Fixing Our Broken Politics
By Arthur Winter, The Lone Liberal Republican (not really, but sometimes it seems like it)
Our national motto is “E pluribus unum” (“Out of Many, One”), but should it instead now be “Sinere putrere” (“To allow to fester or rot”)?
As Donald Trump assumes at least partial command of the Republican Party, and establishment figures within the Party seethe in anger or suffer silently in benumbed disbelief, now is a good time to ask where the future of a Republican Party lies and how it’s reaction to the phenomenon of Trump can contribute to fixing our broken politics. This article will argue that its best future lies in a laser-like focus on equality of opportunity, and an adherence to consensus-driven politics that adopt the best of what Ronald Reagan actually said and believed (as opposed to the ludicrous myths that have grown up around him), together with mining the rich vein of Liberal Republican politics that is part of the Party’s proud history.
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If Lenin, Mao, Churchill and John F. Kennedy were to walk together down the streets of Beijing, Mumbai, Sao Paulo or Istanbul today, they would not argue for a nanosecond about who “won.” The world has become overwhelmingly a planet of people aspiring to live materially rich middle class lives, where substantial personal liberty if not democracy is the norm, and where people believe that working hard will likely lead to a better future for them and their children. Much of today’s world more resembles America in the Fifties — with local cultures and modern technology — than the politically repressive, anti-capitalist places they were thirty years ago. These benefits have occurred on America’s global watch, and many of these benefits have come from ideas and policies for which America has been the chief proponent.
So why does almost no one in America feel like we have “won” anything in the last couple of decades? In America things have flatlined economically for many, and a perception that America’s power is in decline hasprovoked much anxiety. Frustration with the decay of America’s infrastructure has colored others’ perception of life in America, as does a sense that there is an increasing disconnect between hard work and achievement.
While it is commonplace to say that America is the land of opportunity, data increasingly demonstrates thatwe are not providing clear paths to upward mobility. This is in part because of globalization and technology, but also in part because too often our politicians confuse equality of opportunity with equality of result. A LOT more Americans will support proactive government policies that are laser focused on equality of opportunity than policies that seek to achieve equality of result. After all, the essence of the American Dream is the belief in equality of opportunity and that, with hard work, anyone in America can make a better life for himself or herself and for his or her children.
I. Today’s Republicans Are The “RINO’s” (Republicans In Name Only)
You don’t need to go straight to Donald Trump to conclude that many of today’s Republicans are “Republicans in Name Only.” (Donald Trump was a registered Republican until 2001, then a registered Democrat until 2009, then a registered Republican again.) Today’s Republican Party bears little resemblance to its historic self. If you are in your forties or younger, you are unlikely to know how diverse Republican Party politics were when your parents and grandparents were young. In fact, you may be flabbergasted by how many prominent liberal Republicans there were and the principles for which they stood. While the Party always included conservatives, conservative ideas did not dominate the Party nor did conservatives control it.
Most people know the Republican Party was founded in opposition to slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President. (In fact, the Republican Party was long known as “the Party of Lincoln.”) Many people also know about Republican Teddy Roosevelt, an early Twentieth Century progressive President who took on powerful business interests and fostered America’s first major social welfare legislation. But most people do not know that, until recently, progressive Republicans had an even greater voice in the Republican Party than conservatives, or that these Republicans aligned with like-minded Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis to enact major civil rights laws, major infrastructure legislation and laws and policies that underpinned America’s foreign policy in defense of democracy and liberty around the world. For example, the two Twentieth Century landmark civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were supported by a greater proportion of Republican Congresspersons and Senators than Democratic ones. These liberal Republicans included Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith, George Romney (Mitt’s father), Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, William Scranton, Charles Percy and Jacob Javits. Google them. You will be astonished by their politics. And there were dozens more.
The Republican Party also developed as the party advocating liberal capitalism as the best means to achieve broad economic prosperity, including by advocating for national infrastructure development and against the abuses of great wealth (including business trusts and monopolies). It was also the party advocating for ethics and competency in government, rather than the vote-buying, job patronage and electoral horse-trading which were historically characteristic of Democratic machine politics. And it was the party most associated with a preference for individual initiative, decentralized government and fiscal conservatism.
When Republicans today accuse Republicans they regard as too liberal of being “RINO’s”, they ignore history. It is essential for the American people, especially young people, not to cede control of the Republican Party to its conservative members, let alone to Mr. Trump’s followers. After all, the Republican Party represents half of our established political infrastructure. Ceding control of the Republican Party to such people is likely to beespecially destructive of America’s future because for many of these people (as is the case for some of the most passionate liberal Democrats), “consensus” is a dirty word. And just as constant infighting weakens families, sports teams, religious congregations and businesses, the constant infighting and gridlock that characterizes our Federal Government today weakens America.
The term “Liberal Republican” has often been used to describe both progressives and moderates. Like most political factions, it includes people who espouse divergent views on many issues, as well as politicians who have drifted into its space with experience and changing political times.
II. How To End Our Poisonous Political Culture That Punishes Consensus And Compromise
Resurrecting a Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party would be a means to return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Three steps could help us do so.
First, regardless of its size and specific functions, government has to work fairly and effectively. To condemn ALL government ties our nation’s hands unreasonably.
Second, our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the assurance of their own reelection.
Third, Americans who believe in the values and policies of Liberal Republicanism, especially young people and people who have been involved in Republican politics in the past but have little affinity with either Mr. Trump or the anti-consensus conservatives, must reengage at the local level with passion and patience. The forebears of those whose ideologies now control the Republican Party did not change the Party quickly. They worked hard for decades to do so. Likewise, it will take a decade of hard work to restore balance to the Republican Party.
A. Why It Is Ludicrous to Regard All Government as a Problem
In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan stated “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For decades that quote has fueled a Republican Party that has morphed beyond Reagan’s belief in limited, decentralized government. By 2012, the Republican Party had taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had advocated. Mitt Romney, a former moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts and the son of the great Liberal Republican George Romney, only won the Republican nomination for President in 2012 by abandoningmany of the policies for which he and his father had stood. At around the same time, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pointed out that Ronald Reagan and his Dad, President George H.W. Bush, would have had a difficult time securing the nomination of the Republican Party in 2012.
Reagan’s famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed in 1980.
Reagan’s quote is used today as if the words “In this present crisis” were not part of what he said, as if it were a blanket statement about all government, all the time.
In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:
“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’
It is rational to believe in the small, decentralized government that Ronald Reagan embraced. It is a wholly other matter to believe that all government is inherently bad.
Some on the political right who are viscerally against government could help address our dysfunctional, gridlocked government by advocating for efficiency, along with smaller government, rather than complaining that all government is problematic. And, some on the political left who advocate for a larger government role in society could convince people who are skeptical about government to support a broader role for it if they combined their advocacy for large government with an expectation that it function like a well-run business.
Saying that all government is bad limits the tools our nation can use to succeed. It is a bit like arbitrarily saying that only football players whose last names start with the letters A through K can play for our team. Such a team will be weaker than one that uses all the players available.
To illustrate how weakening such an arbitrarily restrictive approach can be, take a look at how the University of Alabama football team performed before and after it integrated racially. In 1970, the University of Southern California’s football team, a fully-integrated team, traveled to play Alabama, a still segregated team. USC won the game 42 to 21. Sam Cunningham, a USC running back, had twelve carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. This thrashing convinced Alabama of the need to integrate, and, in 1971 Alabama recruited its first Black player. The Crimson Tide’s wins, losses and ties in the years before integrating and after speak for themselves.
After the USC-Alabama game, it was said that USC’s Sam Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama in sixty minutes than civil rights legislation had done in twenty years.
Republican politicians today routinely misuse Reagan’s words to pay homage to those who want to strangle government. And almost all Republican politicians who do not adhere to right-wing dogmas are attacked in their Congressional Districts and the States they represent, and challenged in Republican primaries by candidates who do adhere to such dogmas.
This state of affairs subsists for two reasons. First, many politicians strike the wrong balance between public service and their own reelection, preferring reelection to doing what they believe is right for the country. Second, at the grass roots and local levels, the Republican Party lacks the progressives and moderates who would support Republican politicians who refuse to adhere to right-wing dogmas.
B. Restoring the Primacy of Public Service
Our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the perpetuation of their own ambitions. The balance most of today’s politicians strike between their reelection and actual public service is hideously biased towards the former.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we can look to our founding father, George Washington. Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, “like the Roman Cincinnatus (the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family), Washington perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. He did this when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, and again when he declined to run for a third term as President.”
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who knew both the King and Washington. Asked by the King what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West told the King he thought that Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King is supposed to have remarked, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington’s values? How did we get to a place where policies most of our legislators agree would be good for America do not get enacted because concerns of partisan politics or generating continuing political contributions get in the way? Our elected officials’ jobs are to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so puts their reelection at risk. As my friend Jasmine Davis has said, “We need more Washingtons in Washington.”
C. Restoring Balance to the Republican Party
The third thing necessary to restore balance to the Republican Party is for people who believe in Liberal Republican principles and pragmatic, consensus-driven government to get involved in the political process. It is understandable that people who are passionate about political and social issues are also passionate about spending the time and resources to effectuate those passions. In contrast, people who are inherently moderate and pragmatic may be moderate and pragmatic in how they practice politics. Liberal Republicanism will not re-emerge until people who believe in its values and policies are willing to get back into the political arena and duke it out (politically, not literally) with their more conservative Republican brethren, as well as with Mr. Trump’s supporters, thugs and non-thugs alike.
A little more background on how our politics came to be so mean sheds light on what needs to be done to reverse the tide.
F. Clifton White was a Republican who evolved from moderate mainstream Republicanism to leading the movement that secured the Republican Presidential nomination for the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. As described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin, White ran for elective office himself in 1946, and apparently his candidacy was sabotaged by Communists. Although the Communists were greatly outnumbered, they got their way through secrecy, rigid unity, manipulation of parliamentary procedure, and sheer ruthlessness. Ironically, they learned such tactics from Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Communist Russia. One conservative organizer and former Communist, Marvin Liebman, “felt nostalgic for my Young Communist League days,” as he felt that the young conservatives were “exactly like” the Red Guards of the ‘30’s, “with the same anger and the same passion.”
“Sometimes the Communists simply demonstrated a superior grasp of organization and tactics, for example by voting as a bloc for one candidate while their opponents spread their votes across multiple candidates. At other times they would run roughshod over the democratic process, employing stalling motions to keep a meeting going all night until enough of their opponents had left in disgust, then ramming home the vote. Or they would wait until a rival candidate had built up such a majority that most serious challengers had dropped out, then destroy the front-runner through foul-play and make their own candidate available as a last-minute substitute. That was the fate that befell White, when at the eleventh hour the Communists spread a rumor that he had diverted funds to an adulterous tryst with his secretary. Most of the non-Communists who witnessed these abuses of democracy were horrified; some were moved to join the CIA in order to dedicate themselves to attacking the evils of Communism around the world. White, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the Communists. He saw in their example methods by which a small, disciplined minority uninhibited by bourgeois scruples of fair play or tradition or truth, could defeat a majority and bend an organization to its will.”
White and his colleagues put these strategies to work to nominate the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican Convention. Former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, less than four years out of the White House, “felt it [the use of such strategies] was unpardonable – – and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.” Former baseball star Jackie Robinson, who was one of the most prominent African-Americans in the convention audience, felt that he was witnessing white supremacy in action. “I know now how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
It is fascinating that this long-shot success of White and his colleagues in recasting the Republican Party as exclusively conservative was accomplished using tactics of the Communist Party, whose politics were diametrically opposed to the politics of White and his colleagues. But viewed through the lens of this history, it is no wonder that today’s Republican Party is so uncompromising, and that inter-party communication has become so uncivil. The roots of the modern Republican Party are in Clifton White’s “take no prisoners” politics.
Advocates for restoring Liberal Republican principles and restoring balance to the Republican Party must be equally tenacious in advocating and organizing for Liberal Republican policies and candidates. Only then might they hope to be as successful as White and his colleagues were when they transformed the Republican Party to the exclusively conservative party it is today.
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The decline of liberal Republicanism continues to reverberate in our politics today. (In the case of former Secretary of State Clinton, her politics actually evolved to moderate Republicanism from being a “Goldwater girl,” before she abandoned Republicanism entirely, preferring instead the emerging moderate wing of the Democratic Party.) According to Geoffrey Kabaservice, “A symbolic indication of youthful disaffection with moderate Republicanism occurred when Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke addressed the Wellesley College commencement in late May 1969. Brooke, one of the Senate’s most progressive Republicans as well as its lone African American, tried to persuade his restive audience that change within the system was still possible, as demonstrated by the poverty rate’s having fallen from 22 percent of Americans in 1959 to 13.3 percent in 1967. [This was an incredible reduction in poverty, by today’s or any era’s standards]. Brooke was followed on the speaker’s platform by the student government president, Hillary Rodham. [She] departed from her prepared text to tear into Brooke for his alleged indifference to poverty. ‘What does it mean that 13.3 percent of Americans are poor?’ she demanded. ‘How about talking about the humans, not the statistics?’ Her classmates predictably gave her a standing ovation. “ Brooke, convinced that she would have attacked any other commencement speaker, gracefully commented: “I was there representing authority, and she was representing the frustrations of her own generation, which she did most effectively.” (How ironic that Secretary Clinton represented the established authority in the recent Presidential election, and Mr. Trump‘s and Senator Sanders’ supporters were the ones venting frustrations.)
It is certainly easy for young people today to conclude that our government is such a mess that their efforts should be directed elsewhere, or directed towards destroying the political status quo (which seems to be the motivation of many of Mr. Trump’s and Senator Sanders’ followers). But our nation is unlikely to thrive without a return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Abandoning politics will not help end the poisonous politics we face today. In the words of the late David Foster Wallace, in his essay “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub: Seven Days in the Life of the Late, Great, JohnMcCain”:
“There are, of course, some groups of Young Voters who are way, way into modern politics…It is interesting, though, that what gives these small fringe blocs such disproportionate power is the simple failure of most mainstream Young Voters to get off their ass and vote…By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”
Viewed through the lens of the 2016 Presidential primaries, I would only add to Mr. Wallace’s advice the need to support politicians who demonstrate a willingness to compromise and support bipartisan policies. Resurrecting the Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party (along with adhering to what President Reagan actually said and believed), would be an important step towards achieving high-functioning, consensus-oriented government. Sadly, the likely alternative is that soon the current Republican establishment won’t be the only Americans suffering silently in benumbed disbelief.