As the Republican Party contemplates its future after President Trump, a prospect that looms ever larger as former vice president Joe Biden widens his significant margins in national and battleground state polls, it must begin by asking a simple question: why have more Americans said they are Democrats for nearly 90 straight years?
It’s hard to build enduring majorities when one is always looking up, and that’s been the GOP’s posture since the Great Depression swept Franklin Delano Roosevelt into office in 1932. Republican candidates can win the presidency, and the party can control the Senate or the House for brief periods, but the backdrop for such victories is always public opinion in which the other party holds the higher ground. Republicans, the party of the American center-right and right, are always fighting on the center-left’s terms.
The long history of the party’s sins paradoxically makes them easier to address in the present. The sinning is not confined to any particular individual or faction. Instead, it flows from attitudes and emphases that are fundamentally at odds with the views and beliefs of the (often large) majority of Americans. “Reforms” and “Autopsies” have generally had the goal simply of winning the next election, and sometimes the next election is won, but the result has not been to fundamentally reshape the course of American politics.
Not by accident, the one major exception to that pattern, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, was delivered by a former ardent Democrat who switched sides without losing his ability to speak the language of the average Democratic voter. Reagan’s personal history allowed him to craft a unique brand of conservatism free from the sins that prevented others, even men as politically talented as Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, from making more than a passing connection with the typical American. Only he showed an ability simultaneously to inspire a broad coalition on the Right and attract converts from the disenchanted center.
“Why have more Americans said they are Democrats for nearly 90 straight years?”
His departures from GOP orthodoxy can help the Right to see its sins more clearly, and perhaps find a better way.
The Sin of Market Fundamentalism
Republicans have exalted the private sector for at least a century, arguably since the party’s founding in 1854. They are right to do so. Private entrepreneurship and innovation, protected by the rule of law and encouraged by largely free markets, have done more to advance mankind’s material status than any other human activity in history. No variety of conservatism worthy of the name would ever give society such priority over the individual as to shut off this vast fount of human flourishing.
A commitment to individual freedom cannot, however, transform into a dogmatism that blinds its followers to the misery that individual human beings can cause to one another, including misery delivered by private means. Human history teaches us that the vast majority of people do not aspire to greatness, are not entrepreneurial risk takers, and will submit to bad deals to avoid death or penury. The very virtues that lead to good in the hands of the talented and the virtuous can, and too often do, lead to exploitation at the hands of the callous and the corrupt. Human civilization does not present the simple binary choice between public and private action that ideologues Left and Right want, with all good on one side and all evil on the other.
Too often, the Republican Party falls prey to market dogma and exalts private action and choice as goods in and of themselves regardless of the circumstances or the effects. Thus, the poor are undeserving of help because they are to blame for their plight; those who see their livelihoods cast aside and their communities destroyed by globalization deserve no consideration; minorities who are subject to discrimination on the job just need to take their lumps and persevere, perhaps even content in the knowledge that such inefficient human-resources practices will surely lead to their employers’ demise. This attitude is what I label “free-market fundamentalism,” the notion that whatever happens in private affairs is good per se and that government action can never be countenanced to restore justice to our lives, nor will it succeed if tried.
Most on the Right don’t follow this impulse to its logical conclusion–even many libertarians shrink from that bleak path. For all the condemnation of any new proposed programs or spending, remarkably little energy goes toward shuttering public schools, repealing Social Security, or undoing anti-discrimination statutes. But it remains the current in which too many Republicans swim, preventing the party from following the conservative route toward social harmony. It leads too many Republicans to see only the cost of government and not its benefits, and to “just say no” when new proposals are offered.
Free-market fundamentalism has repeatedly harmed the Republican Party’s prospects over the last decade. Republicans were right to oppose Obamacare, which moved stealthily toward a government-directed, and then perhaps a formally government-run, health care system. But Republicans never developed a viable alternative to correct the very real problems of inadequate access and high cost that the market was not solving, and in some cases compounded though the concentration of providers and insurers. Even when solutions could have entailed substantial reduction in government’s scope, the impulse to “just say no” prevented the party from embracing the role it needs to adopt: the party of health care reform. That left the field open to the Democrats, and that has meant that proposals to make health care a formally government-run monopoly are much likelier to become reality than their conservative alternatives.
Ronald Reagan was no free-market fundamentalist. He loved human freedom and private economic activity, but he always recognized that business can be a bastard, too. He attacked excesses in public programs and sought substantive reform that included cuts where appropriate, but he was also an outspoken advocate of a strong, public safety net, and he often extended government hand’s to protect people in need. He supported a then-record tax increase in his first year as California’s governor rather than eviscerate welfare, Medicaid, or education spending, and increased welfare benefits by 30 percent as part of his 1971 welfare-reform bill.
“Ronald Reagan was no free-market fundamentalist. He loved human freedom and private economic activity, but he always recognized that business can be a bastard, too.”
Another example was his attitude toward the now-hallowed church of free trade. Reagan wanted a global free trade system, and worshipped regularly at its altar, but he also recognized that Americans of all stripes had to benefit as producers as well as consumers. That’s why he imposed tariffs or import restrictions, especially when Japanese firms subsidized or protected by the Japanese government threatened American competitors.
It was this attitude, not any wonder of the free market, that spurred creation of the robust auto manufacturing industry in the American South. “Instead of flooding America with cars made at home, and risking new protectionist measures,” explained the New York Times in 1985, “the Japanese are ‘going native’—opening up American plants.” It was also this attitude that significantly increase Republican Party identification, the only time this has happened since FDR. In the face of threats of genuine socialism, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned.
The Sin of Snobbery
The Republican Party was founded by the northern descendants of the Whig Party, joined by some anti-slavery Democrats and German immigrants. After the Civil War it added support from ethnic minorities, first blacks and pro-Union southern whites in Appalachia, and then millions of Catholic and Eastern European immigrants who toiled in the nation’s factories, mines, and forests. It’s little remembered today, but before the Great Depression large cities and factory towns that were not dominated by the Irish (the mutual animosity between the Irish and the British-descended northern Republicans drove the former into the Democratic camp) were often controlled by Republican Party mayors and machines, dependent upon immigrant votes for their majorities. Philadelphia elected Republican mayors for all but five years between 1884 and 1952 and, on the eve of the Great Depression, the GOP helmed great industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
That all changed after 1932. The GOP became the refuge of the northern Protestants, usually the descendants of people who had fought for the Union in the Civil War. This coalition could win Catholic, Jewish, or black votes on occasion, but the party was always led and staffed by northern Protestants (the “WASPs”) who not so subtly believed they comprised the real America.
This snobbery has endured, even as its source has shifted. Republican leadership remains disproportionally white and Protestant, but as its voting base has expanded to include majorities of white Catholics its snobbery has expanded to include these new voters and has adopted a more overt religiosity. Too often the Right gives the impression that it is only open to people with this cultural background and set of beliefs—that one must first believe in the Christian God before one can believe in the Republican platform.
True, the Democratic Party’s move leftward, toward secular unbelief, is one reason that religion has become such a big dividing line in American politics, but that is no defense of the Republican approach. The data are clear: a large majority of Americans are either not religious, not Christians, or don’t regularly attend church. A party that seeks an enduring majority must be open to the religiously ambiguous and the theologically moderate, the non-white and the non-Christian conservative.
“A party that seeks an enduring majority must be open to the religiously ambiguous and the theologically moderate, the non-white and the non-Christian conservative.”
Reagan again provides an example of how to do this. Reagan himself was a Protestant, but his father was a lapsed Catholic. As a result, he recounts in his memoirs, he would sometimes be the subject of schoolyard taunts, which along with his parents’ firm teachings left him largely free from sectarian prejudice his entire life. Reagan’s America was not a glorified re-creation of a small town peopled solely by the descendants of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was a bustling, tolerant place where all were equal in their Americanness.
A case in point is Reagan’s response to the rise of the Religious Right. He could have trafficked in the language of grievance and revisionism, adopting the view that America was falling away from its ideals because it was falling away from its Christian faith. Instead, he incorporated religious conservatives into his coalition on secular grounds, explaining to them how they were the victims of an unrepresentative bureaucracy bent on forcing them to conform—in a sense, the same challenge facing businessmen. As he told the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, in a speech best known for its condemnation of the Soviet Union as an evil empire, “the rights of parents and the rights of family take precedence over those of Washington-based bureaucrats and social engineers.”
He often mentioned God but included frequent references to Jewish beliefs or tenets; he rarely mentioned Jesus Christ in his official speeches. It is surely no coincidence that Reagan came within six points of winning the Jewish vote in 1980, a performance more than 20 points better than any other Republican has managed in the past 50 years.
The Sin of Hubris
Consistent with their overriding faith in the market’s outcomes and their tendency toward snobbery, Republicans value human excellence and believe that inequality in outcomes is largely the result of merit rather than starting point, social forces, or fortune. Those views can be healthy ones, and in moderation are touchstones of any conservatism that respects individual rights and, for that matter, touchstones of any well-functioning civilization. In immoderate doses, however, they lead to the false idea that some people are simply better than others. The Right is hardly alone in that belief (as any Critical Race Theory training will instruct you) but it is out of step with the average American citizen.
America’s sense of social equality is historically deep. Alexis de Tocqueville remarks on this in his classic Democracy in America, observing that Americans “mingle so easily within political assemblies and courtrooms . . . . Each one of them readily recognizes all of his fellow citizens as his equals.” This is one habit of the Founding era that has not faded with time. Americans remain unlikely to defer to people on the basis of status, wealth, or birth. Indeed, part of President Trump’s success comes from his coarse ordinariness, a manner of acting and speaking that made many people feel he was one of them even when he traveled the world in private jets and lived in a literally gold-plated mansion.
Democrats who indulge in hubris are liable to assume and sometimes proclaim their innate superiority through their education or their modern morality. Republicans do it by exalting two particular types as superior: the businessman and the pious man.
“Democrats who indulge in hubris are liable to assume and sometimes proclaim their innate superiority through their education or their modern morality. Republicans do it by exalting two particular types as superior: the businessman and the pious man.”
Mitt Romney exemplifies the first category; much of his support was attributable to his business success. One Republican activist told me in 2012 that he backed Romney because his background meant he could make the necessary tough decisions. “He’s fired his friends,” this person exclaimed, seemingly oblivious to the fact that friends want help, not dismissal. When I warned another GOP leader that Romney was losing because voters perceived him as the scheming Mr. Potter from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, that person responded that the film’s hero George Bailey, was a simp, and that Mr. Potter was a praiseworthy “value creator.” It was this sense that led Romney and many others in the GOP to embrace the morally obscene “makers versus takers” argument, the exposure of which arguably sunk Romney already floundering campaign.
Many in the Republican camp likewise elevate the believing Christian, seeing all others as fallen not only theologically, but also politically. Increasingly, Republican presidential nominees courting Iowa’s dominant religious conservatives feel obligated to proclaim fealty to Jesus Christ before the caucuses. Ted Cruz said during his presidential campaign that, “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”
Ronald Reagan didn’t just eschew this temptation, he embraced the opposite belief. Reagan peppered his speeches with statements about the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. Perhaps the best example, though, is also his final one. Reagan’s epitaph professes this creed in the simple, moral language that was his trademark: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
The Right will conquer its sins when its leaders can say these words with as much sincerity and passion as the man who uttered them first.