81. What Ails America’s Republican Party?

The Republican Party is manifestly in trouble. What is more depressing: the crude shambolics of one candidate, Donald Trump, or the approval of one-quarter of polled Republicans who favored him? The exceptionally deep factionalism of the Party’s Religious Right, the Libertarians, the Neo- & Paleo-Conservatives, and the Tea Party extremists, is exemplary of politics in disarray. As an editor of the New Republic has phrased it, ‘The Republican Party is trapped at the center of a tug-of-war between its own ego and the conservative id.’1

Viewing the early debates, it seemed to me that any one of the slick seventeen politicians vying for the Presidency would be prepared to stab the others in the back to attain power. Little suggestion of collegiality here, but then the Republican leadership set the tone years ago by weeding out its Liberal members starting in the 1970s and then in the new century by ostracizing any of its Senators or Representatives who might compromise or demonstrate bi-partisanship with the Democrats.

Today’s Republicans have long forgotten the words of one of the party’s founding members, William H. Seward, back in 1858:

“The Republican Party is a party of one idea: but that is a noble one — an idea that fills and expands all generous souls; the idea of equality — the equality of all men before human tribunals and human laws, as they all are equal before the divine tribunal and divine laws.”2

Noble ideas are rarely expressed by party leaders today. What has happened? The descent from the heights of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Wendell Willkie is remarkable.

A brief listing of the range of factors (above and beyond all factions) involved in the degradation of such a major political party is essential:

  1. Their policy of denial (on such issues as the environment, inequality, racism, gun control, and drugs) is certainly central to the party’s position. The denial of reality ultimately leads to disillusionment. Because it is essentially backward looking, it fails to give hope to the electorate.
  2. Their unquestioning acceptance of capitalism with an absolute faith in the market is matched by their total rejection of socialism on the one hand and the protection of the interests of the corporations on the other. Such fixed positions on major socio-economic alternatives tend to block the flexibility needed for economic advance.
  3. Their development of rigid extremes in dealing with sexuality, mental illness, criminality, abortion and drug addiction. Their assumptions have blocked reasonable solutions to racial conflicts, immigration, and civil rights. Nationally, this has also resulted in their lack of a positive, coherent or rational approach to global warming, gun control, immigration, economic inequality, civil liberty and many other issues.
  4. Their inability to tackle essential reforms — be they of the political lobbying in Washington, the ineffectual results of the “war” on drugs, or the low 20% tax rate for profits on investments — seriously burden the party with an aura of negativity.
  5. Their failure to recognize or accept the intelligence of a broad spectrum of thinkers, ranging from economists to scientists, tends to downgrade the best that society has to offer. Anti-intellectual populism has never improved America.

Taken together, the conflicting partisan interests of the different factions and their strongly held and restrictive positions inhibit genuine leadership from arising. The most able and intelligent cannot work constructively under such conditions. Small wonder that a positive Republican program for America has been lacking. Yes, the most frequently demanded change by the 17 candidates is to shrink the size of the national government.3

I well remember better times when there were outstanding Republicans like Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to bolster the standing of the party. These were politicians not afraid of dealing with their Democratic opponents. Even hard line Republicans like Sen. Robert Taft collaborated with Democrats on raising taxes. The much maligned centrists left (or were booted out) of Washington because they recognized that compromise was no longer tolerated, that speaking out for what they believed — if it did not agree with the Party line — was inadmissible. The broad intolerance of the Tea Party members continues to undermine the moral standing of the Republicans.

Moderation and dialogue in Washington have vanished. Today’s Republican have little connection to their conservative heritage of concern with the environment (like Teddy Roosevelt’s), with racial integration (like Colin Powell’s), genuine health care reform (like Earl Warren’s), or greater social and economic equality (like Harold Stassen).

In the current Republican melee “Consistency is a vice; coherence spells dishonesty,” writes Edward Luce for the Financial Times.4 Republicans are consequently braced for months of internecine conflict which is likely to get more intense and damaging. Extremists of the Rush Limbaugh school will work assiduously to brand any bi-partisans in the party as traitors. The eventual nominee will suffer and so will the Republicans, particularly if Trump were to wind up launching his own third-party bid.

Perhaps the vacuity of the party on future oriented national programs reflects the extent to which a large part of the electorate is fearful of demographic, economic or cultural change. American social mobility, the dream of improvement in the standard of living, has stalled. The Republicans are wistful for the American Dream which is rapidly evading them. They are troubled by the fast pace of development in robotics, space exploration, and the uncontrolled advances of Silicon valley which are dramatically shifting both social and economic aspects of society. The middle-aged male candidates may be afraid that the America of their own childhood is tweeting away.

As a political party, the Republicans lack cohesion, lack leaders of vision, and lack understanding of the problems facing not only minorities but also those of the female majority. We have come to a situation where one of the two major parties in the US is misguided by anti-intellectual leaders who are no longer respectful of facts, evidence or science and resort to both denial and irrationality in presenting their positions, writes Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.5 He could have added that what the Republican candidates are really after is a square deal for the rich.***


1Brian Beutler, ‘The Republican party can’t escape its past, The New Republic, August 6, 2015
2William H. Seward, October 25, 1858
3In an increasingly secular country, all of these contenders feel compelled to wear the cloak of religion. “I believe that much of American ‘popular religion’ represents a historically anachronistic misunderstanding of genuine religious insights and of intellectually acceptable theology” wrote the sociologist Robin Williams Jr. “Such religiosity mistakenly equates social conformity with goodness, confuses means and ends, and regards neurotic guilt like an exposure of one’s conscience.” Robin Williams Jr. “A Model of Society” in A Great Society? Bertram M Gross, editor (1968) p. 52
4Edward Luce, “Republicans are forever changed by the Trump rapture,” The Financial Times, July 25, 2015, p.13
5Paul Krugman, “The Republicans can’t be serious” The New York Times, August 8, 2015

***With thanks to the late David Frost.