Shortly after Ted Cruz suspended his campaign, a cascade of notable conservatives announced, on Twitter and elsewhere, that they refused to back Donald Trump for president. Several of them went on to say that they no longer considered themselves Republicans, so appalled were they by Trump’s rise and the cravenness of the many Republicans who’ve enabled him. To state the obvious, these are two different sentiments. Opposing Trump’s bid for the presidency was the right thing to do during the primaries, and it is the right thing to do now that he is the presumptive nominee. If his not-so-coded appeals to racial and ethnic resentment weren’t enough to disqualify him, his extreme credulousness—for example, his claim that Rafael Cruz, the father of Ted, was somehow involved in the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy, based entirely on a story that appeared in the National Enquirer—tells us that he is a man in desperate need of help. That a plurality of Republican primary voters have nevertheless backed Trump is dismaying in the extreme. But is it a reason to abandon the GOP? I say no.
My case for sticking with the Republican Party is not a sentimental one. The rise of Trump has convinced many of my conservative comrades that the GOP is a cesspool. I have to ask: Did you believe that the GOP was the home of heroes and legends before he came on the scene? I’ve been in and around the conservative movement for my entire adult life, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of self-described conservative true believers doing the bidding of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, Hollywood conglomerates, and unsavory foreign governments. I’ve also seen people of great integrity work tirelessly for little pay and even less recognition to make this country a freer, fairer, and more decent place. The Republican Party may well be a party of charlatans and cranks. But it is also the party of millions of middle-class Americans who believe that the role of government is to empower people, not to render them powerless and dependent. I stand with those in my party who share my ideals and to work with them to defeat those who do not. To be clear, this is not always fun. It just happens to be necessary.
Like all parties in a democracy like ours, the GOP is a site of contestation. That’s a fancy way of saying there is no one answer as to what it means to be a Republican. Right now, Donald Trump has emerged as the face of the GOP, an outcome that many Republicans fought hard to prevent. Just a few short months ago, Bernie Sanders was adamant that he did not want to run for president as a Democrat. Now his supporters are working to remake the Democratic Party in his image, and they may well succeed.
By 2020 or 2024, both of our major parties may well look radically different. The GOP is less a single, solid thing than a never-ending rumble, in which different factions duke it out over which one of them will temporarily control the party’s brand and its infrastructure. Leaving the Republican Party now would mean, essentially, ceding control of its considerable resources to your factional rivals. Such a decision might be logical if you’ve decided that you’re all in for a $15 minimum wage or if increasing less-skilled immigration is the issue that matters to you most. In that case, then you should probably join the Democratic Party. But for a conservative like me, it still makes sense to stake out territory under the GOP tent.
This is not how parties work everywhere. In the U.S., we generally rely on first-past-the-post elections, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. Many other countries use proportional representation systems, wherein legislative seats get allocated to parties based on their share of the electorate, e.g., a party that wins 30 percent of the vote will win 30 percent of the seats. The upshot of this approach is that it almost always leads to multi-party systems, with smaller, more ideologically cohesive parties. Israel has a particularly lively and dynamic political system, in which parties are formed and go out of business quite often. To pass legislation, these miniparties must join together in coalitions. The beauty of a system like Israel’s is that it more accurately reflects the many ways in which each voter is a special snowflake. No, you won’t have a party that precisely reflects your many quirks. You can’t order up a political party the way you’d order a sugary beverage at your local Starbucks. (“I’d like a Marxist Frappuccino with a dash of dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism, please.”) But you will come much closer to finding one that matches your idiosyncratic beliefs than you would in a country with only two viable parties.
If the U.S. had something like Israel’s system, you can imagine a political party for, say, evangelical Tea Party conservatives who are passionate about the pro-life cause, one for secular immigration hard-liners who want to slap tariffs on Chinese imports, and another for Northeastern moderates who support abortion rights and the elimination of capital gains taxes. These three different parties might unite on some issues while going their separate ways on others. Under our system, these three factions are united under the banner of the GOP, a party that is a coalition unto itself. Factions rooted in very different ideological traditions, regions, and religious and cultural backgrounds join together in one big catch-all party in the hope that they can aggregate enough votes to inch ahead of the other big catch-all party. I can see why a system more like Israel’s might be preferable to our own. For one thing, it would come as a huge relief to the members of one faction who can’t stand the idea of being associated with the quislings, boobs, and boors found in the others. I’ve actually called for adopting a proportional representation system in Slate, and if we were to move in that direction, I’d be a lot more comfortable with saying goodbye to the GOP.
Until then, however, I’m going to stay and fight. I won’t vote for Donald Trump, and if Mitt Romney ran for president as a third-party candidate, I’d vote for him with pride. But in the long term, I’m sticking with the GOP. There is no guarantee that anti-Trump conservatives like myself will succeed in winning the party’s future. But the only way we’re certain to lose is if we give up now, precisely when the party needs us most.