This should have been a conservatarian revolution.
The Republican Party is composed of three main wings. The first is the neoconservative ‘old guard,’ which has been the pragmatic, centrist, and unrelentingly dominant force in American right-wing politics for a long time. The second is the ‘tea party’ or, in older parlance, the ‘religious right,’ which is a kind of populist paleoconservatism that is rooted in traditional values and has relatively little patience for pragmatism or compromise. The third is the ‘conservatarian’ wing, which is made up of true-believers in limited government and strict constitutionalism, and whose members tend to lean toward at least some of the positions of the Libertarian Party.
There is a lot of overlap between these groups. Few Republicans, and even fewer conservative independents (like myself), fit cleanly into one wing or another. But I have always said that my views generally fall somewhere between the platforms of the Republican and Libertarian parties, and so conservatarian describes me better than almost any other political label. If I was a Republican, that is the wing I would likely find myself in.
Just one year ago, conservatarians seemed poised to wrest control of the Republican Party from the old guard. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the poster-boy of Republican conservatarianism, was winning straw polls and seemed to be a real contender for the presidential nomination. Tried-and-true members of the old guard like former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Governor John Kasich (R-OH) failed to gain traction. Republicans seemed ready for a change in direction, and Paul seemed like he could be the beneficiary of the old guard’s impending fall.
As we now know, that hunger for change instead lead many Republicans to Donald Trump (R), who is about as far from conservatarianism (or conservatism, for that matter) as one can get. We knew that Paul was never going to get the old guard’s primary vote, but I thought he would be able to get a chunk of the tea party wing on board. He couldn’t. That wing of the party eventually coalesced around Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and then moved to Trump. And I guess there just weren’t as many true-believer conservatarians in the Republican Party as I had hoped, so there was no way to make up the difference. Maybe too many conservatarians do what I do: identify as independents and stay out of the party primaries.
Paul’s problem was always going to be getting the nomination, but had he gotten it, I am convinced that he would be on his way to a 60/40 victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D). Even if I am overestimating the margin, I am all-but-certain that he would have won. He’s well liked by conservatarians, and respected enough by the old guard and the tea party to get their general election votes even if he would have struggled to get their support in the primary. He likely would have pulled some Libertarian, independent, and moderate-Democratic votes as well, especially against such a deeply unlikable Democratic nominee.
When it became clear that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, many conservatarians were understandably downtrodden. Their moment—our moment—seemed to have been lost. And so some left for the greener pastures of the Libertarian Party, leading their nominee, former Governor Gary Johnson (R-NM), to record-high poll numbers. Others resigned themselves to Trump as the lesser of available evils. Some got behind Evan McMullin (I), an independent candidate who looks like he might actually, somehow, win Utah.
Our modern two-party system makes it very unlikely that anybody other than the Republican and Democratic nominees will ever be president, but sometimes, with enough money or name recognition, that system gets a bit of a shake-up. Ross Perot won nearly twenty percent of the popular vote in 1992, despite confusing voters by leaving and then reentering the race. Former President Theodore Roosevelt (R) ran as the leader of a new Progressive Party in 1912, and he won nearly thirty percent of the popular vote. He beat incumbent President William Taft (R), but the split Republican vote resulted in a Woodrow Wilson (D) win.
Johnson is polling as well as he is because the Libertarian Party has spent decades building up a small but truly national party, and it is best situated to benefit from protest votes. But Johnson lacks the kind of name recognition or donor support he would need to run a truly competitive race against the Republican and Democratic duopoly. McMullin has tried to go it alone without the many millions of dollars that Perot had, or the name recognition that Roosevelt had, or the party infrastructure that Johnson has, and so he is polling at virtually nil nationally and isn’t even on most states’ ballots. And these are the disappointing results in a year that ought to be primed for a viable third-party challenge.
Who could have led such a challenge? Well, I think it should have been the aforementioned Senator Rand Paul.
After it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, Paul should have very publicly left the Republican Party and re-filed as a candidate for the Libertarian Party nomination, and then he should have invited all disaffected Republicans to join him there.
It might not have worked. A fair number of true-believer Libertarians already believe that Johnson is insufficiently ideological—a Republican masquerading as a Libertarian—and they would have had an even harder time accepting Paul as one of their own. And of course many Libertarians might have been understandably reluctant to rally behind somebody who wasn’t even part of their party a few weeks earlier. But this is a very weird year and anything is possible . . . after all, the Republican nominee is not a Republican, and a lot of Democrats voted for an independent senator in their primaries.
But imagine if Paul had been able to secure the nomination. Imagine if the Libertarian Party’s national infrastructure and supporters were married with his campaign organization, supporters, donors, and name recognition. It would have provided a logical destination for unhappy Republicans and open-minded Democrats. It would have been a viable choice for independents and centrists. He almost certainly would have qualified for the debates, which would have put liberty and limited government on the table in what is now, sadly, a contest between two statists.
And he could have won. It would have been a long-shot, but it was possible. And if it had happened, he would have taken down—or at least realigned—our entrenched two-party system. Even if he had lost, he might have sent the election into the House of Representatives and given the Republican Party one heck of a wake-up-call, thereby forcing the party to take the conservatarians more seriously in the future.
This terrible election could have been a catalyst for a political renaissance.
It was not to be, but I hope you’ll pardon me as I sit here and ponder what could have been.