Trump has inflicted plenty of damage on America’s democracy and democratic institutions. Some of it is reparable, but some will prove enduring. Less well remarked is the damage he has induced the Republican Party to inflict on itself. Frances Cowell asks if a new, moderate conservative party needs to take its place.
In supporting Trump and his destructive agenda, many US Republicans, including many who, four years ago, stood “resolutely” against Trump, have betrayed themselves, their electors and their party – often in the interests of narrow personal political gain.
Once reliably centre-right, conservative, the Republican party can now be described only as hard right. This leaves a moderate conservative constituency unrepresented in US politics. At the same time, the Democrats have managed to shift their centre of gravity to the centre at the expense of their own extreme left that until recently threatened to take charge.
How many of the 71 million Americans who voted for Trump this year would have preferred a more moderate, conservative president is impossible to know for certain. A clue may lie in the millions who voted for him despite having responded to pollsters that they would not, perhaps embarrassed to be associated publicly with Trump’s agenda, but seeing themselves as more conservative than progressive and thus not able to bring themselves to vote for any of the alternatives. The consistently low approval Americans accorded Trump since his election would bear this out. Certainly, it is hard to believe that so many Americans share Trump’s racist, misogynist, xenophobia.
Capture of the centre by the extremes of established parties is not unique to the US. Something similar happened in Brexit UK, which lead to in 21 “rebel” Tory MPs being expelled from the party for defying the Prime Minister over his leading the country toward a chaotic rupture with the EU, which most Tory electors were and are against. The Labour Party has since tacked back to the centre – from its own looney-left fringe. With moderate Tories now excluded from government, Britain, as in the US, moderate conservatives are left largely unrepresented.
This hollowing out of the centre is bad for democracy, which depends on healthy political debate to represent all the main points of view and interests of its constituents. Shouting matches don’t pass muster. If the truth is known, most citizens of democracies find their political comfort zones in or near the centre, whether it be centre-left, progressive or centre-right, conservative. Many of them now find themselves un- or under-represented. Without viable centre-oriented parties, they may find they need to come up with them.
Something similar happened in France in 2017. The traditional conservative parity, spooked by Marine Le Pen’s advances into their turf, tacked toward her, thereby abandoning part of their constituency. The progressives were, for their part, being tugged left by the more radical trade unions, abandoning moderate progressive voters. Promising to represent the “radical centre”, Emmanuel Macron was elected President. Other parties are taking note, and, with luck, M. Macron may have some healthy competition at the next presidential election.
Time will tell if the Lincoln Project, formed of moderate and thinking Republicans to defeat Trump and his thuggish extreme right-wing dogma, or some similar movement, fills the void left by the GOP in the same way that Macon did in France.
Even if they do, the extremes that threaten to gut the centre did not arise spontaneously or without cause. However, the US election turns out, the pressures supporting Trump have not, and will not, go away – either in the US or elsewhere, including in Europe.
Successful democracies accommodate both extreme and moderate political preferences. The challenge is to maintain the balance that represents the full range. Right now, the centre-right is missing. For the sake of democracy, it needs to be invented.