The GOP’s Missing Motivation
It has been claimed by others that no matter who wins the Republican nomination in 2016, the GOP will never be the same (see also here). This is likely true. How can the party go back to stuffy old white men who are out of touch with the modern American voter? Furthermore, if this proves true, I argue it is a good thing. The Republican Party has been in a political and ideological rut and there has not been a distinguishable leader of the party since Ronald Reagan left office. To illustrate, here’s an intellectual exercise: who is the current leader of the Republican Party? If you have to think hard about it then you’ve proven the point.
The biggest problem -- among a myriad of problems -- with the party is its lack of a strong and coherent ideology. Ideology is not a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary for a political party to have -- not only to survive, but to grow, compete, and to dominate in the realm of politics. Ideology serves as both a political foundation and a political map and compass. When you have a definable ideology, voters can identify where you stand on issues and why you stand where you stand. Moreover, when new issues emerge in the public square, a values-based ideology can help determine a party’s stance on a given issue. Democrats own social issues because they have a stance and they explain their stance to voters. The GOP loses these debates because they only say “no”; they never say why. Having a strong ideology would Republicans counteract this perception.
Another major problem is Republican leaders do not understand that they are at war with Democrats. How can you win a war you don’t acknowledge is going on? Yes, the GOP has taken control of Congress, but has the party furthered an agenda? No. Did it push an agenda when it had control of the government from 2001 to 2007? No, and the reason is that the party has no agenda. It has no agenda because it has no coherent ideology. Democrats win because they do have an ideology. The problem is that it’s the wrong ideology, leading to nothing but destruction and despair. However, their ideology is strong, they live by it, and they push it hard. A perfect example of this can be seen here.
In his masterpiece Witness, Whittaker Chambers incidentally explained why the Republican Party has been so weak and ineffectual for most of its existence. In explaining why Communists were so dedicated to their cause, and were ultimately going to win against the West, Chambers said that they have “a reason to live and a reason to die.” Chambers then noted that if the West were to win this great human struggle, freedom-loving people would have to find a similarly strong faith. He cited faith in God as the only thing that could counteract communists’ fanaticism; but while religious faith is important, it is the values that emanate from faith that are vital in politics. We are up against the same enemy, who has this same faith and tenacity. Republicans, and therefore the country, are losing because they refuse to stand up against this rabid enemy.
Outside of Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, (perhaps) Dwight Eisenhower, and for a time behind Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party has rarely furthered a positive, active, ideologically-based agenda. Through much of its history, the GOP has reacted to Democrats. They are constantly on the defense, never positing their own ideas and policies. Also, the party fancies itself as the conservative alternative, but in reality, this is only true relative to Democrats’ radical liberalism. Champions of conservatism (and classical liberalism, which is another piece for another time) have largely been found outside the party structure: Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., Rush Limbaugh, and now Mark Levin. Ideologically strong leaders like Barry Goldwater, Jack Kemp, and Ronald Reagan have been few and far between. Ted Cruz could be added to this list; he is driven by ideology but voters inexplicably preferred a reality TV star to him this primary season.
Many criticize Barack Obama and other Democrats for being ideologically driven. While it is true that he is the biggest ideologue as president since Reagan, ideology in and of itself is not a bad thing. The problem with Obama is that he adheres to the wrong ideology -- one that seeks to strip individuals of their liberty. Obama’s ideology is also one that constantly seeks a maximization of the state over the individual and the civil society. Reagan’s ideology, had it reached full flower, would have returned the United States to its original position, politically speaking. Individual liberty. Limited government. A vibrant civil society and middle class. Sadly, Reagan largely stood alone in the fight to stop the decades-long movement of the country to the left. Once he left office, Democrats, helped by Republicans, wiped out all of Reagan’s progress.
As a country, we stand at a precipice as much as a crossroads. Our debt is larger than our economy. We haven’t been this weak relative to other countries since before World War II. Our culture and military have been infected with the limp-wristed weakness brought on by political correctness and a terrible public education system. Both parties are to blame: Democrats because they have actively sought the “fundamental transformation” of America; Republicans because they have been too weak to stand up and fight. Why have Republicans been too weak? Because they have no ideological foundation and because they don’t have the political foresight that a values-rich ideology would provide.
Whether the GOP survives this election cycle is anyone’s guess. It will surely survive in some nominal sense. It has been around too long to vanish after just one bad cycle. However, nominating the likes of Donald Trump is a sign that the party is on its deathbed. This raises two questions. Can the Republican Party be saved? More importantly, should the Republican Party be saved? I would argue yes, the GOP can be saved. The second question is more debatable. The party name and apparatus should be salvaged, but with new leadership and an adherence to a strong, conservative or classical liberal ideology. Reince Priebus and his ilk should be removed in favor of a strong, outspoken figure that can ignite the base and help grow the party. Though it will be tempting to form a new party, conservatives should follow Ronald Reagan’s advice and reform the GOP into one that flies “bold colors, not pale pastels.”
The Republican Party is definitely in trouble and it has few options moving forward. As this election cycle has shown, the base is tired of stale, establishment favorites. But because reality dictates the necessity of a party, voters need to insist on new leadership and a new, ideologically based platform. If not, Democrats will speed up this now century-long process and soon we won’t have a country to complain about.
Layne Hansen is a PhD student in American politics. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.