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America needs a strong center-right to prevent another Trump

We can’t spend every four years wondering if this is the end of democracy.
Image: An elephant against a red background moves from right towards the centre pushing the red background with its trunk
The two-party system as it stands won't lead the country to real change.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Let’s begin with a fact: The Republican Party as we know it is tarnished and overrun with elements of the far-right. The party’s elites have been courting and harnessing these elements for decades. I honestly don’t know if the GOP can be saved at this point. But as the Trump era fades, the left can’t erase the damage done on its own. Democrats can’t be alone in the center — America needs a strong center-right if it’s ever going to recover and move forward.

As the Trump era fades, the left can’t erase the damage done on its own.

Gallup has tracked Americans’ ideology for decades, asking respondents if they describe themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal. In 2019, 37 percent identified as conservative, 35 percent moderate, and just 26 percent called themselves liberal. Progressives have gained strength and momentum over the years — the number of Democrats who identify as liberal has doubled since 1994, per Gallup — but the United States is still a center-right country.

In theory, politicians who can meet their counterparts in the middle are more flexible, more open to borrowing ideas from each other. I’m just barely old enough to remember when bipartisanism was feasible in Congress. And yet “centrist” is a label almost exclusively associated with Democrats these days — among Republicans, the race to the right has yielded a major candidate nonsensically promoted as “more conservative than Atilla the Hun.” President-elect Joe Biden told The Wall Street Journal recently that despite all evidence to the contrary, there are already plenty of Republicans in Congress who are willing to find common ground with him.

I’m skeptical of Biden’s assessment. The Republican Party as I know it was born just a few years after I was, on the back of the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. Since then, compromise has been seen as less and less valuable to the Republican base. Moderates have been almost entirely exiled from the party or driven into hiding in fear of a primary challenge from the right. Gingrich’s wave gave way to the Tea Party’s arrival in Congress in 2010, who cared even less about legislating. Their goal was breaking down the system entirely — no wonder we wound up with President Donald Trump just six years later.

Conservatism is by its nature reactionary, an entrenchment of the elites and other dominant groups against change and any yielding of political power and authority. William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, described his new conservative magazine in 1955 as one that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Just who benefited from history’s halt went unmentioned in the oft-paraphrased quote — the people already doing great.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, that meant the landowners, the nobility and big business. All of them viewed the growing shift toward democracy with skepticism, as angling to protect their own interests, especially against the rising popularity of the labor movement and the influence of Marxism.

How elites chose to support or hinder democracy has been key to whether democracy survives.

Conservatism’s strength in the U.S. comes from the individualism that’s been at the country’s core since its founding. Intertwined with that, however, is the white nationalism that founders like Thomas Jefferson and other enslavers who formed the elite of the day encoded into America’s DNA. The two make for a potent combo for many voters.

How elites chose to support, or hinder, democracy has been key to whether democracy survives, the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt argued in his book “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.” Ziblatt told The Atlantic in a 2017 interview that “when one looks around the world historically, at key moments, conservatives have been a hinge of history. Their reaction to forces of change shape whether or not a democracy survives.”

It’s what we saw in Weimar Germany, the republic founded at the end of World War I. Unlike in Britain — where, as Ziblatt noted, conservatives had learned early on how to work within the party system — the early days of parliamentary democracy were a chaotic mess in the eyes of German elites.

Gridlock in the Reichstag, street violence between paramilitaries and leftists, and the global depression kicked off in the United States convinced conservatives like President Paul Hindenburg to clear the way for Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. The Nazi Party’s ascendency wasn’t the result of a coup. Its strength instead grew gradually as it stoked the growing dissatisfaction with democracy. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the political center was exhausted from three elections in six months.

Meanwhile, the far-right had been whipped into a frenzy, giving the Nazis the most seats in the Parliament. (The left-wing, including the social democrats and the feared communists, were a nonfactor in the negotiations.)

Hindenburg and others on the right were sure that Hitler could provide the order they craved while they kept his worst instincts in check. The Centre Party, lacking the seats to prevent a majority from forming, opted to back Hitler’s government — its members voted in favor of the Enabling Act, empowering Hitler to govern by decree. The center, in the end, did not hold.

The social order in the United States, meanwhile, has almost always been defined largely by race.

After World War II ended in total defeat for Germany, the Americans turned to former center-right politicians like Konrad Adenauer who had shunned Hitler to help rebuild German politics. This time around, the center, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union has led the government since 2005, has managed to rebuff upstarts on the far-right — for now, anyway. The far-right nationalist AfD Party has made gains since its founding seven years ago, enough to be the largest opposition party in Parliament.

The social order in the United States, meanwhile, has almost always been defined largely by race. It’s easy to see this in how the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994 harnessed anger against social programs that conservatives falsely claimed benefited Black Americans to the detriment of the white middle and working class.

The gains made in the South that powered Gingrich’s victory were the final payoff of the region’s conservative shift away from the Democratic Party, which for decades was home to some of the most anti-Black politicians in Congress.

As the years went on, the grievance that white voters harbored as their total dominance of American politics and economics receded became more vocal, especially after Barack Obama captured the White House in 2008. Members of the conservative establishment artfully supported Tea Party groups to funnel this rage into what mattered most to them — preventing tax hikes or any other attempts to redistribute the wealth they’d hoarded.

Birtherism, Trump’s gateway into national politics, was the subtext made text, rejecting that anything but fraud and subterfuge could have allowed a Black man to be president. It’s a short path from there to insisting that the 2020 election was somehow rigged and having most of the Republican establishment sign on to an attempt to overturn the results at the Supreme Court.

Which brings us to the Lincoln Project. The former Republican consultants who founded the campaign have billed themselves as the anti-Trump avengers whose ads siphoned enough votes from Trump to deliver President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November. Its critics consider it at best a grift parting liberal fools from their money, and at worst a possible Trojan horse for a return to the same GOP policies that gave rise to Trump in the first place.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., falls in the former camp, tweeting on Nov. 6 that the Lincoln Project should “take the L” and give the money it’s raised — more than $80 million since 2019 — to groups with more impact. Ocasio-Cortez also said the group was “in scam territory” based on how few voters it had flipped. (Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, found in a test it ran that the Lincoln Project ads that went viral on Twitter didn’t really sway viewers.)

But co-founder Steve Schmidt, who was a senior strategist for President George W. Bush, still wants to work with Ocasio-Cortez.

He also recently announced that he’s leaving the Republican Party entirely. “At the end of the day, there's now one pro-democracy political party in the United States of America, and that's the Democratic Party. And I am a member of that party because of that. I'm a single-issue voter. I believe in democracy," Schmidt said on MSNBC on Dec. 15.

I appreciate that Schmidt and his co-founder Stuart Stevens are making amends for past efforts to get Republicans elected. I will say, though, that I don’t know if that means he and others like him should become Democrats. Yes, the Democrats are a big-tent party, with members ranging from centrist Blue Dogs to progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of "the squad" in the House. But America can’t survive another decade where those outside that tent suggest that martial law is an appropriate response to losing an election. We can’t spend every four years wondering if this is the end of democracy.

No, there can — and should — be honest disagreements about how the country should operate. For that to be viable, there needs to be an actual center-right movement that operates under its own momentum and promotes its own ideas, rather than just checking the left inside of the Democratic Party. That may not be the Republican Party — if centrists can’t wrest at least some power back within the party, it may be necessary to leave it to a new body.

It will require courage, though, from both the politicians who serve in office and the donor class who are still writing checks to the Republican National Committee. The two-party system doesn’t mean that a failing party can never die, and it may be time for the party of Lincoln to go the way of the Whigs.