Controversies within the Republican Party in Washington and Augusta could foreshadow an historic political change, perhaps resulting in the creation of a major third party.
The possibility arises because the most strictly conservative Republicans are willing to confront members of their own party who are more willing to compromise. While both sides are conservative, the hardliners vehemently reject traditional political decision-making, especially deals made across party line.
The strict conservatives would even block government action if they cannot gain complete acceptance of their own policies. And embarrassing Democrats and opposing whatever they may propose, even if acceptable to conservatives in substance, is a key element of their strategy.
The difficulties Republicans have had in choosing a new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives reflects the deep split between the hardliners and the more traditional Republicans.
Much the same seems to be true of the conflict between Gov. Paul LePage and some of his fellow Republicans in the Maine Legislature.
Because of their need to reach out to a diverse national electorate, both major political parties should reflect a broad ideological range. Democrats from West Virginia and California may disagree on many issues, just as could Republicans from Maine and Alabama. But they have usually agreed on enough to keep their parties reasonably coherent and competitive.
Third parties or independent presidential candidates are not unusual. They may have enough appeal to erode the voting support of the major parties. They range from the State Rights and Progressive parties in 1948 to the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot in 1992.
But such incursions in the two-party system have not produced a change in the system itself. Their influence has been temporary, because they did not bring about any change in the dominance of Congress by the two major parties.
The last time a new major party arose occurred when the Republican Party was created in the 1850s out of a crumbling Whig Party. That began the long period of control by the Republicans and Democrats.
Why could the political situation now be ripe for the creation of a new political party, able to challenge the two existing major parties?
The right wing believes voters worry the country has moved too far toward liberal positions ever since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 40s. They see the possibility of gaining majority support based on revolutionary era conservatism.
The most obvious explanation is that strict conservatives believe they can achieve control of the Republican agenda and either replace other GOP officeholders or force them to align their views with the right wing. They are ready to fight for control of the party.
To achieve their goal, they insist on ideological purity. Beyond completely opposing the Democrats, they also are willing to treat other Republicans as the enemy and punish them.
Perhaps the resulting chaos will force Republican voters to decide between the two approaches offered by their elected leaders. But if that proves to be impossible and they remain divided, the possibility of a formal split emerges.
If the strict conservatives take over the party, they could drive out traditional Republicans. Some would become moderate or conservative Democrats, but others might be tempted to build a new moderate party, hoping to attract some Democrats.
If the strict conservatives were defeated in the GOP, they could create their own party, even if that brought on Democratic victories. Their obstinacy would be meant to threaten their fellow Republicans that unless they gave in, the Democrats would control for the long haul.
It is likely that GOP leaders realize they are at this juncture. In withdrawing from the election of House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy acknowledged he could not bridge the divide among his GOP colleagues. That’s exactly why Speaker John Boehner said he would resign.
In Maine, LePage asserts his right to control the GOP agenda and override more moderate Republicans. The state party has a long tradition of political moderation and progressive policies, notably on environmental matters, but he does not accept it.
In recent years, strict conservatives, who seem to participate in the party’s operations more actively than other Republicans, have sought to seize control of the state party. Their most well known success came when LePage took over the Blaine House.
From his governor’s chair, LePage seems determined to roll over fellow Republicans and bring them into line behind his policies. Should he succeed, a possibility not to be ignored, he would promote a party split, made even more likely if the national GOP splinters.