The Republican Party has lost its soul–but maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late.
I remember the day it happened—at least for me. It was December 19, 1998. It was the day I lost faith in the Republican Party. On this day, close to eighteen years ago, the party I had been brought up to admire and respect, decided that winning was more important than doing the right thing for the country.
And look at the long-term consequence. The party is on the verge of nominating Donald Trump, an outsider candidate who’s only clear platform seems to be winning, at any cost and regardless of casualty.
For me, coming of age and awareness in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I saw the impact that Ronald Reagan had on my father. Broke and struggling professionally, my dad saw very little opportunity in front of him—the economy was in ruins, inflation was out of control, and his background in academia and social work promised little in the way of success.
He was inspired, however, by candidate and then President Reagan’s speeches, which were regularly about the limitless potential of the individual. Government surely had a role to play in guiding the country, but it was the individual’s committed to self-betterment that offered the greatest hope.
My father allowed this message to tap into his internal beliefs and self-talk, and, in short order, started a business that grew appreciably over time. He found success in large part because of grit, hard work, and determination. My father’s experiences were noticeable and inspiring to me.
Add to this the reality that President Reagan operated in the political framework of the time—which acknowledged and valued the importance of compromise and collaboration with the other side—and the country prospered. The political right had an icon who launched a generation of political conservatives who advanced their agenda and shaped the nation.
But along the way December 19, 1998 happened. It was the day that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decided to impeach President Clinton on a host of disturbing charges.
As an interested observer and moderate political righty, I was disheartened that my president would lie to a grand jury, his family, and the American public. I agreed with The Economist’s position: “If it’s true, he should go.” But, given the fact that his transgressions were personal in nature, I thought it prudent for him to resign, rather than face impeachment. An impeachment trial seemed excessive to me, and something that would not serve the country well.
But that’s exactly what happened. And it failed. President Clinton remained in office and the country expended countless resources on a fruitless effort to destroy a sitting president.
That’s when things tipped. The party I adored became a party of destruction. It seemed to care little anymore about cherished ideals of conservatism:
- Prudence in decision making
- Small, efficient government
- Honoring people’s ability to solve their own problems
- Equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome
- True federalism that maintains state and municipal sovereignty over relevant issues
These are all ideals promulgated by the framers of the constitution. They promote necessary conditions for American democracy.
Yet they were cast aside by a rising tide of opportunism that infected the Republican Party in the late 1990s and beyond. The party became about:
- Humiliating, crushing, and destroying the opposition
- Elevating special-interest groups (especially the firearm, energy, and anti-tax movements) above principles—or even common sense
- Embracing candidates who were “electable” rather than competent
- Giving in to populist rage in order to win elections
- Playing high-stakes poker with the American legislative process in order to obstruct settled law
While any or all of these tactics may make sense in the context of a coup d’etat or military invasion, they don’t when it comes to governing the most prosperous country in history.
These tactics have not created the “shining city upon a hill” that President Reagan envisaged. Instead, they’ve created a dysfunctional mess of fratricidal villains screeching doomsday rhetoric about the evils of progress.
This isn’t what I thought was coming when I listened to the conservatives of Reagan’s era speak. I thought we were building a big tent of opportunity where people from all over the country (and the world) could engage in an experiment of unlocking human potential for the good of the world.
Instead, we apparently have Donald Trump, a man who has knowingly and willing insulted so many groups of people that it’s nearly impossible to catalogue; who has, by omission, condoned the Ku Klux Klan; who has encouraged the construction of a wall to keep foreigners out; who wants to mercilessly destroy our enemies regardless of civilian loss of life; and who delivers speeches in the tone and tenor of various Fascist rulers from the past.
A shining city upon a hill?
I think not.
Perhaps the Republican Party will come around and, ironically, return to its roots of principles and pragmatism? It seems like a far-off fantasy at this point, sadly. But maybe, just maybe, this party I once loved can rekindle some of President Reagan’s buoyant optimism about the future? Maybe it can speak to people’s greatest hopes rather than their greatest fears? Maybe it can rise to the standard of a 21st-century nation rather than a 17th-century witch -hunt colony? Maybe it can again look to the American people as a source of vital opportunity rather than collection of threats and intruders? Possibly, the party that once stood for liberty and self-determination can apply those principles to more than just one group of American citizens?
I want the ideas of Ronald Reagan to be more than a distant memory. I want them to be a carried forward as a living embodiment of the current American polity.