A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Some fringe conservatives seem perversely determined to turn a stinging electoral defeat into an epic, sweeping disaster. That’s the deeper meaning of current talk about impeachment, secession, third parties, civil disobedience, and onrushing apocalypse.
The Conservative Majority Fund has announced a new robocall campaign to build support for impeaching President Obama over mishandling of the affair in Benghazi, Libya, and alleged malfeasance on a host of other issues. Meanwhile, petitions demanding the secession of Texas, Alabama, and at least a half dozen other states have already gathered tens of thousands of signatures, while perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes describes the right to secede as God-given and inviolate.
Radio host and conspiracy-monger Alex Jones also has committed himself to mobilizing national backing for the secession movement, while retiring Congressman Ron Paul (another perennial presidential contender) identifies today’s secessionists not with the doomed Confederates who precipitated the bloodiest war in the nation’s history, but with the heroic Founding Fathers of the revolutionary generation. After all, Paul plaintively insists, the War for Independence affirmed the right to secession, since they “were seceding from Great Britain.” Of course this analogy ignores the fact that the revolutionary struggle began as a demand for a parliamentary voice (“No taxation without representation”) and only belatedly and with reluctance among the Americans became a fight for separation and independence. Today’s conservatives may loathe the prospect of more taxation, but they can hardly complain about a lack of representation: legislators from Texas, Alabama, and other deep red states play prominent roles in both the House and the Senate. Moreover, in 1776, the daunting distance between London and the American colonies provided practical, persuasive arguments for independence, while the distance between Washington and would-be secessionist states not only is less substantial geographically, but utterly meaningless in an era of instant communication and a global economy.
Nobody expects secession or impeachment initiatives to gain serious traction among even the most adamant and unyielding conservatives, but they do reflect a widespread sense that true believers can’t simply return to GOP politics as usual.
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.