Is the Republican Party a Lost Cause?

“And if so, should it be?”

Transpartisan Note #141

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

In the wake of the riots on January 6, the Republican Party has been falling apart in front of us. In a July 14, 2020 op-ed on The Bulwark, our friend Bill Kristol, a well-known, never-Trump Republican, asked the same question with the same subtitle.

From our transpartisan perspective we answer both yes and no. We also believe that equal challenges face the Democratic Party, even though they are less obvious for Democrats at the present time. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the constitutionally-eligible, American electorate does not formally identify with either the Republican or Democratic Party. We think we are witnessing the death throes of the political duopoly, in which a small fraction of the electorate controls 100% of formal power.

Could we be experiencing the birth pangs of new American political institutions? Institutions which will integrate ‘freedom’ and ‘order’ rather than set them against each other as two warring philosophies?

Kristol is ambivalent about whether the GOP can be saved, highlighting the issue of whether it can sever its relationship with Trump. As long as it is Trump’s party, Kristol suggests, “it deserves to be a lost cause.” It needs to find a way to stop being the party of Trumpism. But even if it can, it still must deal with the ‘political and moral stain’ of its past, tied to Trump.

He starts outlining a way to create ‘a conservative party that [isn’t] a nativist, proto-authoritarian, nationalist-populist party’; a conservative party with ‘a new center’. If it is to be saved, he notes finally, it will need leadership from people who were Trumpist fellow-travelers, not from the never-Trumpers, whom Trumpists will not forgive for being right about Trump.

Kristol says his heart is with the ‘lost cause’ faction. He concludes, elegantly, with quotes from T.S. Eliot and Pascal, who touch on the final question: ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.’ ‘Heart or mind? Lost cause or worth trying to save?’ In his final sentence, Kristol says he doesn’t know.

The issue tormenting both Kristol and (we would say) conservatism is not of recent origin. It has been lurking beneath the surface of both conservative and liberal thought since at least the 1950s and, we think, much longer than that. In fact, the Whigs replaced the Federalists in the 1820s, and the Republicans replaced the Whigs in the 1850s over the same issues.

The issue we refer to is conflict between individual freedom and the need for a concept of the higher good. This issue is important for both the Left and the Right, but neither has solved it. We refer the concepts ‘freedom’ and ‘higher good’ with the words ‘Freedom’ and ‘Order’, which are the two essential concepts in political history the integration of which is essential to a transpartisan politics.

Freedom is a troublesome concept because it has both positive and negative meanings. Although both are important, conservatives focus on the negative meaning, especially in focusing on freedom from government. They tend to avoid the positive meaning, which, unfortunately, is essential to reveal a higher good.

Unless conservatives can articulate how freedom can lead (positively) to order (some positive good), conservatism will appear incoherent, if not actually malevolent. Political candidates who focus entirely on freedom from government, without showing how freedom is essential for many positive goods, will spark accusations from left-liberal opponents that they are the Party of Greed.

‘Freedom’ without ‘order’ leads to nihilism or greed, and ‘order’ without ‘freedom’ means despotism.


Introducing a Strong Concept of Citizenship

We believe that the best issue to show freedom and order working in harmony is where citizens are given strong, positive roles in actively supporting public-private partnerships in education, health care, law enforcement, and other areas. Both political parties today acquiesce to a ‘weak concept of citizenship’, wherein citizens passively receive government services but with no active role to play themselves.

The emphasis on governments as the only significant actors is analogous to the general dependence on experts to solve problems, with little space given to citizens. It is true in education (notwithstanding the widespread understanding of the importance of children’s motivation to learn) and also in health care which, in public programs, is all about doctors and hospitals, with only minor attention given to patients’ self-care.

Civil society programs on different issues provide opportunities to show how citizens, as co-owners, can play crucial, active roles, working with governments. Political leaders who understand theatrical opportunities to showcase citizen problem-solvers, can offer important strategic and tactical guidance. These opportunities can come in the form of visiting successful programs, focusing on their positive impacts, and highlighting the important roles citizens play in them.

Integrating freedom with order is the great unfolding challenge which both Right and Left ‘solve’ by avoiding. The Right does avoid it by appeals to traditional religion or (in secular terms) civic virtue. The Left, after Rousseau, avoids it by looking to the Noble Savage for redemption.

Implicit in both the modern Right and modern Left is the belief that leaving the Garden was either for the Right a sin (The Original Sin) or, somehow, for the Left a mistake. Both avoid the challenge of freedom with strategies that focus on going nostalgically back to some imagined, greater past in which memory of all problems and troubles disappear. Both struggle with vision looking forward, intent on discovering Order through Freedom.

The Right tends to address the issue by seeking to impose order by demanding better and stronger values either by public or private institutions, while the Left tends to address the issue by imposing order through government decree. Transpartisan politics offers a home for the two-thirds or more of the population that seeks to empower people to self-improvement and cooperation by embracing them as co-owners, freeing them from having only the Right/Left burn-down-the-house death struggle of current daily politics. We especially find this impulse in public spaces, such as schools, health care, law enforcement, and other community grounded undertakings.

President Biden’s Inaugural Address explicitly expressed this need. Time will tell if actions are able to meet or surpass rhetoric. In the meantime, Republicans regroup.

(Image from WikiMedia. Additional text and editing by Andy Fluke.)

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