In the aftermath of any election, mistakes made by the losing side are amplified in the public’s imagination and everything done right by the winning side is seen as a stroke of genius. Since the 2016 presidential election there has been a deluge of opinion pieces and media interviews providing an autopsy of the Democratic Party, but this makes it all too easy to forget of the trends that created a high degree of consternation in the Republican National Committee (RNC) the last few years.
Predicting the course of politics over the long term has always been futile, save for broad outlines. Political fortunes reverse with extreme rapidity, and the Republican Party would do well to take care to avoid the hubris that doomed the Democratic Party after its 2008 victory.
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s 2008 book Grand New Party reveals these patterns quite well. When Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush in 1992 many conservative were demoralized because this marked the end of twelve years of Republican control of the White House. However, just two years later, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades and were able to maintain control through the mid-2000s.
While there were predictions of Republican domination of the Executive and Legislative Branches at the federal level, the Democrats seized control of the Congress in 2006 and secured a historic victory of the White House in 2008. Not too long after predictions about the doom of the “Party of No” ran amok, the Tea Party movement seized the House of Representatives, along with a multitude of governorships and state legislatures.
Throughout the most of 2016 most pundits were writing the Trump campaign’s and the GOP’s obituaries; now it’s fashionable to write post-mortems for Democrats. The trends which terrified the Republican National Committee will not disappear and will likely continue.
The 2016 election has provided a false sense of security to the GOP. Trump’s popular vote percentage was smaller than that of Mitt Romney’s in 2012, and , since 1988, the Republican Party has won the popular vote only once in a presidential race: 2004.
It is certainly true that the Republican Party has won control over a majority of the governorships, state and national legislatures, as well as the presidency, but Trump won primarily because of an erosion of Democratic support in the deindustrialized Midwest—the only place where the Republican Party gained substantial support. The success of the Republican Party last November isn’t because of the overwhelming popularity of Republican ideas or the strength of its brand, but as a result of depressed Democratic turnout and a candidate that played on populist desires more than traditional Republican ideals at the helm of the GOP.
This problem extends to congressional races as well. In 2012, Republican House candidates seized control of the chamber with over a million fewer aggregate votes than their Democratic counterparts, owing in large part to gerrymandered districts that were drawn following the Republican victory in state legislatures in 2010. In 2014, there was again a substantial discrepancy between the popular vote total and the number of seats won. Two years on, the Republican Party managed to lose Senate seats in a year with low Democratic turnout, and while there are still some contested races, the GOP may have lost House seats as well.
The Republican Party needs reformation. Ultimately it must dispense with the formula it used before 2016—a synthesis between the religious social conservatives, economic libertarians, and foreign policy neoconservatives – which has proven to be woefully out of touch with both Republican and Independent voters (as evidenced by Trump’s success as a candidate).
In fact, much of Trump’s appeal rested largely on his refusal to kowtow to the GOP’s Establishment dogma.
To continue winning, the GOP must appeal to a synthesis of social libertarians, foreign policy realists in the tradition of George H. W. Bush, and conservative economic reformers. This mix of ideals is what it will take to draw in the working class voters who delivered the White House to Donald Trump to join the GOP in a permanent majority. As Douthat and Salam point out in Grand New Party, working class voters can be quite fickle; they broke for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s by enormous margins, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, George W. Bush in the 2000s, and twice for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. This is a group which believes it has been largely abandoned by the major parties, and is willing to support whoever connects to them most. Once a party fails to deliver on promises, they’re willing to switch allegiances.
The “grand new synthesis” I propose will help lock down this demographic by addressing economic anxiety, practicing smart exercise of American strength abroad to ensure a stable world on which American prosperity hinges and thrives, and a departure from the distractions of the fruitless culture wars over the social issues of the last few decades.
An adjustment in attitude is also necessary. America has real enemies, and the Republican Party should realize the opposition party is not one of them.
In the mid-twentieth century, there was an understanding that the real existential threat existed on the other side of the Earth and the opposition party, while a competitor, was not the enemy. Blatantly partisan motives did not haunt Washington to nearly the same degree as in the present day. Both the Republican and Democratic parties worked together, reached consensus, and competed with one another to provide public policy solutions to problems ailing the country. Compromise made it possible to build bipartisan consensus and act.
The United States does not have a parliamentary system of government. The Founding Fathers envisioned a system that requires cooperation and balance, and we’ve been left with a system that is deliberative and plodding. We must come back to the center from the fringes, lest we are content to watch our nation fly off the rails. The virulent strain of disdain for political competitors that has infected our political system since the 1990s, and especially since the late 2000s, is self-defeating.
The time-honored American political tradition of compromise has broken down. Parties have been seized by partisans and even less is accomplished. Is it surprising then that so much of the Republican base is furious at the GOP establishment? It’s little wonder a brash and abrasive non-ideological insurgent like Donald Trump gained such traction and power; he is the product of Republican lawmakers’ penchant for overpromising and under delivering to their voters.
Lincoln’s party must stand for something other than engaging in scorched earth politics against Democrats: it must stand for measured policymaking. A reformed Republican Party must stand for the rational use of government as an instrument to open the corridors of opportunity so all Americans can succeed on their own hard work and talents. It must stand for the defence of America’s freedom, and it must stand for continued global leadership that advocates for the adoption of the principles of individual freedom all over the world. Such a party would update its policies for the present day without abandoning its ideals, and work with the opposition to secure American prosperity against the nation’s real detractors.
The Grand Old Party needs to reinforce its foundation, just as it extends its hand to its Democratic neighbor if it’s to continue carrying the torch of conservatism.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.