American politics are rich with flavors, colors, and shades of all kinds. There are radical socialists, green environmentalists, fierce globalists, milquetoast moderates, patriotic isolationists, national conservatives, an assortment of libertarians, and any flavor in between.
For the most part, these political undercurrents cluster into one or the other of the two big parties, Democrats or Republicans. Occasionally, though, a third party enters. In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for president for the American Independent Party, nearly preventing Republican candidate Richard Nixon from winning. In 1992, Texas businessman Ross Perot stole enough votes from incumbent Republican president George Bush Sr. to catapult Democrat Bill Clinton to victory.
The 2024 presidential election may be the next one where a third party plays a big role. The tea leaves tell an interesting story of what is to come, and of two prominent, former Republican members of Congress whose main mission is to make sure Donald Trump is not elected president again.
The first one is Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012. He topped his 20-year service in Congress as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019.
Paul Ryan is a staunch critic of former president Donald Trump. In a recent interview with a TV news station in Wisconsin, his home state, Ryan characterized Trump as “a drag” on the Republican efforts to win the 2022 elections. Back in October, he told Fox News that any Republican “not named Trump is so much more likely to win the White House” in 2024.
Ryan has strong media connections—he is a board member of Fox News—and is a formidable fundraiser. Both qualities are essential for anyone who wants to be successful in American politics.
The second person around which a third-party effort will be centered is Liz Cheney, the outgoing Congresswoman from Wyoming. A leading member of the January 6 committee, Cheney has emerged as the strongest anti-Trump Republican in the country.
Her voters in Wyoming, 70% of whom supported Trump in 2020, showed her no mercy. In the August Republican primary, they broke for her Trump-endorsed opponent by a margin of more than 2:1.
Cheney, who has clear presidential ambitions, cannot become the Republican candidate so long as Trump is around. Therefore, while serving on the January 6 committee she made inroads with the Democrats, including showering the Democrat Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, with praise for her “tremendous” leadership.
At the same time, Cheney stunningly warned against her own party winning Congress.
Her leftward flirtations do not seem to have worked. What may have been halfway promised to her in the past in exchange for her January 6 crusade is no longer on the table. Therefore, she is now trying to position herself somewhere between the Republican party and a third-party platform.
At an event at the University of Chicago Law School, Cheney spoke at length about what challenges she sees for America in the near future. She made a clear effort to come across as a bipartisan leader, but also avoided dismissive comments about Trump voters. This was a change from past statements, when she called “large portions” of the Republican party “very sick.” She has also referred to Republicans who won’t vote for her as “crazies.”
To further her political career beyond Congress, Cheney has started a so-called political action committee, PAC, called The Great Task. It makes no secret of promoting a third party: on its “about” page, the PAC explains that
all citizens have a responsibility to put their duty to the country above partisanship. The Great Task is designed to educate and mobilize Americans in a unified effort to ensure that our Republic endures.
At the event in Chicago, Cheney was asked by a member of the audience:
What do you think about the two-party system, and do you envision any alternatives in this country?
She gave a curious reply:
we are at a moment where the [political] plates are shifting, there are people talking about third parties that never would have before.
Cheney’s message is clear: ‘If we cannot de-Trumpify the Republican party, me and my buddies are going to start a third party.’
She counts Paul Ryan among those buddies. When Cheney was ousted from Republican party leadership after heading the second impeachment effort against Trump, she forged a closer alliance with Ryan. The two share anti-Trump neoconservative values, which are adversarial to Trump’s America First brand of conservatism.
This puts the Ryan-Cheney project in a delicate position: in order to make it as a third party, they will have to abandon America’s large, conservative electorate.
To see why, let us take a look at the first draft of their political platform. Yes, it already exists, even though Ryan-Cheney have not yet declared a third party. The de facto platform, “American Renewal,” was recently published as an online book by the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank.
The book is a 300-page-long neocon wish list. However, before we get to the substance that will very likely preclude many Trump voters from supporting the Ryan-Cheney agenda, let us give their project credit on one item. In the introduction to American Renewal, Paul Ryan explains:
Our fiscal policy is on a collision course with our monetary policy, and the economic devastation resulting from a debt and currency crisis could inflict enormous, possibly irreparable, damage.
I have warned about an American fiscal crisis countless times, such as in this two-part article back in 2018. My most recent warning was published here as recently as October. It is good to see that people with some influence over American politics are starting to pay attention.
Then the report starts doling out neocon policy presents, all with one common theme: to intertwine government and the private sector as much as is politically possible. This is a staple of the neoconservative ideology, a path that will lead to conflict with traditional conservatives. Where the former want a more centralized government, the latter prefer solutions that strengthen local communities and give people as much power over their own lives as possible.
One of the contributors to American Renewal is Nicholas Eberstadt, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. He goes to great lengths proposing more government money for research and development, but his neocon effort does not stop there: he wants work requirements in social welfare programs.
This may seem like a good idea, but one has to put it in its proper context. A traditional conservative would suggest that the role of the state in terms of poverty relief is to provide a basic last-resort safety net, where benefits are dignified but never high enough to compete with gainful employment. This model, which the new Swedish government is aiming for, combines social compassion with individual responsibility.
By contrast, the work-requirement model promises to keep paying out benefits to gainfully employed citizens, while forcing them to work for those benefits. The purpose behind a reform like this is therefore not to provide poverty relief—the benefits are not last-resort but instead redistributive in nature—but to increase workforce participation.
In other words, the neocon strategy is to use the welfare state as an instrument for economic growth. This goal is further emphasized by the American Renewal book’s proposals for increased immigration.
This issue has long been a source of conflict between national conservatives and neocons. The latter advocate as much low-skill immigration as possible, based on the notion that labor supply must increase—and that wages must be suppressed in order to keep American businesses profitable.
National conservatives, by contrast, can point to the Hungarian option, namely to strictly limit immigration and inspire the country’s own population to grow bigger families.
The blurring of lines between private and public responsibilities continues through the American Renewal’s discussion of health care and health insurance. The authors propose more competition in the delivery of government-funded, government-provided services, such as health insurance and retirement security.
This may sound good; who can be against more competition? In reality, though, the neocon solution is to perpetuate the socialist welfare state. This is clearly in line with their ideology: in 2003, Irving Kristol, the founder of neoconservatism, explained that the growth of the welfare state in the 20th century is “natural, indeed inevitable.”
Conservatives, again, prefer localized solutions that minimize the role of government according to an as-needed principle. Gainfully employed citizens should be able to support their families without relying on government.
Notably, at no point does American Renewal reject the idea that government should provide benefits to working families. On the contrary, the book actually proposes an expansion of such benefits, in the form of a paid-leave system for parents with jobs.
This new entitlement program is a clear example of how government injects itself into the finances of private citizens and families. Not only does it mean that government dictates when and why working adults can take time off from work, but it also specifies on what financial terms.
To once again point to what is absent in the book: at no point do its neoconservative contributors show any understanding of the moral consequences of having government deeply involved in people’s lives. Health policy is a case in point: instead of promoting a stronger free market for health insurance, American Renewal endorses the recent expansion of a tax-paid health-insurance program called Medicaid (p. 76). It also proposes that government and the private sector get even more involved with each other in providing health insurance (p. 94).
Conservatives are very well aware of what it means to get government even more involved in their health care needs and decisions. We only need to look at the funding of abortions and euthanasia in European health care systems to see why American conservatives have good reasons to be apprehensive of this new neocon project.
Some might say that there is no need for such apprehension. After all, Liz Cheney has made no official comments tying her to the American Renewal plan. However, many of her comments at the Chicago Law School event came verbatim close to Paul Ryan’s introduction to the book.
This is a classic case of political marketing: by proliferating phrases, talking points, and issues-based arguments that sound similar, you work your message into people’s minds without explicitly imposing them on your audience. Then, when you ‘flag up’ people will react with a strong sense of familiarity.
In short: expect a lot more of the same to come.
But can the Ryan-Cheney neocon project win? It is going to be difficult for them to take over the Republican party. They would have to win over a substantial number of conservative Trump voters, something that requires a deep understanding of who those voters are. As I explained recently, Liz Cheney does not have that understanding. She has begun an effort in that direction, but she is leaps and bounds behind Trump and his commanding connection with the conservative voter base.
His appeal is based on substance. Tens of millions of conservative voters are not interested in more globalism. They are not interested in American men and women being sent to distant countries to fight what they believe are someone else’s wars. They were drawn to Trump because of his explicit loyalty to the American worker, which was just as strong as his appreciation for American businesses.
The Ryan-Cheney plan may end up as one side of another fight for control of the Republican party. However, irrespective of whether they succeed, or form a new, third party, the question remains of how Ryan-Cheney intend to convince peace-minded, America First conservatives to vote for war-hawkish, globalist neocons.