In the aftermath of the 2012 election where Barak Obama was reelected over Mitt Romney, leaders within the GOP came up with a document to explain why the party lost and what it needed to do going forward. The autopsy was a thorough examination of the situation, urging the party to be more tolerant of immigrants and people of color. One could have hoped the autopsy would usher in a new era for America’s conservative party, one that brought the conservative message to an ever-expanding electoral base.
Instead, the GOP got Donald Trump, the guy who called Mexican migrants rapists at his presidential campaign kickoff.
The demise of the autopsy and the rise Donald Trump are a stark reminder that bringing change to the Republican Party is difficult work. It has caused many a sunny Republican who thinks they can change the party to give up and walk away. Various initiatives have been created for this very reason and they end washed up on the shore. Good intentions give way to a harsh reality.
Why does this happen? Why is reform within the GOP and the wider conservative movement so difficult? Can reform happen? Should it?
I believe that it can happen and that it should happen. But any kind of work for change has to be done with the knowledge of how hard the job will be — it has to be intentional and well-planned. Half-assed measures won’t do. So, why is change so hard in the GOP?
When people talk about change within both political parties, it is important to realize that the change that needs to happen is not the same. Compared side by side, the Democrats have an easier path to reform than the Republicans.
Reform in the Democratic Party is far easier because the changes tend to be procedural and/or programmatic. What I mean by this is that the changes sought tend to be about which part of the coalition to focus on or the fight between incremental and wholesale change on major issues. The rise of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s sought to reform the party but the change was about a change of tone. They thought the party had moved too far to the left, thus alienating moderate and working-class voters. Bill Clinton’s race for President in 1992 was an attempt to win those voters back by talking about welfare reform and pushing back against the left-wing more broadly. Who could forget his memorable “Sister Souljah” moment, perhaps one of the most iconic campaign moments signaling Clinton’s intention to bring the party back to the center? The best way to look at change and reform in the Democratic Party is to see it more like dial, sometimes moving to the left and sometimes to the right. Do we support welfare as it is or support welfare reform? Do we support something like the Affordable Care Act or do we support Medicare for All?
Programmatic change is something that people enjoy doing. It allows people to think about new policies to tackle problems.
This is not what the GOP is facing. The problems that they face are not programmatic or procedural, but moral. Some of the most animating issues in the Republican party have been about how the party views certain groups of people. For decades, the issues of race, sexuality, and immigration roiled within the GOP. As of late, those issues have hardened. Moral issues can’t be dialed down like health care. These issues are incredibly difficult to change and it is hard to find people who want to work on them. As a culture, we find racism, homophobia, and xenophobia to be serious social sins, which in turn leads the public to view the people that harbor such views as irredeemable.
My gay friends and African American relatives have harsh views of Republicans because the party is seen as extremely hostile to them. No one has much love for an organization they believe is out to get them.
It’s important to note that the issue here is not that the party is conservative. Conservative doesn’t equal racist or homophobic or xenophobic. Other conservative parties in Western democracies (the Canadian and UK Conservatives, the Christian Democrats in Germany, Les Republicains in France and the National Action Party in Mexico) are not in the same spot as the Republicans. In most of these countries, extreme right-wing parties are separated from conservative parties. The problem with the GOP is that it is a mainstream party that is morphing into an extremist party. Most other conservative parties want to reach out to immigrants and people of color — they aren’t interested in simply holding on to the shrinking base of older white people.
I speak of this from experience. For over a decade, I was involved with Log Cabin Republicans as they sought to work for the inclusion of LGBTQ people within the party. The work was always challenging and we always had to deal with the wider gay community’s suspicion of the group. It was hard to get new people to join because no one wanted to be associated with a party that people believed hated gay people.
Today it seems that any change to make the GOP less Trumpian in nature is a losing battler. No one wants to change a party filled with racist kooks. However, abandoning reform may lead to a much darker outcome.
The Republican Party in its current state is not just repugnant but has the potential to become destabilizing to our democratic system. A number of candidates for Congress are adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Another candidate and a potential new member of Congress, Laura Loomer, is a well-known Islamophobe. Having these people in Congress where they will have an instant soapbox could make the reactionary movement in America even stronger. People might think that leaving the party to its own devices will bring it to an ignominious ending, but it could also grow stronger and more dangerous. We basically have our own Alternative for Germany here in the US, except that in America the problem exists within one of its two major parties.
The moral problems plaguing the GOP are difficult but they need to be tackled or they will make our nation worse. We can either choose to create a third party that could appeal to more moderate people, or people can gird their loins and engage in the battle. Will we choose either route? I’m not hopeful.
Any change that happens must be intentional. It won’t happen just because of situations on the ground. It can only happy when people of good will decide to make it happen. But temptations and distractions abound. A popular idea shared by Democrats and even some Never Trump Republicans is the belief that a historic wipeout will force change in the party. I think this a foolhardy position for a few reasons.
First, some of the proponents of this option are the kind of people that love to say “I think we should have two healthy political parties,” and then in the next breath say the GOP must suffer a historic defeat. These people never tell us how the party will change or what it should look like. They just say the party needs to be utterly rebuked. This is a nice way to say they prefer that the Democrats be the lead party for a generation or so. They don’t really care if the GOP recovers or not, they just want its dead carcass out of the way so their preferred party can rule. If you think virtual one-party rule is great, say that. But don’t give this mealy-mouthed and disingenuous reasoning. That’s not to say the party doesn’t deserve an electoral spanking. They do. But this “belief” is in my opinion, nothing more than concern-trolling.
Second, losing clearly doesn’t always make a party change its ways. Nor does it ensure that any change that does happen are for the better. Republican defeats in the presidential and congressional races in 2008 and 2012 didn’t cause the party to moderate. In fact, many came to believe the party wasn’t conservative enough. The losses in the 2018 midterms also didn’t bring change. Moderate candidates tend to be the ones that lose their seats or lose in presidential races which then makes the party even more radical and less likely to bring reform. If Trump does lose in November, that will be good news. However, if there are also losses in the Senate and House of some representatives from purple and blue states, what you have left are the most reactionary folk from some of the reddest districts, the people who won’t be interested in change, but in doing what they can to mess with the democratic system. The Republican Party in California has basically collapsed over the last two decades as it shifted ever more to the right. No loss has ever made it repent and change course. Losing is not a magic wand that fixes things.
Finally, parties that suffer historic wipeouts don’t always recover. The Progressive Conservatives in Canada were one of the three dominant political parties in Canada from the 1940s to the 1990s. From 1984 until 1993 they were in power in Ottawa. In the 1993 parliamentary election, they went from being the party in government to having 2 seats. Yes, I said TWO seats. Over the next decade, it regained a few more seats to a little over 20 seats, but it was never a major party ever again. In 2003 the Progressive Conservatives merged with the larger right-wing Canadian Alliance party to become the Conservative Party of Canada.
I get the idea that there needs to be a reckoning for the GOP. The repugnance of the current party and its embrace of some of the worst impulses of humanity must lose and lose decisively. This current version must be torn down.
But tearing down is the easy part. It’s the fun part. It’s why groups like the Lincoln Project are so popular. But who will rebuild? Who will do the hard and thankless work of going to party conventions and fielding better candidates? Who will be able to cast a positive vision for the future? Who will create the supporting institutions like think tanks to help buttress a vision? This is the work of politics and citizenship, neither of which are sexy these days, but this is how the real work of democracy gets done.
As David Frum noted in a recent tweet, we need to have two parties that are devoted to democratic norms. Having just one is dangerous and shortsighted.
De-Trumpifying the party will be a long march. Working for change within the Republican Party will be hard because we have to hold back our gag reflex long enough to enact change. But it’s work that must be done. The work of democracy and rejecting hatred is an intentional endeavor. We cannot leave it to chance.