By David Jolly
This week will once again bring the nation together in conversation about Donald Trump’s Republican Party, as the House GOP seeks to discard Liz Cheney for her willingness to confront the dangerous truth of January 6, 2021.
The cowardice of the GOP is on full display. Donald Trump lost the popular vote in each of his bids for the presidency, lost the House and the Senate for his party, and directly influenced a violent anti-democratic attempt to invalidate the 2020 elections. But in today’s Republican Party it is Cheney on the way out while others with richer Trump bona fides are on their way in.
For disaffected Republicans, the deep hope is that this moment — finally this moment — is the needed inflection point that will cause an abrupt course correction within the party we once knew. Patriotic voices will be heard on both the left and the right about the sincere need for a healthy two-party democracy. And a small but vocal group of Republicans, many of whom I admire and call friends, will use this week to declare a great rebirth of conservatism, a reclaiming of the Republican Party, or if all else fails, the creation of a new center-right party.
I applaud my colleagues for trying to save the party we once all knew, but I believe their effort reflects all the wrong lessons learned.
Today’s GOP is not a party worth saving. Nor should our lessons learned be focused on simply recovering an abandoned ideology. We should instead focus on inventing a new political coalition that genuinely spans the entire ideological spectrum, from conservative to moderate to progressive.
As to the first premise — whether today’s GOP is worth saving — suppose through diligent effort or the natural course of events, the GOP is ridded of Donald Trump’s leadership. What does that really accomplish? It remains the party of Kevin McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and a majority of current House and Senate members who voted to undermine the November 6 election and to absolve Trump of his role in the violent, anti-truth attack on the Capitol. These Republicans firmly believe the future of the GOP requires a group-think adherence to such doctrine. A new Republican Party coalition cannot seriously be built in concert with such illiberal, anti-democratic actors.
As to the second premise — whether conservatism must be reclaimed — this should instead be the moment to reflect on how modern conservatism may not be the universal antidote that we good Republicans were taught to believe, just as absolute progressivism likewise fails to solve all of our nation’s problems. The last four years should cause us to reevaluate everything, including our ideology. Today’s Republican problem is not the mere result of Donald Trump’s behavior, it includes some critical ideological failings along the way — from immigration to health care to taxes. Any effort to reclaim the party, to reclaim conservatism, requires more than just a healthy declaration of our Reagan-inspired, Bush 43 exercised principles — it requires studying which of those principles worked and which did not.
Which brings me to perhaps the third and most consequential point of disagreement with those who seek this week to launch a new center-right coalition of disaffected voters. The numbers simply don’t support your effort.
Consider the basic breakdown of the American voter.
A large number of Americans find a welcome home in today’s Democratic Party – 31% according to an April 2021 Gallup poll. They are not looking for an alternative.
Many Americans today likewise find their home in the Republican Party – 26% according to Gallup. These Republicans support the former President and support the party under his leadership. And while a small percentage of currently registered Republicans may wish they could have their party back from the days before Donald Trump ascended, let’s be honest — most of them, though hopeful for a different party, still chose to support the party in the elections of 2016, 2018, and 2020. They’re not looking to leave. They’ll blindly pull the red lever in November 2022.
What the numbers do support, however, is that a wide swath of American voters actually want a brand of politics untethered from prescriptive ideology and traditional partisan dogma, whether that partisan ideology is left, right, or center-right. Today 40% of Americans self-identify as “Independents”, rejecting the strict ideology of the two major parties and multiple minor parties. These voters want a government that simply works. They’re looking to affiliate their politics not with dogma, but with problem solving, with democracy protection and fair elections, with accountability, transparency.
Which is why the effort proposed by disaffected Republicans this week to reclaim conservativism from today’s GOP is merely repeating the primary failure point of our modern political system: expecting to coalesce a new American majority around a narrow ideology. It simply won’t work.
The calling for disaffected Americans in this moment is not to reclaim a broken party or repair a strained ideology, it is instead to pursue a new brand of critical thinking, choosing a politics informed by outcome-based, data-driven policy solutions that reflect emerging independent thought and the complexities of our own ideological variances. The opportunity today is to offer Americans a big tent, not simply a new small one.
I applaud the coalition of principled Republicans choosing this week to embark on a journey to reclaim the party and ideology they once knew. I do wish them great success. But I fear they will measure their success by how far they can lead our politics backwards, not by how far they can lead our politics forward.