Per this AP report, some influential conservative Christians are considering breaking the GOP alliance to field a third party. Both major political parties in the U.S. are effectively alliances of groups with enough common interests to unite them on significant issues. However, both parties have a lot of internal disagreements because groups that make up the alliances have disparate and often conflicting interests. The alliances function to the point that the competing groups agree to set aside their disagreements and focus on areas where more agreement exists.
Intra-party competition is a safety valve that limits party power and narrows party focus. It is a sifting mechanism that winnows out less popular ideas in favor of those ideas where some consensus can be achieved. However, in a large party, this can mean that issues that are highly important to even good-sized blocs can fall by the wayside. This can leave fairly powerful groups feeling disenfranchised and underappreciated. This phenomenon occurs in both parties.
Party leaders are constantly working to maintain a satisfactory balance. That’s why they often speak and act inconsistently: they are pandering to groups in their alliances in order to keep the alliance intact. Both parties often ignore their own leaders’ inconsistencies, while loudly criticizing the inconsistencies of the other party’s leaders.
Four decades ago, the South was reliably Democrat. The South was filled with Democrats that were social conservatives. But things began to change in the late 60s and early 70s. The civil rights era resulted in a slow change of the political power structure in the South. When social liberals seized control of the Democratic Party, social conservatives felt sufficiently disenfranchised that they began moving to the Republican side. During this time, long-time alliances in both parties broke and there was a major realignment. Feminists that had been aligned with big business in the GOP moved to the Democrats, for example. Many groups changed parties as party ideologies shifted.
As is always the case whenever changes occur, some were able to take advantage of this shift, while others got the short end of the stick. I have often mentioned that political novice Orrin Hatch (R-UT) benefited from this shift in 1976 when was able to unseat unsuspecting three-term Senator Frank Moss (D-UT), whose power base evaporated before he realized what was happening.
The GOP alliance between social conservatives and the other major players in the GOP has always been a marriage of convenience. Social conservatives came from decades of simply having power and being naturally consulted on issues, to having to get into the filthy trenches of politics and fight for their causes. It has been a rude awakening for them as well as for competing groups. Instead of being able to stay above the fray, they have had to act like common politicians, which many competitors and some of their own have decried as unbecoming of the ideals they claim to uphold.
But what is happening today? The statement by Richard A. Viguerie, quoted in the AP article says it all when he says that social conservatives “have been treated like a mistress as long as any of us can remember.” Presumably speaking of the GOP powerful, he says, “They'll have lots of private meetings with us, tell us how much they appreciate it and how much they value us, but if you see me on the street please don't speak with me.” Viguerie is saying that social conservatives are tired of putting out for the party without getting respect for their issues.
I have previously discussed the infeasibility of the emergence of a viable third party in U.S. politics (see here and here). Social conservative leaders aren’t stupid. They know that splitting from the GOP to form a third party would not produce a viable party. But they also know that it would cripple the GOP. What these people are doing is threatening to take their ball and go home in the hope that the rest of the GOP will wake up and realize how much they need the social conservatives. They want some bones thrown in their direction. They want more than the lip service they have received over the past three decades; they want actual results on some of their hot-button issues.
Social conservatives may be asking for more than the GOP is capable of delivering. For one thing, there simply isn’t consensus among other groups in the GOP on many of the social conservatives’ major issues. For another thing, granting this group more power in the party necessarily means diminishing the power of one or more other groups in the alliance. None of these competing groups are going to willingly acquiesce on this.
Other groups in the GOP alliance are also not very happy with the party’s recent strong focus on the South. They note that GOP popularity in the more liberal Northeast has been rapidly disappearing as the party has ignored this area, perhaps figuring that it is a lost cause.
The fact is that the South cannot get much more Republican than it is today. A stronger focus on the South isn’t going to yield a whole lot more votes. To be viable, the GOP needs much more vigor in the liberal Northeast, in the labor-minded growing population centers of the Midwest, in the burgeoning multi-ethnic centers of the Southwest, and in the libertarian West. The GOP ignores or offends these people at its own peril. Besides, many GOP insiders wonder (even out loud) where else social conservatives could go. Certainly not to the Democratic Party, in which social liberals still have very strong sway.
It appears that at least some social conservatives are saying that they might be willing to leave the GOP to prove their value to the party. Other social conservatives are not ready to jump. They know that this is like the underappreciated spouse that gets a divorce to prove his/her worth to the other partner: it would leave everyone worse off in the long run.
It seems to me that rather than try to force their political will on other members of the GOP alliance, social conservatives would do better to get out and convert people in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West to their cause. To be sure, this would be a very long-term project. But I’m not sure it would require any more resources than they have been willing to put into politics over the past couple of decades. If enough people in the essential voting areas of the nation adopt socially conservative ideals, corresponding political power will grow naturally.
Researchers already know that the strongest and most diverse community structures in the nation are found in mega-churches, which are a fairly recent phenomenon. This would suggest that social conservatives need to expand the popularity of the mega-church beyond its current confines.
Now for a quick disclaimer. For those who seethe with unpleasant sentiments toward the Christian Right (and those who regularly point out that most members of the Christian Right detest my religion), I am merely analyzing what I see happening and suggesting what I think is a reasonable course. I am not making any judgments about the Christian Conservative movement or about those that politically promote socially conservative ideals. You can do that on your own time.
I understand that many social conservatives are frustrated with their lack of definable political successes. But threatening to form a third party is going to create more enemies than friends. I know that the course I have suggested is a long-term project that will only yield desirable political outcomes after years of work. But it is the only reasonable path, since social conservatives simply do not currently have sufficient political capital to get their way. Think about it. What is more likely to get you what you really want: bullying or reaching out to others?