Charles U. Zug is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College.
Recently, commentators have speculated that the Republican Party might fissure along pro- and anti-Trump lines, with a third party emerging as a consequence. In response, even more commentators have pointed to the dismal history of third parties in American politics (think: Know-Nothings, Bull Moose, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot) as evidence that this will not happen.
I’d like to suggest that there are good reasons for questioning the latter view. Following the precedent of Donald Trump, Republican politicians increasingly see national office not as a means for governing and policymaking, but as a raised platform for promulgating divisive rhetoric—i.e., for owning the libs. Given these new priorities, we should expect to see the traditional function of the national political party—a means for assembling durable governing majorities—change accordingly.
Why Third Parties Have Traditionally Failed
Rep. Liz Cheney’s recent ouster from Republican Congressional leadership, and a petition supposedly signed by over 100 present and former Republican officials calling for a rejection of Donald Trump’s enduring influence over conservatives, are just two of many signals that the Republican Party is in crisis. Might this crisis precipitate the collapse of the Republican Party organization and the emergence of a new party system?
Such an occurrence would not be without precedent in American history, of course. The dissolution of the Democratic-Republican coalition in the late 1820s resulted in the emergence of two new parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, each of which cobbled together enough former Democratic-Republicans and Federalists to pose a credible threat in the Congress and the Electoral College for another generation. And starting in 1860, the new Republican Party amassed enough former Whigs and Democrats to secure the presidency as well as Congressional majorities.
Among other factors, what differentiates these partisan realignments from what we are seeing in the Republican Party today is that each new party was not a third party. Rather, the Democrats and the Whigs wholesale replaced the Jeffersonians and the Federalists as the new party duality, as did the Republicans and Democrats vis-à-vis the Whigs thirty years later. More specifically, the new parties came into existence because they were able to peel away enough electoral support from the previous party alignment to assemble national majorities in the Congress and the Electoral College. Counterfactually, had the Whigs simply split in two (without capturing enough former Democrats and new voters to pose a credible threat at the national level), the Democrats would have maintained a national majority, and the two former-Whig factions would have become irrelevant, thereby consigning themselves to the fate of numerous other third parties in American history.
For these reasons, many would—and do—say that the likelihood of a Republican split, and the emergence of a third party, are highly unlikely today. In their view, the incentive structure just isn’t there. The Democratic Party obviously has enough support to command national majorities, as does the Republican Party. But if the Republicans were to split in two, neither of the new parties would be able to compete with the Democrats singlehandedly unless one was able to peel away enough Democrats to form a new national majority—rather an unlikely possibility.
Assuming current individual Republicans want to have a credible shot at commanding majorities at the national level, they would have more of an incentive to stick together than to break apart. Is this a safe assumption?
The New Partisan Incentive Structure
As is well known, the design feature of American national politics that has historically disincentivized third parties is our first-past-the-post (i.e., non-proportional) electoral system. Even if a third party could turn out, say, 10-20 percent of the electorate in numerous Congressional races (a sizeable number of votes in the aggregate), and perhaps even win a few seats, it would remain essentially irrelevant in national politics because being relevant requires a national majority. Representation being winner-take-all, those candidates who secured 10-20 percent would be wasted votes; individual voters therefore have virtually no incentive to support candidates who cannot plausibly obtain a plurality.
So, unless those few members of the third party who did clinch their elections aligned themselves sufficiently with one of the two major parties once in Congress, they would have little formal influence in Congress because the majority party decides chamber leadership and committee assignments. And if you’re willing to toe one party’s line enough to persuade it to appoint you to committees, why not just join that party and be done with the third party charade?
Again, the guiding assumption behind the political logic I’ve outlined here is that individual politicians want the political power and prestige that comes with being in the majority. You’re on the winning team. You get outsized influence on the committees you’re assigned to. And you can take credit for the legislation your majority party passes.
But what if the incentive structure were completely different, such that individual politicians no longer saw the goods that come with being in the majority as good? Or at least, saw them as inferior to a different set of goods, ones that could be obtained irrespective of whether one possesses any formal institutional power?
There is reason to suspect that this is precisely how a growing number of politicians—especially Republicans—understand their own political self-interest. Consider, for example, that when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was stripped of her committee assignments (the only significant formal power available to a freshman member), the Congresswoman responded gleefully that being on those committees would have been a waste of time anyway, and that she now has more freedom to pursue what she really cares about: being an online provocateur.
Greene is not alone, of course. Increasingly, recent classes of Republican Representatives in particular have included members who view their office, not as a means to participate in governance—to use the levers of political power to pursue their favored political goals—but rather as an elevated platform from which to raucously pursue their own rhetorical agenda. Alex Burns describes this change in the Republican political ecosystem accordingly:
Republican primary voters really like President Trump. And they are really drawn to a version of politics that is totally alien to people who entered Congress more than a couple of years ago, and that the voices of extremism, if they express themselves in a certain kind of way and on a certain kind of platform, whether it’s Facebook or Fox News, they really get the Republican base riled up. And most members of Congress do not want to run headlong into that when they face the voters again in a year.
(Some readers might object here that Democrats, too, traffic in this kind of behavior. I would respond that while members of The Squad certainly are energetic manipulators of social media, they also care a great deal about governing. AOC uses social media because she thinks it will help advance the Green New Deal and the $15 Minimum Wage—actual public policy she believes in.)
In contrast, for politicians who subscribe to the mindset I’ve described, being in the majority (or on committees or in party leadership, for that matter) is irrelevant because exercising influence over the country’s policy agenda is not the goal. Instead, the goal is online notoriety, as well as the material benefits that flow from such notoriety.
Origins and Consequences
What are the origins of this new incentive structure, and what does it mean for the future of our politics? The latter question is easier to answer.
Though it by no means guarantees that a third party of pro-Trump conservatives will break off from the old-guard Republican organization, it does suggest that figures like Trump and Greene have set the precedent for office seekers who, if elected, would use their offices for purposes inimical to those traditionally pursued by major national parties, and who therefore care less about the ability of their own parties to actually remain competitive at the national level.
What were these purposes? As James Ceaser shows in his classic treatment of the subject, the American party system arose to serve a function that the Constitution itself could not. Though the American founders regarded parties as dangerous and unnecessary in the constitutional system they designed, it became clear early on that some kind of organization would be necessary to coordinate within and among the branches of national government. Organizing majorities to design and pass legislation was simply too difficult without at least a rough sense of where politicians stood or were likely to stand on a given issue, and early party activists like Martin Van Buren were convinced that the country could have parties that performed this modest though necessary function without devolving into the kind of violent factionalism—conflict between alternative political regimes—that marked the pre-modern era.
But if the end that our parties were designed to realize—designing and passing legislation—is no longer the end that the individual members of our parties wish to pursue, then we should expect the parties to change accordingly. The traditional Republican Party will lose its relevance if its function is no longer to assemble majorities which, in turn, empower politicians to play an active role in governance and policymaking through leadership and committees. Who cares if you are a part of these processes if you can gain and maintain an even more fanatical following by means of Twitter and Parler?
This last observation points to the question of where and when these changes began. Although their causes are certainly complex, I can discern two significant threads in American political development that would seem to bear responsibility.
The first is the rise of what might be called the rhetorical Congress. Like the post-Wilson presidents Jeffrey Tulis describes in The Rhetorical Presidency, individual members of Congress find it in their interest to appeal over the heads of other members and other institutions to their own popular following, rather than actually putting in the hard work that legislating requires. Whereas previously members felt the need to do both—they toggled between a rhetorical posture and a legislative posture—today, following Trump’s example, they have abandoned the latter and embraced the former because scoring points on social media had more currency than shaping public policy.
The second thread begins with Ronald Reagan’s well-known mantra that government is not the solution to the problem; it is the problem. Though Reagan meant this statement as a critique of the late New Deal’s excesses, not as a repudiation of the very idea of good governance—Reagan was an unabashed admirer of FDR—the contemporary Republican Party has expressed greater affinity for the latter interpretation than for the former.
In this view, the mere act of participating in the legislative process signals one’s complicity in a fundamentally corrupt, “rigged” system that is best described as a “deep state” and a “swamp.” Given such a nihilistic outlook on politics, it is unsurprising that the GOP has begun to recruit candidates who believe—or at least, used to believe—in QAnon: the conspiracy theory that Washington, DC is in the grips of an international ring of child sex-traffickers. If your followers believe the government is beyond redemption, and incapable of doing good, why not make a career in politics by accusing Washington of being the very embodiment of human evil, and by doing your best—as Greene, Trump, and the rest of their ilk have done—to disrupt the very processes that enable our constitutional system to realize its basic governmental responsibilities?
To be sure, it is hard to say what a party organized around ideas like these would look like—or whether it would even count as a “party” in any meaningful sense. One crucial way in which it would differ from the parties that Americans are historically accustomed to would be a total absence of both interest group pluralism and direct elite control. As Grossman and Hopkins show, the Democratic Party was more interest-group dominated than the Republican Party even before the rise of Trump (though both parties historically left some role for interest group control). A party built out of competing interest groups—i.e., organizations with a material interest in the electoral success of the party with which they are aligned—will require elites to represent those interests and adjudicate the conflicts that invariably arise among them. In turn, these elites will serve as gatekeepers deciding how much salience should be given to different issues and how much influence leaders within the party should have. Most importantly, they will appreciate the importance—nay, the indispensability—of commanding national majorities for rewarding their interest-group constituents with favorable legislation. Insofar as gatekeeping is a necessary part of this role, party elites will play a decisive role in recruiting and vetting candidates.
Notoriously, the Republican Party eschewed any meaningful gatekeeping function in 2016, and by 2020, the party “platform” had become nothing more than a pledge of fealty to Donald Trump. At the Congressional level, we perhaps see a similar dynamic playing out in the elections of members like Green and Matt Gaetz: it is unclear how much their voters care about the material benefits these politicians are able to secure in Congress through effective lawmaking. If Green’s comments upon being ousted from her committee assignments are in any way illustrative of the phenomenon I’m describing, there would seem to be few personal incentives for these kinds of members to align themselves with a majority party, for the simple reason that the goods their constituents regard them as securing—e.g., battling “political correctness” by means of social media provocations—do not require a majority in Congress or the Electoral College in order to be delivered.
That being said, I think these politicians could still go on to form a political group or organization that bears a meaningful resemblance to the parties we currently have, even if it does not perform the traditional electoral function of those parties. As Jeff Tulis has suggested, the rhetorical tropes and conspiracy theories that these kinds of politicians—following Trump—regularly deploy can serve as coordinating devices that help to overcome the kinds of collective action problems that political parties traditionally face. The difference is that whereas the traditional parties required coordination in order to turn out the vote across the country, the hypothetical party I’m describing would be less concerned with winning elections nationwide than with nurturing and sustaining a sense of solidarity among those who view the system as fundamentally irredeemable.
The GOP’s current experience with Trump is illuminating in this regard. Most of the Party seems not to care that its most influential leader (by a long, long shot) is a septuagenarian unlikely to live more than another decade; and that, due to social, cultural, and demographic changes, the Party’s days in national politics are numbered. Indeed, the Party seems more than happy to indulge the kind of bizarre, golden-statue-worshipping-but-ultimately-inconsequential performance art that marked the 2021 CPAC meeting. It seems possible that this group of people will happily continue in their current trajectory, even if it means sacrificing all meaningful institutional power at the national level.