Last week, to much fanfare, Glenn Beck declared that he was leaving the Republican party and becoming an independent. During a Tuesday night appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, Beck explained his decision thusly:
They surrendered on the abortion bill, surrendered on executive orders on illegal immigration, common core. They helped push through $3.5 trillion in deficits this last year. They won't fight Obamacare. They voted to confirm Katz Unstein (ph). They thwarted the bill on the NSA data collection. They're still not doing anything on Benghazi. They haven't done anything on the targeting of conservatives with the IRS. They haven't done anything on the VA. They also threw an election against Chris McDaniels to Thad Cochran. They actually went to the Democrats and played the race card. I mean, I can get that from Hillary Clinton's people….
We had to have the house. Then we had to the House. Then we had to have the House and the Senate. Now we have to have the White House. And then when they get the White House, the House, and the Senate then it becomes the Bush administration where it's just as bad on deficits and everything else. They don't have any intention of doing anything.
Beck has a point here. Granted, he’s overstating the case to some degree -- political constraints are such that the GOP can’t do a lot of what he demands. But there are indeed issues where the politics favor the Republicans -- the insurer bailout in Obamacare, farm subsidies, highway spending, and the Export-Import Bank -- where the party is not doing much of anything. Far too often, the GOP seems more inclined to go-along-to-get-along then do the hard work needed to reform government.
As I argued here, and in my new book, the Republican party has been aligned with big business for almost 150 years. In many respects, this is a good thing for conservatism. People who are employed by a business, after all, do not need the government to prosper. And big business employs a lot of people, so conservatives have common cause.
But businesses are profit-maximizing agents, and insofar as they believe the government can assist them, they will go rent seeking. Corporate and professional interests have many friends in the Republican party, who, always in the guise of promoting “economic growth,” pay off their patrons with corporate welfare, favorable regulations, conciliatory tax policy, and the like. Republicans have been doing this for big business since the 1870s, and they continue to do so to this day.
So Beck is right: a lot of what the Republicans do is not conservatism. It’s more akin to interest-group liberalism.
However, leaving the GOP is a bad idea, for two reasons.
First, the Republican party is not going to let conservatives go anywhere else. There has never been a viable third party in the country, at least not one that has persisted over the long run. This has to do with the nature of our elections. Political theorist Maurice Duverger demonstrated fifty years ago that winner-take-all contests centered around discrete geographical areas typically produce a two-party system. There are exceptions, but they’re rare.
Moreover, third parties that do thrive temporarily are co-opted by one of the two major parties -- usually to the detriment of the ideological movement that spawned the third party in the first place. For instance, the Populist party was captured by the Democrats in 1896, and did not see traction on any of its issues for nearly 20 more years. The Progressive party ended up getting split between the two major parties after 1916. Similarly, the Perot movement ended up fueling the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, but the deficit-cutting zeal of the GOP in the mid-1990s soon gave way to the gross profligacy of Congress during the George W. Bush years.