Some disillusioned rightists look with admiration at the candidacy of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who doubled the national vote total for the Libertarian Party. This achievement, however, still yielded less than 1 percent of the national electorate, and no state proved close enough that Johnson’s meager votes, added to Romney’s, could have tipped the result away from Obama. Even more important, the total vote for the leading five fringe-party candidates remained virtually identical to the results in 2008, suggesting that Johnson took votes from the fading Constitution Party or even from the weary Green Party (many of whose members liked Johnson’s pitch for legalized pot) rather than drawing support from Republicans or Democrats.
Frustrated conservatives should remember three salient points as they flirt with notions of abandoning the Grand Old Party for some grand new political movement or extrapolitical revolutionary goal.
First, it’s always easier to capture an existing party than to build some fresh endeavor from scratch. Goldwater conservatives proved that in 1964, as did Reaganites in 1980—not to mention McGovern Democrats in 1972. Successful Tea Party insurgents (such as Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, along with Senator-elect Ted Cruz) all worked within the established party structure, not outside it.
Second, it’s impossible to save a party—or a country—by leaving it. Secession from the U.S.A. would deny the citizens of the departed state any meaningful influence on the fate of the nation they’ve abandoned, just as an exit from the Republican Party would make the exiles instantly irrelevant.
Third, and most important, the conservative movement has always emphasized the need for a stronger, more powerful America as a benefit to the world at large and to the citizens of the republic. That goal is incompatible with the breakup of the union, obviously, or even with the collapse of the two-party system in favor of political fragmentation. Deeper divisions and disruptions in the social and political fabric would inevitably produce a weaker, more vulnerable nation with less chance for consensus and cooperation on principles or policies.
Current conversation about redefining conservatism is unquestionably healthy, with a necessary emphasis on new outreach to Latinos, Asians, blacks, gays, single women, and other deeply disaffected groups. No future GOP presidential candidate can count on replicating Mitt Romney’s achievement of winning white voters by a crushing margin of 20 percent (as exit polls indicated); so conservative rethinking, retooling, and repackaging have become urgent and important. But searching for productive new directions shouldn’t involve desertion from reality-based Republicanism to indulge foolish fantasies of sweeping systemic change.