There’s a gap in America’s political spectrum where there should be a conservative party. Many real conservatives have left the Republicans and see nothing conservative about a populist wrecker of institutions. What, if anything, can be done about this?

Long term, today’s Republican Party may outgrow its Trumpian base and build a center-right party. But this could be a long wait. The GOP, to be sure, is changing as moderates and conservatives drop out. Media reports that 65% to 75% of Republicans support Trump are misleading, because that’s the percentage of remaining Republicans. (When you shrink the denominator but hold the numerator, your fraction increases.)

Conservative ex-Republicans are prominent media voices. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the Washington Post feature nearly as many GOP dropouts as they do liberals — Joe Scarborough, Steve Schmidt, Max Boot and George Will among them.

What can a true conservative legislator do? If they stay in the GOP, they risk getting reviled and primaried. Only those who are electorally secure, like Mitt Romeny of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, can work within the party to pull it back from QAnon and the Proud Boys.

Who are real conservatives today? First, they reject Trump and even qualify their support for Reagan. They do not reject every new idea but caution against progressives’ enthusiasm for untried cures and suggest, “There’s a better way to do this.” They constrain expansion of the federal government, which has become quasi-imperial. They stop suppressing non-White voting; many non-Whites think independently, and in 2020 some shifted to the Republicans.

Criticism of liberal policy proposals as “too long, too complicated, too expensive” usually fits. No single person understands the thousands of pages of tax code, medical care or national security. Few legislators know in detail what they’re voting for; they just follow their party’s lead. And most laws lack built-in cost hold-downs (Medicare does).

Simplification and clarification of laws and programs is badly needed at a time of national alienation from government. A super-complex tax code that does not favor rich people, for example, could let IRS computers calculate your taxes in milliseconds. Most legislators are lawyers, who delight in adding length and complexity. They disconnect from voters and claim it’s to ensure fairness but often favor special interests.

Modern conservatives doubt market-fundamentalist economics, which cannot solve many problems. Not all transactions create markets, which require many buyers and sellers freely bargaining and competing. Health care and education rarely form competitive markets, one reason their costs inexorably grow.

Conservatives flag open-ended payments for wide categories of medical care, prescription drugs and exhaustive testing. Whatever costs programs cover, the providers always seek more, giving us the world’s highest medical expenditures but far from the best results.

Like most modern economists, conservatives admit that deficits do not automatically trigger inflation. But if pent-up demand soars after COVID, so could inflation, which is not just a consumer’s market basket but asset inflation, which is already well under way. Conservatives warn against excess liquidity that pumps up corporate debt and the stock market. They respond to “Go big” with “Hey, take it easy.”

Conservatives pay due regard to the tendency of markets to flip dangerously between mania and panic. The Fed under Greenspan noted climbing home prices in 2005 but regarded them as acceptable until they collapsed in 2008.

How can conservatives best implement the triple critique of length, clarity and parsimony? Starting a third party might make a brief splash, but the relentless logic of our single-member legislative districts with plurality win guarantee startup parties short life — unless the Repubican Party totally collapses, like the Whigs in 1856. Probably not.

A better bet is for individual Republican legislators to declare themselves independent and willing to caucus with the Democrats. Such decisions give special leverage in today’s evenly balanced Senate. “Curse me out,” they tell GOP leadership, “and I give the Senate a Democratic majority.” Conservative Republicans can have more influence outside the GOP than in it.

They might add that if the Republicans get sensible and receptive to their policy stances, they can return to the party as easily as they left it. Such dropouts risk, to be sure, not getting re-elected, but they can get great positions and influence in business, law and think tanks and be available for executive-branch appointments.

A few Republicans could “cross the aisle” and form a conservative wing of the Democrats, working within the party to tug it rightward or at least not far from the center. Progressive Democrats would not like this, but gaining a clear majority of both houses would be delicious. It would also push the Republicans to snap out of Trumpism.

American conservatism has a bright future if it can shed both old shibboleths and primitive populism. We need solid conservative critiques of sometimes poorly thought out proposals from both sides of the aisle.