The GOP Needs to Be Fixed

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tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump

Ray Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He served as Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995 and was a planner of the bicentennial commemoration of Congress in 1989.

An Op-Ed in the NY Times by Thomas L. Friedman on June 7 titled “Dump the G.O.P. and Create a Grand New Party” begins with this observation: “If a party could declare moral bankruptcy, today’s Republican Party would be in Chapter 11. This party needs to just shut itself down and start over — now. Seriously, someone please start a New Republican Party!” He proposes that the nation needs a healthy two-party system and presumes that the best combination is a Republican Party a bit to the right of center and a Democratic party a bit to the left of center. His interesting Op-Ed got me thinking to how the Republican Party got to the place it is today, on the verge of collapse. Friedman offered no historical context to this crisis in American politics so here is how I would supply that context.

Trump and Trumpism is the result of four decades of drift away from the former, more moderate GOP. When the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, with great support from liberal and moderate Republicans, combined to pass the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson said the Democrats would probably lose the South for a generation. He underestimated. The segregationist, Jim Crow Democrats of the South started to switch to the Republican Party, best exemplified by the segregationist Democrat Strom Thurmond, who moved to the Republican Party.

Racist Democrats, who felt betrayed by LBJ, left their old party and became Republicans. This did not happen overnight but the so-called Solid Democratic South became the Solid Republican South in less than a generation. The poison of racism that had resided in a good chunk of the Democratic Party became a substantial chunk of the Republican Party. This all became much more visible as racism crawled out from under many rocks when Barack Obama was elected. It became stated policy of the Republican Party to make Obama a one term president by blocking him at every turn. When this did not work and he was re-elected the Republicans intensified their negative campaign designed to undermine not just a Democrat, but an African American. You will recall that one of the more bizarre assaults on Obama was that he was not born in the United States and his birth certificate was probably a fake. Donald Trump led that movement.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan added fuel to the Republican’s rightward flight by declaring that government itself was the problem with America. By then many of the social issues that polarized the nation were embraced by the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater had kept the social issue of abortion out of the Republican Party agenda in 1964, and his own wife was a leader in Planned Parenthood. Goldwater kept the religious right at bay for the most part too. The rise of the NRA and its powerful lobby found a home in the Republican Party and a substantial voting block of Republicans firmly believes Hillary Clinton will take their guns away. (They said the same about Obama).

Ronald Reagan embraced these forces and won big with them. Slowly but surely the Republican Party became a white man’s party and a hot button issue party. It became a party of negativism: Anti-abortion, anti-government, anti-gun regulation, anti-taxation of any kind. This is Trump’s appeal. When he says he wants to Make America Great Again, it is code for Make America White Again and make America an old fashioned human-muscle blue collar manufacturing nation again.

The demographics of the nation have changed dramatically in the last half century. The nature of industrialism has become global. The Republican Party is in denial on both. Their anti-government venom has threatened to undermine all aspects of constitutional government except for the 2nd Amendment. Compromise, the absolute and essential component of the art of politics, is a dirty word to Republicans. In Congress the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus attitudes prevail to the point where it is not seen as a bad thing to shut down the entire government if they can’t get their way.

The best way to “fix” the Republican Party is to defeat it soundly in November, not just by defeating Trump, but by defeating the negative forces in Congress and in state legislatures across the country who get elected by anti-government anger and fear and don’t believe in governing. Then, perhaps, and only then, can the Republican Party rebuild itself as a party that appeals to something more than the negative forces that have held this country back for so long. Then, perhaps, we could have again two strong competitive parties both willing to tackle the political issues of the 21st Century.

This may take another generation or more to achieve. But eventually Friedman’s vision could happen. It would be nice to imagine two reasonable, pragmatic parties differing on the role of the market, the role of taxation, the role of regulation, and all the other issues that politicians are supposed to grapple with forever, and addressing them without demonizing those who differ with them. Once the other side becomes the devil, compromise goes out the window.

The crisis of our national politics right now is not the failure of both parties as much as it is the failure of the Republican Party. The two Democratic candidates for president have differed on some issues but have done so in a civil manner focused on big issues not personalities. Most of the signs right now indicate the Clinton and Sanders forces will unite against the Party of Trump.

We have been taught to be “fair and balanced” and to say things need to be looked at from both sides of the coin. School kids are taught to respect others but sometimes at a price. The “I’m OK, You’re OK” model doesn’t always work. And after looking at both sides of the coin it is reasonable to say once side of that coin is worse off than the other. Right now, at this moment in our political history, it is the Republican Party that needs fixing. It is the Republican Party that is NOT OK. The national crisis is not a little bit on one side and a little bit on the other side. We have to be bold enough to recognize as many thoughtful observers have, that our political crisis is asymmetrical. It is the Republican Party that has turned over its leadership to an ego-maniac, a misogynist, a racist, a demagogue, and a blow hard billionaire who has no clue of the nature of constitutional government or how to run it.

Thomas Friedman’s wishful thinking of a world with two centrist parties competing from the moderate left and the moderate right must begin with a massive electoral victory for Democrats up and down the ticket in 2016, that says once and for all that elections in the United States should be about a competition on ideas and solutions to problems and should not be won by a party like Trump’s which expects to ride to victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.* Franklin Roosevelt once said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. In the context of his remarks with the nation in the midst of depression, it was a good message. But I would suggest in 2016 we have far more to fear from the Party of Trump than just fear. The Fear, Ignorance, and Bigotry, and the Smear are already on display in this campaign, and the Smear is about to get much worse.

*The reference to the Four Horsemen of Calumny is from one of the great American political speeches by Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who wanted Republicans to win but not if victory was won on fear and bigotry. Her “Declaration of Conscience” was one of the first speeches to take on Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist fear campaign.

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