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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Montalbano: The United States Needs a New Conservative Federalist Party

A new political party must be formed for classical and pragmatic conservatives following the populist right-wing takeover of the Republican Party.

Conservatism is dead in the national Republican Party. For the casual follower of politics, the near clean sweep of state and territorial contests by former President Donald Trump in the Republican primaries should put to rest any confusion about this statement. Although more classical conservative elements of the GOP put up a modest fight vis-a-vis former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and, to a far lesser extent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s challengers had no practical chance of success. With Lara Trump’s election as Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee and the rise of a sizable pro-Trump faction in Congress, Trump has asserted near total control over the Republican machine in a matter of only eight years.

Trump’s policies, by virtually all measures, are not those of a traditional conservative; the base principles of any conservative party in American history have been support of individual liberty, relatively unfettered markets and limited government. The contemporary Republican Party prior to the 1980s placed heavy emphasis on balancing the budget and soundly managing the debt, particularly under the leadership of President Calvin Coolidge. However, the fiscal responsibility that was once a hallmark of GOP politics has now certainly been discarded. Trump’s administration had virtually no fiscal restraint, adding $4 trillion to the national debt and $8 trillion to the deficit — the antithesis of past Republican platforms. 

During the Cold War and into the early twenty-first century, the GOP embraced a policy of free trade, negotiating NAFTA and a series of other agreements under multiple Republican presidents with the goal of increasing American economic performance, which was widely successful. Although historically relevant Republicans advocated for tariffs, such as Presidents William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln, these were primarily focused on protecting infantile manufacturing in the north, procuring revenue for infrastructure and other internal improvements and providing a stable financial base for the federal government. In contrast, Trump’s tariff policy has focused primarily on “retribution” and symbolic nationalism rather than a pragmatic economic policy to bolster revenue and protect fledgling industry, particularly as the policy relates to American allies in North America and Europe. Trump also threatened to destroy NAFTA but settled for renegotiation, reneging from the previous GOP reverence for free trade with America’s closest allies.

The Trump wing of the Republican Party has also abandoned the GOP’s formerly strong stance on foreign policy, which led the United States through the Cold War and encouraged active diplomacy. Instead, Trump’s administration engaged heavily in attacking or strong-arming allies, repudiating decades-old treaties and cozying up to dictators who are self-declared enemies of the West and its values. Today, Trump and his allies have launched an assault on America’s support of Ukraine and even of NATO itself, turning to protectionism and isolationism as tenets of their foreign policy platform — a decisive shift away from traditional Republican policy.

The answer to the present woes of the un-conservative GOP can be found in historical parties of the United States: the Federalist Party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton (and, arguably, George Washington) and the Whig Party of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster. These parties stressed a pragmatic form of conservatism balanced with a social view of equality before the law and opportunity for all. Led by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Federalist Party members saw a string of success between 1789 and 1801. They tackled the massive debt left by the Revolutionary War under the Washington and Adams administrations and embarked upon a program of long-term fiscal responsibility. Further, the Federalists developed a foreign policy steeped in diplomacy, negotiating the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which ended the Quasi-War with France, and the Jay Treaty of 1794, which would prevent conflict with Britain at least until 1812. Indeed, after the unnecessary and costly War of 1812 broke out, the Federalist Party led the opposition to the conflict. Later derivatives of the Federalist Party — the Whigs and Republicans — continued these policies, seeking to reestablish the National Bank under the leadership of Henry Clay and seeing significant foreign and trade policy victories under President John Quincy Adams. 

Today, no party really holds true to the combination of the aforementioned values, particularly in the fiscal sphere. For those who lean right or who are conservatives without allegiance to the Trump faction of the GOP, a new national party seems more necessary than ever before. A Federalist Party of the United States with a staunch focus on fiscal responsibility and pragmatic foreign policy could fill the void that has been left in the wake of the Trump takeover of the Republican Party. Conventional, pragmatic and traditional conservatives seem more isolated than ever before, and it is necessary that this void be filled. 

Many are concerned that new parties will flop immediately, but American history tells a different story. New parties merely need to find strong advocates for their causes, which has been difficult because of the ingrained two-party system. 

It is true that the No Labels group, an organization dedicated to political pluralism and opposition to polarization, exists as an alternative to the mainstream political parties, but it does not provide a solid platform beyond opposition to Trump. The group markets itself as centrist — another void that needs to be filled — but it has neither proposed a ticket nor established a concrete platform to differentiate itself from the establishment parties. This is not to say that the group’s mission is not courageous, but rather that this political movement seems to be more of a short-term solution to a problem that has now devoured one of the most storied parties in the United States. Another party is necessary to appeal to the section of voters who trend conservative but are put off by the new Republican Party’s turn away from conservatism (and decency) by succumbing entirely to Trump’s influence. 

A new party is necessary to better appeal to those conservatives who are now no longer represented by the Republican Party’s movement away from conservatism and toward right-wing populism. Conservatives should find inspiration in the Federalist and Whig parties of the past. The Republican Party is now monopolized by one man, a far cry from the simple premise outlined by former Federalist President John Adams: “a government of laws and not of men.”

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.