Regarding the first function, many jurisdictions are effectively one-party locales. New York City is overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats. Mississippi is the province of Republicans. The political action in those jurisdictions comes in the primaries, where individuals with an array of policy views and personal attributes fight it out. Dozens of Democratic candidates are running for mayor of New York; no one seriously questions whether New Yorkers are deprived of the benefits of democracy.
With regard to organizing legislative bodies, most Western-style democracies have more than two parties. By the same token, it is conceivable, as the Founders envisioned, that something akin to “factions” rather than political parties provides the organizational structure for legislatures. We saw a moderate faction help end the government shutdown in 2018 and forge an agreement on a covid-19 relief package last December.
That faction of sane Senate Republicans, for example, could conceivably organize as its own caucus, wielding power that would install, for example, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) or Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) as majority leader. There is no magic, in other words, to two parties.
Moreover, the pining for a sane Republican Party — a “center right” party — makes sense only if one thinks such a party has a constituency and sufficient distance from the Democratic Party. Can you find a base for a party that, say, wants to spend a trillion dollars instead of $1.9 trillion on a covid-19 relief bill? Perhaps in a few states, but nationwide, it is unclear that there is a felt need for a Democratic-lite party, beyond rich donors. It is even harder to find a substantial base for a Barry Goldwater-style “small government” party. Neither side ran on such a platform in 2020.
It is no secret that modern conservatism, in large part a response to the Cold War, is ideologically spent. The Bulwark’s William Kristol got to the nub of it in a September post:
So perhaps we need to acknowledge that it has come to this: Real, existing conservatism as it exists in America in 2020 is an accomplice to, an apologist for, and an enabler of Trump’s nativist, populist, unconservative, and illiberal authoritarianism. ...[P]erhaps every political movement has a natural lifespan: Modern American conservatism was born in 1955, peaked in full flower in the 1980s, and then aged, mostly gracefully, for three decades. Until it could easily, if suddenly, be pushed aside in its dotage—forced, or induced, to surrender to its younger and stronger, if disreputable, distant relative.
If the Democratic Party were made up purely of devotees of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one could see space for a center-right party. But contrary to GOP propaganda, that is not the case. A center-left nominee won the presidency. The Senate includes many moderate Democrats, including Warner, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania.
All of that is to say that there is no particular reason to hope for a revived Republican Party insofar as we are looking for a vehicle for an exhausted ideology. If we need a second or a third party, the possibilities are endless. There are socially conservative but economically progressive parties in Western Europe that embrace a strong social contract. There could be a need for a centrist party if the Democrats go off the deep end.
However, as we think through this next era in politics, we should abide by one core principle: A right-wing, populist and authoritarian party should not be allowed to hold power. It has proved to be dangerous, racist and fundamentally un-American. Everything else should be up for debate.