Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech on Tuesday was powerful enough to receive prominent coverage in European media - something that rarely happens to U.S. senators’ orations. But he left Europeans scratching their heads at what amounted to a rancorous admission of defeat when his rhetoric would have suggested he should fight on.
Flake’s arguments against President Donald Trump are familiar and unsurprising: Traditional Republicans were saying these things during the 2016 primary campaign. Trump is divisive, Trump is coarse, Trump is a provocateur who is himself easily provoked, his character is questionable, his values and principles hard to detect. Trump is fully anomalous, and normalizing him is a bad idea.
But what does Flake propose to do about it beyond making a speech with well-chosen quotes from James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln? Well, he’s abandoning his plans to run for a Senate seat in 2018 because “a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things,” he explained. “I would be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.”
He didn’t make it clear where exactly he would represent the people of Arizona after giving up representative politics.
Evan McMullin, another Republican who shares some of Flake’s background as a former Mormon missionary and fellow Brigham Young University graduate, saw Trump for what he was last year - and made a last-minute, desperate run against him as an independent candidate. He was making campaign speeches a year ago that sounded like Flake’s, and though they were perhaps less beautifully crafted, they rang with a sincere conviction.
McMullin liked Flake’s speech, quoting it on Twitter and declaring, “A party favoring fearmongers and demagogues over men like Flake, Corker & McCain is no home for true conservatives and cannot lead America.”
Indeed, when I met him after a standing-room-only town hall in Boise, Idaho, he was talking about setting up an alternative movement for conservatives who couldn’t see Trump as their representative. The group he and his running mate Mindy Finn did set up doesn’t amount to much of a political alternative to the GOP - but at least it’s something.
In Europe, politicians who feel their party has been hijacked generally go further, sometimes as far as setting up a splinter party. The latest example comes from the far-right AfD in Germany, which alarmed many by winning 13 percent of the vote. The AfD itself was born of the dissatisfaction of the most conservative members and voters of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Frauke Petry, who had led the AfD into the campaign, announced she was fed up with the ultranationalism that had gained the upper hand in intra-party politics; she’s now busy setting up a movement of her own, the Blue Party, that would steer clear of populist, anti-Islamic excesses but still appear to conservative voters.
Party splits and mergers are commonplace in Central and Eastern Europe with its unsettled institutions and political traditions. In Western Europe, political innovation is just about as risky as in the U.S., however. In a recent paper, Italian political scientists Vincenzo Emanuele and Alessandro Chiaramonte calculated a measure of political innovation, for 324 elections held in 19 Western European nations between World War II and 2015. The measure is a share of the vote accruing to newly formed parties running on a national level for the first time. It hit 5 percent in just 10 percent of the elections. It reached 20 percent only in five cases.
But playing the long game has its rewards. The AfD, a new party then, failed to get into parliament in 2013 but stuck around to become the country’s third biggest party four years later. And in general, the level of political innovation has increased dramatically in recent years, Emmanuele and Charamonte write. Some of the successful new parties - for example, the liberal Ciudadanos in Spain or President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche in France - aren’t populist forces like the AfD, and they do remarkably well with centrist platforms.
The U.S. two-party system is not enshrined in the constitution. A high level of party institutionalization is generally considered good for stability, but there are historic moments when it merely suppresses representation and makes people cling to increasingly meaningless political brands. There’s nothing wrong with expanding the party system to reflect a growing political division and the need for more formal coalitions that would avoid government deadlocks. It just takes political courage and conviction - and, of course, funding.
U.S. politicians, however, have grown up with the Republican-Democratic dualism. For Flake and many others within both main parties, staying with the party or leaving politics is the only conceivable choice. Flake expressed the belief that the Trump “spell will eventually break” and the U.S. will have “healthy and functioning parties.” But he kids himself if he thinks it’s going to happen by some magic or by attrition.
If the party system is not functioning well, it needs more strong parties. Responsible leaders can put together a critical mass of supporters to make a new force relevant. Flake, however, is clearly not prepared to give it a try.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.