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Republicans Today: The Choice Their Leaders Face

In this kick-off conversation for 2018, I am asked to comment sympathetically on the current Republican Party in the United States of America. As one who in partisan elections frequently votes for GOP candidates and who for nearly forty years has worked or volunteered with Republicans, I seem a likely suspect.  I am pleased to take up this obligation, perhaps particularly now one year into the presidency of someone who only recently identified with the party, and whose primary voters nominated him against the considered judgement of nearly all the established party leadership.  One year into the presidency and after making progress on some traditional GOP issues, the party establishment has to decide whether to take new steps and adopt quite different trade and infrastructure ideas of the Trump agenda, or try to keep Trump voters attached to the party by more symbolic, and problematic, means.  

The charge to comment on “the current Republican Party in the United States” seems simple enough. In fact, it involves the layered structure of our governments, the separation of powers at most levels of those governments, the decentralized characteristics of American parties, and the division between established party leaders (those who hold elected office or whose profession is to perpetuate the party) and the pools of voter courted by party leaders.  This essay starts with my basic approach to American government and politics, as it shapes my expectations of American political parties and their leaders and voter pools. 

Friends and Foundations

First impressions influence lifetime party affiliations. I was raised in rural western Michigan in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in a Reformed Christian farm family that was active in community life through church, non-profit and public schools affairs.  As engaged citizens, we sometimes met and befriended local partisan elected officials, nearly all of whom were Republicans, and who seemed to serve admirably and faithfully. As a Hope College undergraduate in the late ‘70s, I first encountered the Institute for Christian Studies, and soon the work of the Association for Public Justice. Both sources provided rich resources to think about Christianity, government and political parties as I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1980 and started a 15-year career as a Republican Capitol Hill staff person. A part-time graduate student, I finished seminary in 1984 and started at the Catholic University of America, concentrating on American government but also taking courses in political theory. 

Readings in and out of classrooms introduced me to subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, shaping my Christian perspective on politics. It also reinforced my Republican views, however uncomfortable some of the GOP’s leaders and positions were to me. As many readers know, sphere sovereignty claims that each sphere of life has distinct responsibilities, authority and competence, standing equal to other spheres and in direct responsibility to God. An all-encompassing God-created order includes topical task-oriented communities, such as those for education, worship, civil justice, economy and labor, marriage and family, and artistic expression. No one area is sovereign over another. Particularly, neither institutions of faith (e.g. churches) nor civil justice (i.e. governments) has any particular superiority. Rather, the main job of each level or branch of government, and government as a whole, is to protect the boundaries among the spheres. It is as if government is the internal and external walls of a home, and the really important work happens within the house’s many rooms, each room more or less authoritative over what happens in it. In a complementary way, subsidiarity argues that the most local competent authority best handles matters of public concern. It has thick notions of human responsibility and sociability. Localized institutions such as the family, church, and voluntary associations link and empower individuals, and assigning duties to them fulfills their callings.

The Christian notions of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity have a variety of government applications, particularly the American version. Both limit government (as well as church) reach, fitting well with American federalism and separation of powers. Based on Christian insights into the nature of human possibility and sin, they serve as strategic guides to maximize well-being while minimizing sin, the latter particularly prone to large institutions such as the church and state organized and operated by well-meaning but still fallen individuals.

These two streams of Christian political thought shaped my views of both the limits and possibilities of government and of Christians operating within it. My major takeaways were that government has a limited role, the church has little special insight, and that the real moral activities of life were outside of the church or the state, and in the spheres (or rooms, in my house analogy of above), and not in the boundaries between the spheres. Governments and Christians should respect both localism and human responsibility and dignity.  

Recent Republican Established Leaders and Voter Pools

The separated and federalized American government is hard to coordinate. This problem quickly generated political parties in the republic’s early years to both accommodate and overcome these limits. Established office holders wanted broader public participation in elections to validate policy ideas. Mass political parties connected a more diverse pool of people to political activity, and socialized them into constructive government and electoral engagement. Parties encourage voting and other political acts, develop skills in helping people balance conviction and compromise to achieve public goals, and legitimate peaceful change in holding, monitoring and honoring the results of elections. The overwhelming pragmatism and constant changeability of the two major American political parties is both frustrating (and annoying to those with moral certainty) and key to their continued relevance.

The two national political parties, Democratic and Republican, are structured and led a bit differently from each other, but still each are federations of state parties held together by a few common and often vague principles and interests. Each divided by geography, ideology, class, and other ways, the party federations unite every four years to select presidential candidates. The high profile of presidential contests exaggerates party unity. In fact, party coalitions shift, sometimes quickly and drastically, particularly if party professionals despair of attaining governing majorities. 

Today’s Republican Party is entering a new phase of efforts begun in the 1970s by its leadership at the time to reverse what was clear minority status by courting non-urban and disproportionally southern former Democratic voters. Progress since then, as measured in electoral results, has been intermittent but impressive. The GOP has moved since then from obvious minority status to at least parity, partly from its own intentions and partly from the strategic counter moves of the Democratic Party.

A brief party history illustrates. Since its founding in the late 1850s, a mostly consistent GOP theme has been individualism. Founded largely to oppose American slavery and early on supporting women’s suffrage, Republicans encouraged Prohibition, aided individualized Protestantism over the hierarchical Catholic Church, and blessed government “nudges” to create private wealth over against more redistributive ideas. At times in its first seventy years the GOP was progressive, such as when it advanced abolition and women’s suffrage and led electioneering reforms.  Since the 1920s, however, the national GOP has been usually the more conservative party, resisting government encroachments on local governments, private activity, and charitable and religious institutions. In terms of social class, at least until the 1970s Republican support came largely from the upper middle class and above, and corporate and financial interests, as the party’s leaders generally favored freer economic markets and less government intervention in business. The Northeast, Midwest, and Plains were historic GOP strongholds, with the South and most of the nation’s major cities more Democratic. 

Today’s new dynamic began in the mid-1960s, when LBJ and the national Democratic Party leadership chose to use their large congressional majorities to expand the limited New Deal welfare state into a more ambitious Great Society and to advance voting rights for African Americans. Originally strongly supportive of some of these items, particularly African-American voting rights, the GOP’s establishment by the late 1960s began to see a counter opportunity in a “suburban strategy” that might be particularly effective in the Democrats’ previously “Solid South.” The three themes of the suburban strategy were: 1) a strong military (defined by increasing spending on defense and veterans programs), 2) general economic growth (defined by resistance to government regulation and support for global trade agreements without much compensation to displaced American labor), and 3) limits on the national government, articulated in support for religious liberty (defined by support for traditional religious faith expression and linked social issues such as private schools, traditional marriage and opposition to abortion) and invocations of the 2nd, 9th and 10th amendments.

The suburban strategy paid large dividends to Republicans, thanks in no small part to the Democratic Party’s own strategic moves, for quite some time. The “Reagan trinity” of economic, social and foreign policy conservatism in 1980 catapulted him into the White House and brought other strong GOP gains. The new president and Congress enacted the economic and military parts of the Reagan program—large defense spending hikes, smaller domestic spending growth, and major tax cuts. Despite lukewarm action on most conservative social issues and encountering some scandals, Reagan remained popular enough to pass on the presidency to George H.W. Bush, his vice president. The suburban strategy seemed successful. The twelve years of Republican presidents and more uniform GOP conservatism was adding more GOP support from the Solid South than the party was losing elsewhere. Conservatism and Republicanism became what Reagan presented—appreciation for free markets, muscular patriotic nationalism, and traditional reliance on self and locality rooted in religion.

Somewhat ironically, the GOP’s 1992 presidential loss cemented its new orthodoxy. Most party leaders blamed George H.W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton (with major help from Ross Perot) on insufficient fealty to the new conservatism, ignoring the equally plausible notion that the party failed to address the understandable economic concerns of those living in the GOP’s geographic and demographic targets. 

In the 1994 off-year elections, Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey convinced congressional Republicans to create a “Contract With America” of conservative and Perot-inspired populist ideas. Republicans reclaimed a Senate majority and gained a House majority for the first time in forty years. The congressional party won new Midwest, Border and Southern districts, and brought other pro-GOP changes to the larger political landscape.  State legislatures under full Republican control soared from eight to 19 (one more than the Democrats), and there were now 30 GOP governors.

By cold hard numbers, 1994 was an earthquake that released tension along a partisan fault line that through many election cycles had awarded more Democratic congressional seats than the generic vote proportion. National Republican leaders interpreted it in more ideological terms, claiming a public majority now embraced consistent conservatism. There was, however, only a brief spasm of conservative legislation, like welfare reform, and soon partisan parity returned to stay.

The 2000 election was a virtual tie, with George W. Bush winning just enough voters who seemed to ignore favorable economic conditions to punish Democrat Al Gore for Bill Clinton’s prior excesses. Party identification indicators changed little, and the GOP lost a handful of seats in both the House and Senate, retaining control of the latter body only with Vice-President Cheney’s vote. Four years later Bush narrowly won, but Republican decline after November 2004 was swift. Public discontent with a poorly executed Iraq War combined with a rash of congressional GOP scandals to result in large party losses in 2006. The timing of the Great Recession was ideal for Democrats in 2008, where relative newcomer Barack Obama won easily and his party bolstered two-year-old majorities in the House and Senate. The tables flipped quickly only two years later, as the new Tea Party movement, aroused by recession, corporate bailouts and passion surrounding passage of the new health care law, voted in 63 new House Republicans and narrowed sharply the Democrats’ Senate majority.

2016: Two Spent Parties
When narrowly compared to Democrats, the GOP’s suburban strategy was smart and successful. The party is at least equal to the once-dominant Democrats and plausibly the nation’s majority party. This myopic focus on the two parties, however, ignores the crisis of public confidence in our governing institutions. There is much data on this point, and I don’t think readers will challenge the long-range decline in party affiliation or trust and confidence in Congress, the presidency and the federal courts. Some of this mistrust comes from unrealistic public expectations, but much of the decline is justified.

The national government under both split and unified party control has failed its basic purposes to (paraphrasing the Constitution’s preamble) provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty for this and following generations.  It has not made the nation feel more secure, as both party’s promises to end Iraq and Afghan wars or provide comprehensive immigration reform are delayed or discarded. It budgets irresponsibly, allowing debt to accumulate and burdening succeeding generations. It has not distinguished between liberty’s blessings, which include our economic and expressive freedoms, and liberty’s blind spot when it slides to license and allows the marginalization of groups perceived as outside the mainstream.

The establishments of both parties entered the 2016 election cycle largely ignoring these deeper crises. Although in vastly different ways, the Sanders and Trump insurgencies capitalized on them.  In the GOP, most leaders were optimistic about 2016 presidential prospects, seeing a strong field of more than a dozen reliables. Nevertheless, outsider Donald Trump took the opportunity he had long wished for and now saw.  He entered the GOP primaries with a very different style and platform. He took on each suburban-strategy plank, criticizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacking as unfair the recent and pending global free trade agreements, and largely ignoring expected religious gestures while bottom-line pledging to appoint pro-life federal judges. Further distinguishing his candidacy, Trump’s immigration position was radioactive to party leaders and his call for huge infrastructure spending was more reminiscent of New Deal Democrats than a GOP whose Tea-Party infused Congress had just outlawed earmarks.   Intentionally or accidentally, Trump’s campaign showed how little street-cred much of the Reagan-era conservative trinity had by 2016 to even GOP primary voters. Muscular foreign policy had produced wars with no end games, free global trade had produced wealth for too few, and pietistic expressions had not reversed cultural decline. Trump poked the establishment in the eye, and promised tangible results. As difficult as it was for much of the established GOP leadership to accept, Trump drove Republican primary voter enthusiasm and successful crossover appeal by revealing the sagging credibility of the Reagan trinity, while his contrary policies and crude style drew support, attractively and offensively, from the same voter pools.

Trump’s successful candidacy pulled back the curtain hiding the chasm between a DC-based establishment and the real needs of its suburban strategy voters. Trump separated himself from the field by both style and position, building a slow momentum that did not stop.  Moreover, in the general election he had the great fortune of facing the Democratic nominee who best fit his critique.

The Forked Road Ahead

I conclude with the main presented question: to what extent do, or do not, the priorities and values of today’s Republican Party comport with Christian values. The short answers are, just as for Democrats, some do, some do not, and it depends on how one defines key terms. One thing Christians should acknowledge is that persons leading sovereign nations have a primary obligation to preserve, protect, and defend that nation. Leaders of churches should protect churches, leaders of universities should protect universities, leaders of enterprises should protect enterprises, leaders of families should protect families, and leaders of nations should protect nations. Christians can hope that political leaders engage with other nations respectfully and realistically, understanding both the possibilities and necessities of global cooperation on items of common concern, as well as the inevitable limits that nation-states will put on such cooperation. Christians can also hope, and perhaps expect and even loudly demand, that political leaders create and preserve political conditions so that Christians as individuals and in Christian organizations and institutions (and individuals and institutions of other faiths) can exist, survive, act, speak, grow and even flourish.  Christians should seek political leaders that allow even deep and lasting criticism of their actions by Christians, made on a Christian basis, and openly expressed as such.  

At least some Christians have in the past voted Republican, and of course can continue doing so. As for more substantive party engagement, President Trump has is some ways made it easier for Christians to influence the circles in which move today’s elected and professional GOP leadership.  In limited, probably unintentional, and sometimes offensive ways, the newcomer president has pointed out the meager substantive gains the Republican conservative trinity has brought for the targeted voter pool of former Democrats. He has at least offered material aid to these voters through promise of fairer trade deals and more infrastructure spending. Albeit in ways I would not choose, he has re-ignited an overdue debate over how the nation’s leaders should best carry out their number one priority in preserving and protecting the nation itself. Trumpism’s corrosive elements are already showing in pollster crosstabs and special election disappointments. Nevertheless, the unmasking of the substantive weaknesses of some of the GOP symbolism are things to work with. The party’s acceptance of the permanent constitutional structures of federalism and separation of powers as features, not bugs, also provide it practical advantages over Democrats. Christians willing to accept the depravity in others as much as they do in themselves have opportunities to help the GOP. We can nudge the party’s elected and professional elites to address all potential Republican voters, and all Americans, with greater substantive respect by eschewing racist, sexist and other demeaning messaging. We can push them to move beyond rhetoric to offering more substantive plans for a more plausibly secure homeland, a more thoroughly flourishing economy, and a more genuinely diverse and tolerant nation. 

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Reader Comments (1)

This essay was extremely interesting and helpful to me. Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully compose this.

January 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Boonstra Burg

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