Every day seems to bring a new story about the ideological or demographic challenges of the Republican Party. Perhaps GOP leaders could take their cues from Alexis de Tocqueville. The nineteenth century French historian believed that there are two different kinds of parties — some are great and some are small.
Great parties, he wrote in his seminal Democracy in America, are “those that are attached more to principles than to their consequences; to generalities and not to particular cases; to ideas and not to men.” Then there are small parties, which are “generally without political faith.” If the Frenchman came to America in 2014 rather than 1831, he might say that we have one of each kind.
In terms of picking a candidate, for example, the Republicans typically nominate the next in line—Dole, McCain (in 2008,) Romney (2012.) Even Ronald Reagan had to wait his turn. Bush’s leap over McCain in 2000 is the exception that proves the rule.
For their part, Democrats fit more with what Tocqueville calls a small party. Their appeal comes from particular candidates and particular circumstances. Consider how Carter, Clinton, and Obama each came out of nowhere to take the nomination and win the White House.
The problem is that an established and stable democracy has little use for great parties. “America has had great parties; today they no longer exist,” Tocqueville observes.
Whether it’s Christianity or capitalism, the Republican platform over the last 30-plus years has become more about purity than pragmatism and more about ideas than individuals. They are trying to be a big party—and it’s costing them.
There was a time when we argued about nullification, slavery, and the national bank, but the differences between the Federalists and Anti-federalists were made insignificant when Jefferson came to power. Government now is tasked with figuring out how to continue the economic recovery in a way that is more shared. We are looking to preserve a republic, not found one.
Richard Hofstadter, in his American Political Tradition, first published in 1948, chronicles “a unity of political and cultural tradition,” related to our faith in property rights and economic competition. That has not changed. Indeed, the three last major public policy accomplishments (TARP, the stimulus, and the Affordable Care Act) were all attempts to protect that tradition, not undermine it.
According to the “bread and peace” model of presidential elections, Obama should not have been reelected. Indeed, the numbers on the economy and the President’s job approval pointed to an easy Republican victory. In the run-up to the 2012 election, polls showed a generic Republican regularly beating Obama—by a healthy margin. Yet no specific Republican outpolled Obama.
On the one hand, it is an indictment of the cool feelings toward Romney that he consistently underperformed. As he noted in the Netflix documentary Mitt, Romney himself acknowledged that he was a “flawed candidate”—for his perceived flip-flopping. Yet Romney did what he had to do to secure his party’s nomination, and his party penalized him for it. He was the generic Republican.
The last two Republican presidential runs have included an established party leader who has selected as his VP a lesser experienced and more ideological partner to square the Republican circle. Adding a very conservative upstart from the House might have surprised some, but given the state of today’s Republican Party, it’s hard to see the selection of Paul Ryan as anything other than fated. The pick gave Team Obama the opportunity to make the election a choice between two vastly different views of government, rather than a referendum on him. In that sense, Ryan did more to diminish the Party than balance the ticket.
There would be less of a need for Republicans to panic if the country were becoming more conservative, as it’s often said. The Democrats would be the ones scrambling for votes. But the country is getting more libertarian—that is, economically conservative and socially liberal. And rather than seizing the libertarian moment, many in the GOP have treated its in-house standard-bearer, Rand Paul, senator from Kentucky, as an existential threat and have done their utmost to diminish him.
“We have got to be open,” Bob Dole told The Daily Telegraph. “We cannot be a single-issue party or a single-philosophy party.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Jeb Bush said the same thing.
Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who did a brief stint as the darling of the Party, was less tactful, when he said the Republicans needed to “stop being the stupid party.”
What else can you say about a group of people whose social policy is so retrograde that it seems to be more concerned with stopping gays from getting married than it is with preventing women from getting raped? For his part, Jindal, a biology major in college, supports the teaching of creationism and intelligent design as components of “the best science” education.
That said, parties in the United States have always been more about attaining and securing office than about implementing a consistent political philosophy. The GOP, we should recall, originated in opposition to slavery. It’s the party of Lincoln. It is also the party of Theodore Roosevelt, whose plea for a “new nationalism” (during his failed 1912 campaign) included an attack on the economic and political power of corporations and a call for fair wages. And Richard Nixon was responsible for the country’s first environmental protections in the early 1970s. The Party was once the comfortable home for humanitarians and progressives.
Conservatives in other countries, of course, are less likely to reject the science of evolution or climate change. In fact, a recent survey revealed the skepticism about science in Europe is stronger on the Left, although the issues are different. That suggests the difference is one of politics and particulars, not intellect. Politicians like to be reelected and are prone to say or do whatever that requires. And if a politician is at odds with public opinion, it is only because that is where the money is. But that is a short-term strategy; in the long term, politicians tend to go where the voters are.
The Republicans’ recent agreement to raise the (absurd) debt ceiling is a nod, if not a move, to the center. The hardliners called it “financially reckless” or “capitulation,” but it was as close to actual governing as the Party has come in some time. Any such momentum is likely to be stopped in the run-up to the midterm elections, however, and the pendulum will begin to swing back once the Party reaps the rewards of cyclical voting and picks up the usual number of seats in Congress come November. It will undoubtedly make government more divided, and the Republican opposition to its chief executive will be even more determined.
The situation for Republicans is different at the state and local levels, where governors are required to balance budgets and legislators deal with more specific constituencies. They don’t have the luxury of ideology (or fantasy), and it could be from there that the Party is saved. Yet even if a sensible moderate Republican could win the nomination and the presidency, it is unlikely that the whole of the party would be move with him or her—just as Obama has not taken all of the Democrats with him.
The winner-take-all nature of U.S. elections (as opposed to a proportional system, which rewards or even permits minor parties) means that it will almost always have only two competitive parties. And since the laws concerning those elections were written by the parties in power, it is very likely that those parties will the Democrats and Republicans. In 1992, Ross Perot’s independent billions only earned him 19% of the vote (and no votes in the Electoral College,) even though exit polling showed his actual support to be twice that figure. The best that Ralph Nader could do with the Green Party in 2000 was to deliver Florida (and with it, the presidency) to George W. Bush.
Even so, perhaps the largest obstacle to the Republican moderation comes from the other side of the aisle. On issue after issue, the only place for the Republicans to move is right. In the last several years, the Democrats have adopted (and passed) a health care plan that originated in the conservative Heritage Foundation. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts, pushed for a cap and trade regime, extended the bailout of the financial industry and nearly all of the Bush-era tax cuts, and continued (or even heightened) Bush’s foreign policy and surveillance program. And for this Obama is called a socialist and an apologist. Simply put, they have tried to hide their extremism by making Obama look like one.
It is more likely that the solution to the Republican Party’s ills would come from a serious Democratic challenge from the left, which could permit the GOP to reclaim some of its old territory. The progressive heir apparent is Harvard Law professor-turned-senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA,) but she has ruled out a run in 2016. The centrism of a Hillary Clinton candidacy would most likely doom the Republicans to another cycle of aimless extremism. A Clinton presidency would do even more damage.
It makes sense that the Republicans are thinking big, but it’s impossible that a great party could also find a great candidate. As Tocqueville might have put it, the Party is trying to have a big party in a small tent. They’re more concerned with what they are serving than the fact that no one is eating.
Republican efforts would be better directed at simply supporting candidates who might actually win. Once elected, they can focus less on Big Ideas and more on getting things done. And it will also be easier for Republicans to compromise once every issue is seen for what it is, rather than being elevated—or reduced, depending on your view—to a morality play.
“Conservatism, after all, is a relative term,” conservative Frank S. Meyer wrote in 1955. “The question is: what do you want to conserve.” All the Republican Party needs to do is realize that there is more to be gained from conserving the country than conserving itself—especially since the two are very connected.
In any event, the GOP needs to right its ship—and quickly. A two party-system needs two small parties. The country has too many pressing policy challenges to do the heavy lifting with a phantom limb.