Not everybody needs to belong to a political party, of course. There’s a credible case that writers and intellectuals, in particular, should not belong to one: American public discussion is too often deformed by rote repetition of party talking points from people who should be thinking for themselves.
But politics in a democracy is inherently a team sport, and parties are the most important of the teams in the game. Team sports never offer the option of playing alongside only people you like. To effect sustained political change, you have to build broad coalitions. Tea Party Republicans invested great energy in the first Obama term trying to drive out of the party all who dissented from their extremist minority program. They largely succeeded. They built just what they wanted: an extremist minority party. Their hope—and Paul Ryan was very much a proponent of this fantasy—was that they could mobilize a majority coalition for a minority program. To their surprise (but nobody else’s), they have failed. The mission ahead for conservative Americans is to open up their closed ideology enough to attract a majority that agrees on some things, but not on everything. Governing parties can never be doctrinaire parties—and a better memory of the actual record of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher confirms the observation.
Broadening the coalition does not imply unwavering loyalism to every bad party decision. George Meany’s AFL-CIO declined to endorse George McGovern for president in 1972. What it does mean is remembering that a party is more than its presidential nominee, more even than its organization and its organizational leadership. It’s a vast national network of men and women inspired by a shared ideal and impelled by common interests. Those networks are not easily built, and they are even less easily replaced.
And if they are replaced, any new network would soon become as messy and inconsistent as the previous, because that’s the nature of political networks in a vast, complex, continent-spanning society. To say, “We’ll blow up the Republican Party, and build in its place a new party under a new name that would never do anything like nominate Donald Trump” is to mistake the problem. If the new party is open to the same members as the old, it will replicate the behaviors of the old. And if the promise is that the new party will not replicate old bad behaviors because it is purer and more principled, that implies that it will also be smaller and even less competitive than the old.
Much easier than reconstruction of a new network is migration from one network to another. Much of the recent history of American politics is the history of these kinds of political plate tectonics: urban ethnics drifting from the Democrats to the Republicans and suburban professionals drifting from the Republicans to the Democrats; southern conservatives moving one way, northern liberals the other. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 electoral map looks like Al Smith’s of 1928, only turned upside down. Alf Landon’s best state in 1936, Vermont, was Barack Obama’s best state in 2008, after his native Hawaii and the District of Columbia. The term “neoconservative” was applied to a band of Democratic-oriented thinkers and writers who crossed the aisle to support Richard Nixon against George McGovern. With few exceptions (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ben Wattenberg), they never returned to their original political home. The process endlessly repeats itself. I know more than a few Republicans who cast a Democratic ballot in 2004 to protest the Iraq war, then did it again in 2008 in reaction against the Sarah Palin vice presidential nomination, and only after that realized they had discovered or created a new identity for themselves.