September 29, 2019


The Fall - and Possible Rise - of Moderate Republicanism (EMIL FRANKEL, SEPTEMBER 27, 2019, Niskanen Center)

Donald Trump's nomination and election in 2016 have been portrayed as the fruition of the ideological and demographic trends within the Republican Party over the last three or four decades.  In reality, though, Trump's presidency represents a rejection of both conservative ideology and the pragmatic moderation, closely associated with Lincoln and rooted in the party's historic values, with which the Ripon Society had identified.

In no sense can it be said that Donald Trump's presidency is a Republican one, and there is little evidence that it will become so during his time in office.  Trump's disdain for the rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and limits on executive power is a far cry from both historic Republican principles and classic conservative beliefs. Under Trump, appeals to division have replaced an instinct for unity, and the exercise of personal power has replaced respect for democratic norms and institutional integrity. 

Can "Republicanism," the set of principles that brought me to the party a half-century ago, be reconciled with the personality cult that the Republican Party has become under Donald Trump? How applicable is the past to the present and the future of the party? Do the fundamental and historic principles and values of Lincoln and of the founders of the Republican Party have any meaning and application to its current circumstances? And do the history and experiences of the Ripon Society have any bearing on these questions? 

In the short run, there seems little incentive for those who hold elective or appointive public office as Republicans to assert positions and principles contrary to those identified with Trump. Most Republicans are too fearful of Trump's power to assert positions inconsistent with his.

But in the long run, if the Republican Party is to sustain a competitive position in American politics, it will have to regain influence with younger generations of voters. The generational divide, augmented by the growing diversity of the electorate, is the greatest challenge to a post-Trump Republican Party.  

The Trump strategy -- which is almost certainly instinctive rather than deliberate -- has centered on building overwhelming support among older whites (particularly men) living in exurban and rural areas, in small cities and towns, in Southern and Mountain/Plains states, and the Rust Belt, who feel culturally and/or economically threatened. This strategy obviously has been successful for him and may well lead him to a second term. 

Demographically, however, the Trump approach does not seem sustainable. Time inevitably will take its toll on a shrinking Trump coalition. This will hold significant implications -- if not for Trump in 2020, then certainly for his successors and for the Republican Party.  

The values of the majority of young Americans seem clear: They seek education, skills, and opportunities to rise and prosper.  They are attracted to the growing major metropolitan regions of the country that are centers of innovation and of the emerging (often information-related) sectors of the American economy.  They are open to international engagement, enthusiastic about diversity, tolerant of differences, and committed to justice.  

Freedom, opportunity, and equality comprised the core of Lincoln's beliefs and were the principal motivations for the establishment of the Republican Party.  Lincoln held that the role of government was to assure opportunity for all Americans and guarantee equal protection before the law: Government was to be limited, but effective, and power, to be dispersed and restrained.  For Lincoln, as for the Founding Fathers, these core principles, inherent in the birth of the United States, made its survival essential to the future of liberal democracy everywhere.  Certainly these values have resonance with younger Americans, whose connection to the future Republican Party will be essential to its survival and influence. 

One of the surprises of the Trump era for me, personally, has been the discovery of common ground between moderates, such as myself, and principled "movement conservatives" with whom I have disputed for years.  We have found a shared commitment to the historic Republican and Lincolnian values of freedom, equality, and opportunity that motivated the Ripon Society and to the conservative principles of limited government and constrained executive power, the rule of law, the dispersion of authority to the levels of government closest to the people, and a belief in strong families and communities. 

These values are threatened by the Trump presidency, but seem essential to the long-term survival of the Republican Party.  The re-assertion of these shared and historic principles can allow a restored Republican Party to establish a position among new and emerging generations of Americans, rather than to rely upon those who are resistant to, and fearful of, change. However, the principles that motivate the Party must be given form and substance through realistic and relevant policies and programs that are responsive to the goals and interests of young people and to rapidly changing economic social, cultural, and environmental conditions. 

The first step is for Republicans to co-operate in removing Donald and then for President Pence to jettison the Nativism/Nationalism.
Posted by at September 29, 2019 5:13 PM