Who Mourns for the GOP?

Why the fate of the GOP matters to American democracy.

Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth;
As from a centre, dart thy spirit’s light Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might Satiate the void circumference: then shrink Even to a point within our day and night; And keep thy heart light lest it make thee sink When hope has kindled hope, and lur’d thee to the brink. Adonais by Percy Shelley

There is an old saying that Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line. The old saying believes that Democrats have feelings for their party and aren’t going to easily leave the party. With Republicans, there are no “feelings” per se with the party. You either fall in line or you leave. There is no desire to stay with the party and no desire to reform the party. After all, you reform people and things that you love.

Some observers think that the two major parties have switched their positions, with the GOP falling in love with former President Donald Trump and that is true to some extent. But given how dissidents that dare criticize Trump are censured by local parties, there is some sense that the GOP is falling in line. The people aren’t in love with the GOP, they are in love with Donald Trump.

Nobody loves the Republican Party. It is seen either as a means to an end, or it is viewed as anathema.

A fair number of Never Trumpers see the party as something that is detested and many think it is now time to look to the Democrats. People associated with the Bulwark are starting to believe that maybe it’s time for former Republicans to become the conservative wing of the Democrats or at the very least work more closely with President Biden. Bill Kristol is placing trials balloons about such an idea and so is writer Tim Miller.

It is a tempting if not logical move. If you aren’t liked by your old party, then why stick with it? In fact, it has been the move that many people over the years have done as the GOP moved further and further to the right.

It’s a good move at a personal level. You no longer have to try to explain yourself. You no longer get strange stares from people when you reveal what party you belong to. You no longer feel uncomfortable when some politician does something stupid. You hope that maybe the GOP will collapse under its own right-wing weight. Sweet Justice.

Listen to the podcast episode based on this article on the Spheres of Influence Podcast.

But does it make sense for Never Trumpers to leave the GOP and the wider conservative movement from a larger perspective? What if leaving the party and movement might make one feel well but the decision is bad for democracy? What if democracies thrive only when there are strong conservative parties dedicated to the experiment in freedom?

Writer Sean Illing notes that democracies balance stability and equality. Left-leaning parties tend to support equality while conservative parties lean toward stability. This makes conservative parties the lynchpin in a liberal democracy. In a functioning democracy, Illing says that center-right parties respond to the center-left party’s desire for equality by promoting stability. But if the center-right party stops supporting stability and becomes more radical, then democracy is in peril.

American political scientist Daniel Ziblatt believes that conservatives are key to whether or not democracies live or die. That can only happen when conservatives are willing to “quarantine” far-right elements. “ In countries where the center-right is willing to quarantine the far-right, undemocratic forces should be politically neutralized,” Ziblatt says in a 2017 interview in the Washington Post. “But when the center-right gives in to the temptation to try to use the far-right because it thinks that’s the only way it can win, then their Faustian bargain can end up like they all do: not as they expected. Mainstream conservatives might find out that they, and not the radicals, were the ones being manipulated. That they weren’t appeasing the far-right, but empowering it.”

Sound familiar? German conservatives in the 1930s thought they could control and tame the Nazis. That didn’t end well.

One of the problems with the modern Republican party is not just the politicians, but their activist base. How the party handles its voters matters. Ziblatt observes that strong political parties are able to direct the passions of the voters while weak parties end up being driven by the voters. “If you have a strong conservative party, one that has what I call organizational firewalls that can mobilize voters and mobilize activists while allowing the leaders to keep control of the party, then democracy can be stable. But if you have a party that is weakly organized, and in some ways porous almost like a holding company of different groups and interests, where the leadership doesn’t have a monopoly on financing and selection of candidates, then it’s much more prone to radicalism,” Ziblatt says.

As Ziblatt and others note, when a conservative party succumbs to radicalism democracy as a whole is threatened. So leaving the party for greener and less authoritarian pastures can make someone feel better, but if said conservative party becomes radicalized, the entirety of democratic society is at stake.

So, what can be done? Even Ziblatt thinks the GOP is too far to the right to be brought back towards the center. While I believe in creating a brand new center-right party that can compete and by all means take on the Republicans, there is still a case to be made for fighting for change from within the GOP. But for that to happen, anti-Trump critics have to be clear in what they believe and they must be able to provide a clear alternative instead of leaving the party for dead because in the end, it doesn’t die.

Commentator Yauscha Mounk is correct in saying that having a two-party system where one party isn’t backing the democratic process is dangerous:

In a country with two major parties, democracy is safe only if both care more about preserving the political system than about beating their opponents. But one of America’s big parties is now willing to break the most basic rule of democracy: that free and fair elections should determine who gets to govern, and that those who lose must accept the legitimacy of their successor. The danger for American democracy is far from over. Until the Republican Party banishes Trump and drops his big lie, every presidential election will be a potential extinction-level event. (Emphasis mine)

GOP legislators in various states are working hard to find ways to limit the vote, especially the ability vote by mail. They are working to restrict voting by certain racial and ethnic groups they perceive to favor Democrats, in essence placing a thumb on the scale to ensure Republicans can win races. They aren’t interested in persuasion but making sure other certain populations can’t vote.

To simply walk away and join the Democrats is not going to be a happily ever after kind of affair. Even after all the mess President Trump and Republican congressional did, they still managed to do not totally implode in 2020. The GOP will not wither and die. Instead, the Republican Party will continue to be a threat to the democratic order unless it is changed from within or it is replaced by a third party.

Either option means that anti-Trump forces have to do two things: explain clearly what they are for and why they believe what they believe, and be willing to create a conservative domestic policy that will benefit average Americans.

Jerry Taylor and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center believe that one way the Republicans can wrest control from Trump and his minions in moving away from “zombie Reaganism” and provide solutions for the 2020s and not the 1980s. “Transcending Trump starts with a recognition that there’s no going back to the stale, threadbare brand of Conservative Inc. that he warred against in 2016 to great effect,” they argue. They observe that Trump built his MAGA movement based on the despair plaguing the working class. So, the answer is providing the agenda to that provides “bread” to Donald Trump’s “circuses.” This would include a child allowance like the one proposed by Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney, universal catastrophic health insurance, a focus on struggling parts of the United States and Federal revenue sharing.

Would they work? Past experience says yes. Taylor and Hammond recall the experience of the Conservative Party in Canada. The Canadian right was fractured in the 90s and early aughts. A brand new Conservative Party brought the factions together and under party leader and later Prime Minister Stephen Harper, put forward a bold domestic policy that included Romney-style child allowances. The result is that Canada is one of the few democracies that hasn’t faced the rise of a far right-wing movement.

Does this mean staying in the party and working for change or leaving to create a new one? The answer is: yes. What matters is how to keep the center-right supporting democracy and if that means working for change from within and/or creating a body that will represent a healthy center-right then so be it.

You can work with President Biden in the short term, there is nothing wrong with that. But you can’t leave the GOP to its own devices, not in a two-party system. You either need to create a party to displace the GOP or work for reform from the inside.

C. Scott Peters a professor at the University of Northern Iowa believes that Republicans must reject Trump’s authoritarianism in order to keep democracy safe.

Republicans must do everything in their power to sideline the populist, authoritarian forces that Trump has emboldened. All Republican office holders and leaders must reject Trump and all colleagues, candidates, and public figures who seek to undermine democratic rules and norms. They should not campaign with them, support their bills, or share their social media posts. They must reject not only Trump, but Trumpism in all its forms. Until they do so, our democracy will remain in peril.

We know that not every Republican in office is going to do this. In fact, it has been a small amount. But that doesn’t mean that it is a lost cause. There are lawmakers and others who are willing to repudiate Trump and Trumpism. Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s Country First PAC is working to support politicians that are willing to challenge Trump. So is the Republican Accountability Project. There are people trying to get the party to a point where they can give Trump and Trumpism the kiss off.

Shelley’s poem, Adonais, is written in honor of his friend and fellow poet John Keats. “Weep for Adonais is dead!” says the writer, imploring that it is time to mourn a passing. But to mourn something, you have to love it. When I talked about the fact that no one loves the GOP, I wasn’t talking about actually loving the party as much as what it represents or could represent if it is true to itself: the loss of the GOP as it is subsumed into Trumpism is to mourn the loss of democracy because no system can survive with just one party in favor of freedom.

Shelley ends his poem with a note of hope; he realizes his Adonais has gone to the next life:

Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven, The soul of Adonais, like a star, Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

We have to have hope that our democratic order can survive, but we have to mourn what has happened, what has been lost and hope at what can be regained.

Who mourns for the GOP? Everyone one of us should, regardless of party.

Originally published at https://politecompany.substack.com.

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store