Like most people who follow politics, I’ve been reading story after story about Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, and other moderate Republican politicians who have spoken out against Donald Trump and “the big lie”. In each one, the outcome is the same: the moderate Republican who crosses the Trump line is immediately booed or attacked. I’m not surprised by these consistent cancellations, but I am frustrated: the Liz Cheney/moderate Republican solution to the illiberal slide in the Republican Party seems to be some combination of wait it out, release strong condemnations, and fund center-right primary candidates in Republican primaries. This plan doesn’t seem to be working as Trump and his brand of politics continue to weld to the Republican Party.
Liz Cheney’s likely ouster this week as the #3 in House Republican Leadership is a wakeup call. We need to rethink how we wrest control of American politics away from Donald Trump. I’m not saying Cheney and others should cease their condemnations. They should continue speaking up and I wish more Republicans would. But the problem is deeper than that. It’s not that we don’t have enough Liz Cheney’s speaking out against the Trump wing. It’s that the rank and file Republican primary voter holds most of the cards, and the Trump wing controls them.
Republicans, we have a problem
The deeper problem is unquestionably Trump’s firm grip on the Republican Party. Republican primary voters ultimately decide who goes to congress and they have been taking their cues from the former president. The big lie—Trump’s insistence that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him—is the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon. Polls show majorities of Republicans believe this lie and Republican state legislatures have proceeded accordingly: passing voting laws meant to make voting harder for Democrats to vote.
Republicans that have spoken out against Trump or the big lie are often met with swift backlash. Brad Raffensberger had his voting seat on the Georgia State Election Board stripped by the state legislature after passage of the state’s new voting law last month, a clear revenge tactic after he refused to play along with Trump’s efforts to steal Georgia. Mitt Romney voted to impeach Donald Trump twice and has been an outspoken critic of the president. A few weeks ago, he was booed giving a speech at the state party convention. Michael Wood was the vocal anti-Trump Republican who ran in the Texas 6th congressional district’s special election this year, condemning Trump throughout the campaign. He was consistently booed and received 3% of the vote. Liz Cheney is poised to lose her position in the House Leadership because she has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump and the Big Lie.
The strategy to combat this and wrest control from Trump and the illiberal right-wing seems to boil down to fighting his candidates in primaries, writing strongly worded statements, and insisting that the fever will eventually break. Karl Rove, the longtime Republican strategist, was recently a guest on the popular podcast Hacks on Tap. He was asked what moderates like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney should do in the face of the overwhelming onslaught from the Trump base. His short answer: “well, you persevere.” Now, I’m sure this strategy is well-thought out. It most likely entails persuading more Republican leaders to come out against the big lie and recruiting primary candidates to run against Trump Republicans. But is Rove’s and other moderate’s short answer enough to stop the GOP’s illiberal slide and loosen Trump’s grip? I don’t believe so. Trump’s grip and more importantly its slide toward illiberalism doesn’t appear to be waning. I have the utmost respect for Republicans who are outspoken against Trump and his conspiracy theories. People like Liz Cheney should continue doing what they’re doing. But what other ways can we to solve this problem that doesn’t entail tactics that are essentially swimming against the current? Our problems are deeper and structural. As such, they require solutions that are deeper and structural.
Other ways to break a fever
If the central issue is the Republican primary voter—a tiny sliver of the overall population—the solutions should revolve around how to dilute their power in American politics. Two structural changes come to mind: changing how primary elections are conducted and creating a political environment for 3rd parties to thrive.
The primary issue
First, elections. Primary voters wield disproportionate power, and due to the right leaning skew among several of our institutions, the right-wing primary voter has even more influence in our governing institutions. Almost 85% of all congressional seats are dubbed “safe” meaning—due to geographic self-sorting and congressional gerrymandering—it is almost a predetermined outcome which party will win that seat. A bag of bagels could win a seat in the House of Representatives if it is running as a Republican in a safe Republican seat. This leads to a distortion in our politics. The voters who participate in primary elections effectively decide the makeup of congress. Liz Cheney is in the safe Republican House seat from Wyoming. What determines if she is sent back to congress or not isn’t a general election, its her party primary. To give Republicans like Liz Cheney more breathing room defy this crazy base, we need to change primary elections.
Some have suggested using nonpartisan elections with a “jungle primary” framework: candidates from all parties would be on the same primary ballot and anyone in the district or state could vote, regardless of their party registration. The top vote-getters would move on to the general election. Most states that use jungle primaries have the top 2 advance, but one state—Alaska—recently passed a ballot measure where their new jungle primary will allow the top 4 vote getters into the general election and chosen using ranked-choice voting. Some have made the argument that in the case of Lisa Murkowski—Republican Senator from Alaska—the effects of this new primary system are already being felt. Because Murkowski—who is up for reelection soon—doesn’t have to worry as much about Republican base voters, she has been more outspoken against Trump and his election fraud claims. After the January 6th riot and insurrection she was one of the most vocal Republican leaders arguing that Trump should resign before his term was up.
A third (party) way
If we lived in a parliamentary democracy Liz Cheney and Donald Trump wouldn’t be in the same political party. Heck, Joe Biden and AOC probably wouldn’t be either! So why are they? Why don’t Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney break off from the Trump-infested Republican Party and start a new one? Lee Drutman, the political scientist from New America has pushed this option. Opponents claim that this is a death sentence: no third party can be self-sustaining in America, a country dominated by political duopoly. I agree with this assessment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change the parts of our political systems that make third parties difficult to form.
Drutman recently wrote a book arguing for these types of reforms. Instead of having a single member representing every congressional district, we should allow for proportional representation. Each district would have 3-5 seats and elections—using ranked choice voting—would have a long list of candidates running to fill those seats. In our current system, if someone wins a congressional seat 55% to 45%, the 45% who voted for someone else receive no representation in congress. In a proportional representation system with ranked choice voting, that 45% would have at least 1 representative aligned with them on most issues, allowing for more ideological diversity within congress. In this system, third parties could actually win seats, giving them the ability to grow and build coalitions with other parties. A party started by say Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney could coalesce with Democrats to keep Trump Republicans far away from power, much like German political parties have been able to do with their far-right Alternative for Germany party.
I’m just sayin’: maybe we can think of some other options?
I’m writing this piece not to give a step-by-step guide for how to purge the illiberal Trump faction of the Republican Party. I wrote this because I think the conversation surrounding how to achieve this goal should start encompassing a broader list of ideas and options. Nonpartisan primaries, proportional representation, third parties, ranked choice voting: these are just a few alternatives to the “just preserve” strategy that I think might bear more fruit. They won’t solve all of our problems I’m sure, but they’ll be more effective that just waiting out the illiberal fever hold. I’m hoping Liz Cheney and others agree.
And if you all have other ideas, I’m all ears.