Americans Have the Power to Demand and Deliver Better

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The Dispatch’s recent editorial “The American People Should Demand Better” aptly captured the sense of dread among America’s dissident majority—the 70 percent who don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch. But it raises further questions: What should we do? What does “better” look like and how do we get there?

Some are responding to this challenge with variations of the fatalistic “binary choice” argument that says we have no hope but to submit to the options our partisan overlords have bestowed upon us. In the New York Times, David French attempts to persuade Haley voters like me that we should get on with endorsing Biden to stop Trump.

Not only are these endorsement pleas premature, they miss an opportunity to help the dissident majority discover its agency and bring about the change our country needs. I’m defiantly optimistic because I spent so many years in politics and saw firsthand the possibilities and limitations of life in the arena. Let me share three lessons.

First, our political system has never been more open and malleable, and it’s only going to become more so. Politicians love to weave tales about the system being rigged and beleaguered masses being marginalized by hidden dark forces like the “deep state” because it absolves them of the hard work of legislating. Yes, the administrative state desperately needs to be downsized and reformed, but most of what the public is told about the impenetrable establishment just isn’t true. The wonderful and terrifying reality (depending on your perspective) is that there is no one behind the curtain. Washington, D.C., isn’t House of Cards as much as it’s House of Chaos. Dysfunction isn’t the result of some clever plot or intricate web of deceit as much as inertia, neglect, and congressional underreach. Ironically, Trump’s ascension proves this. If the deep state that MAGA movement despises was really that powerful, wouldn’t it have stopped Trump by now?

Now, I’ve argued that to the extent that there is an establishment, it’s at Mar-a-Lago. Jonah Goldberg also makes the case that Trump is now the GOP establishment and that it’s silly to think otherwise. But the more important point for the dissident majority is that we’ve probably been living in an era with a decentralized establishment and weak parties for quite some time without fully realizing it.

Second, politics is downstream from culture and there is no shortage of opportunities for the dissident majority to be builders and renovators. The toxic polarization and chaos we’re seeing in our politics is the manifestation of cultural problems that can’t be solved solely within the political arena.

The common thread that runs through the big political stories of 2024 is a war on compromise, coalition building, American pluralism, and the American Idea itself. The mainstream media loves to write the story about the Party of Reagan becoming the Party of Trump, but the trend that matters most is deeper than party or ideology.

The most important news on Super Tuesday didn’t relate to Trump, Biden, or Haley but rather with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. After leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent in 2022, Sinema announced on March 5 that she wouldn’t seek reelection. In a short speech that diagnosed our cultural malady, she said:

“It’s all or nothing. The outcome, less important than beating the other guy. The only political victories that matter these days are symbolic, attacking your opponents on cable news or social media. Compromise is a dirty word. We’ve arrived at that crossroad, and we chose anger and division. I believe in my approach. But, it’s not what America wants right now. Because I choose civility, understanding, listening, working together to get stuff done, I will leave the Senate at the end of this year.”

The pathology is the same on both the left and the right. There is an “Axis of Illiberalism” in our politics that demonizes Sinema, punishes GOP Sen. James Lankford for working with Democrats on border security, encourages Trump to “permanently ban” Haley voters, and encourages serious legislators like Reps. Ken Buck and Mike Gallagher to head for the exits.

Our Founders saw this coming, which is why Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist 65 that a body politic that insisted on perfection and raged against compromise would become a desert.

Near the end of his life, an 81-year-old Thomas Jefferson doubled down on compromise:

“A government held together by bands of reason only, requires much compromise of opinion, that things even salutary not be crammed down the throats of dissenting brethren, especially when they may be put into form to be willingly swallowed, and that a great deal of indulgence is necessary to strengthen habits of harmony and fraternity.”

Focusing on culture, education, and strengthening civil society isn’t a cop out; it’s the main event that makes success in lesson three possible. And that lesson is: If minority factions can wreak havoc on the status quo in American politics, imagine what a dissident majority can do.

The best guide to thinking about factions comes from George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he warned, “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations [from parties]; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Washington surely understood that factions (and probably parties) would inevitably emerge in a free, pluralistic society. He was obviously supportive of the Constitution that assumed the presence of factions and was written to constrain factions through the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances.

The most important element in Washington’s Farewell Address wasn’t his words but his action—his farewell. By relinquishing power when could have remained, he helped launch the American experiment.

Would Washington support factional hardball and engage in war by peaceful means? I believe he would as long as we maintained an attitude of fraternal affection and warmheartedness toward our fellow America, which is why a culture that fosters true civility, pluralism, healthy conflict, and social connection with viewpoint diversity is essential. It’s very hard to demonize someone you have to look at in the eye.

Healthy factions are not only possible in 2024; they are essential, especially considering that the Axis of Illiberalism wants to purge the public square of dissent. Healthy factions do two things well: They persuade and they project power. Healthy factions make a case for a set of policies or solutions and invite others to join the cause. The Freedom Conservative movement is an example of a healthy faction focused on persuasion. The Freedom Conservative statement of principles includes almost 250 signatories (including a number of Dispatch writers and contributors).

Healthy factions also create permission structures that empower policymakers and citizens to support politically risky reforms as well as punishment or accountability structures that marginalize and thwart anti-American ideas and actors peacefully.

One example of a successful permission structure is the Conservative Climate Caucus, led by Rep. John Curtis and an ecosystem of groups around it (including one I helped establish called C3 Solutions—Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions). This new movement gives center-right legislators permission to say they care about environmental stewardship and that climate change is not a hoax while advancing policies rooted in economic freedom, which is demonstrably better for our natural and economic environment.

An effective accountability structure was the ecosystem of organizations in the Tea Party era like the Club for Growth that crossed the Rubicon of primarying big-spending incumbent Republicans. The Pat Toomey vs. Arlen Specter battle—the Club for Growth backed Toomey against Specter, GOP incumbent, in 2004 and eventually ousted Specter in 2010—feels like a different era, but it was only 15 years ago. Toomey’s path from GOP insurgent in 2004 to Tea Party conservative to MAGA pariah who voted to convict Trump for his role in the January 6 attack represents the arc of recent, and tortured, GOP history.

Whether the dissident majority likes the Tea Party or not, it was effective. During the Tea Party era (2008-2016) Republicans brought about the first year-to-year reduction in spending since the end of the Korean War, shut down earmarks (for a time), passed landmark transparency legislation, forced the Government Accountability Office to annually catalog duplication, proposed serious entitlement reform, and the party as a whole gained 69 House seats after proposing entitlement reform. During the Trump era, the GOP did produce some wins (almost exclusively thanks to Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan adhering to Reagan conservatism) but lost 19 House seats. That’s an 88-seat delta.

In 2024, America would benefit from a new ecosystem of organizations designed to hold Constitution-flouting policymakers accountable through the ruthless application of peaceful political force. Trump can purge MAGA of Haley voters and others who demonstrate insufficient fealty, but he’s creating a new generation of ronin who will gladly fight for a new master.

The dissident majority shouldn’t be constrained in its ambition and scope, and it should embrace an “all of the above” approach to tactics, institution building, and reform.

If you have a vision for a new party, go build one. Heath Mayo, who founded Principles First, and Liz Cheney could make great partners. If you want to run independent campaigns to subvert and undermine bad candidates propped up by corrupt parties, give ‘em hell. If you want to help elect Republicans who stand for freedom rather than fealty, help those candidates survive and achieve primacy in a toxic environment. If you want to focus on electoral reforms, fight to get rid of primaries, lower barriers to new parties and non-affiliated candidates, explore proportional voting, or pass term limits, you’ll find allies.

We face a “binary choice” only if we accept a corrupt status quo. The outdated system that created Trump-Biden is out of step and it’s up to us to provide a correction.

We’re facing a new frontier and new era of citizen led, bottom-up engagement unlike anything we’ve seen in centuries. Bad actors always rush to fill new frontiers first. Pirates were quite a problem for the new era of maritime trade. The Wild West was, well, wild during westward expansion. Today, it’s no surprise that outrage merchants are flooding the zone by exploiting emergent “small dollar” power. But when the normies find their footing, nothing will be able to stop them.

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