the success of Trump does not indicate some propensity of GOP members to nominate trump-likes. Trump is sui generis. Trump’s success is all due to Trump, and imitators would either fail or be called inauthentic.
The Republican Party will survive Trump, because Trump is inimitable. There will, no doubt, be changes, controversy, and wrangling, but the party of Lincoln will remain the party of the right for the foreseeable future. Wedgeworth himself tacitly admits that the GOP will survive when he calls for Christians to continue to support local Republican candidates. But he ultimately wants a robust and “really different” political party.
Third parties typically fail in the USA.
The nature of the two-party system precludes strong third-parties. In a two-party system, each of the parties (the “Big Two”) seek to maximize its support by extending its base of support as far as possible along the linear political spectrum. Each party seeks to maximize its voters by constructing a platform that appeals to more voters than the other party, and each party focuses on one or the other side of the spectrum. Each is careful to widen its umbrella to take in as many of the the moderates and the semi-far as they can. They do not want to appeal too much to the “fringes” (e.g., far right and far left), since that would alienate moderates.
At the same time, they do not want to push too far past the moderates, since that would alienate their base. The message and platform of each party are very complex and controversial constructions, requiring data and cultural analysis with a high probability for error. Still, each of the Big Two has been successful at garnering widespread support from their respective spectrums, even when it comes with an uneasy relationship (e.g., establishment Republicans and The Tea Party). Obama has been successful in part because he was able to form a broad appeal that dipped into both the semi-far left, the independents, and even the Republicans. Politicking is primarily seeking to maximize appeal.
Now, this means that each of the main parties is somewhat materially, though not formally, a coalition of parties analogous to a coalition found in proportional representation systems (PR) (i.e., when one votes directly for a party). PR systems often have more parties at play, and to form a “government” parties have to agree to form a coalition, which usually involves forming a common agenda with compromises on all sides. The Republican Party is a coalition of what would be different parties in a party-list voting system. They receive support from moderates, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and other groups on the right. The GOP is a coalition of the Right. Likewise, the Democratic Party is a coalition of the Left. It is important to see the Big Two as more than just the parties one typically finds in other political systems; the Big Two are grand parties or coalition parties. They are constantly coalition-forming—the coalition is what the party officials, strategists and other important personnel have constantly at the forefront of their minds.
Third parties suffer in these systems because they compete as regular parties against coalition-forming Parties. It’s a party against a Party, two qualitatively different things. Popular third party policies are subsumed by the Party, “siphoning” support. This is why the Tea Party folks were wise to stay in the GOP and seek to change it from within. They had separate, though decentralized, organizations, rallies, and a shared sense of purpose, and they did all of this while remaining in the Party. They knew that whether they stayed in or formed a new party they would still be working for the GOP, since their popular policies would ultimately find their way or gain emphasis in the GOP platform. The failure of the Libertarian Party is instructive on this point. Many of their economic policies have enough support within the GOP that voters are siphoned into the GOP, despite finding the Libertarians more consistent. This is due to the nature of two-party systems.
The Christian “alternative” to the GOP will suffer a similar fate, leading to failed opportunities, wasted resources, and the potential to be branded as on the fringe. The party might influence the GOP or the Democratic Party or both, but it will likely be marginalized like the Libertarian Party has been. If they have popular ideas, the Big Two will subsume them, claiming them as their own. An alternative party of any ideology simply cannot compete against the Big Two. And since the platform of Wedgeworth’s alternative party is vague, appeals to moderates and some on the left, and rejects the “binaries” of contemporary politics, it would be in a unique position to be siphoned by both parties. Of course, that could mean that the alternative party siphons from both parties. But given the power of the Big Two and the nature of two-party systems, this is highly unlikely. Ultimately, the alternative party would be working for the Big Two.
Thoughtful Christians are worried about their association with the Republican Party after Trump and its support for Trump. This concern, however, is unnecessary when the two-party system is properly understood. Each of the Big Two is like a public forum for conversing with those on the same spectrum. The establishment is a sort of “ruling” party or class within the GOP public forum, and Christians can have as much connection with them as they would any party or interest group within the public square. You are another party making arguments, seeking influence, and vying for power. Membership in the GOP is simply membership in the forum representing those on the right of the spectrum. The alternative party could eschew the left-right binary and seek independence from the Big Two, and they would fail.
“Making a splash” isn’t a long-term strategy.
But it would be a glorious failure, right? We Christians would rise above the Big Two by showcasing how limited and vague our commonality really is. And when asked about specifics (e.g., affirmative action, social security, climate change, policing, tax policy, redistribution, immigration, reparations, health insurance), what, in the short run, would be the response? It seems that the candidates would just “loudly and consistently” repeat the “few key political commitments” the party has. And in the long run, the splintering of the fledgling party would be devastating. My interactions with many intellectual evangelicals strongly suggests that many have political views widely different than the average evangelical and that among themselves there is significant political diversity. For these reasons, the party would sound weak and noncommittal in the short run, since it cannot answer many important questions, and splinter to nothing in the long run. There are far better ways to make our mark on the political landscape.
As ideal as a “Christian” political party sounds, calling for it betrays a confusion concerning the nature of two-party systems. I suggest that if Wedgeworth wants to start something like an alternative party, he should advocate for an alternative movement in one of the parties and sit out this presidential election cycle. After all, one does not have to vote for President. The US political system puts the agents of checks-and-balance on the same ballot as the president. The movement in the short run should focus on ensuring that the Big Two produce politicians that will resist the potential abuse of power from both a Clinton and Trump presidency. In the long run, the movement should seek to shape party policy and culture. A movement would be more effective than a party bound to fail for want of any prima facie relevance to our political system.
Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can read his blog here.