We are witnessing the death of the Republican Party
Editorial – Independent UK
Once upon a time in America, the Republican Party was the most intellectually exciting and effective political organisation on the planet.
In fact, this happened not merely once upon a time, but repeatedly: at various stages since the 18th century revolution that threw off those dastardly Hanoverians and created the most enterprising and exciting country our planet has known. It was the Republican Party – also known as the Grand Old Party, or GOP – that was on the right side of history, that emancipated the enslaved and made friends of strangers, and forced back the boundaries of knowledge and human potential.
Opponents of today’s Republican Party ought to be generous enough to grant the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan their due as men who defined their eras. Lincoln led America through the Civil War, preserving the union, abolishing slavery and, in the Gettysburg Address, putting political philosophy and rhetoric into a debt to him that will never be serviced.
Roosevelt took on robber barons, built massive infrastructure and advanced the cause of the poor and judiciary. Reagan, though he became ideologically wedded to the free market, was a pragmatist whose leadership during the Cold War was invaluable, and whose championing of liberty and migration has stood the test of time.
What chance, if any, that the party of today could achieve these sorts of victories? None whatsoever, alas, though “alas” is something of an understatement. Nobody who cherishes the American ideal, immortalised by Lincoln, of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, could fail to be horrified by what has become of the GOP today. Moreover, the hope that Lincoln expressed at Gettysburg, that such government “shall not perish from the earth”, is precisely the outcome that would attend the election of a Republican leader today. Such a result would be bad for democracy, bad for the GOP, bad for America, and bad for the world.
How did we get here? The causes of the Republican malaise are both long and short term. America’s two-party system, always needlessly restrictive, ought not to be long for this world. It used to encourage centrism in candidates, who know they have to court swing voters to get to the White House. And yet recently the Republicans leadership at national level has been captured by the Tea Party tendency.
This renegade movement – spawned by a nasty, nationalist opposition to Barack Obama’s pragmatic presidency – demanded ideological purity from rising stars, forcing them to adopt ever more extreme and at times ludicrous positions from which they couldn’t unwind. Sensible, smart politicians like Marco Rubio have been forced to say stupid things – and then defend them, lest they seem ideologically impure.
Partly fuelled by the anger and energy of the Tea Party, together with mighty broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, a right-wing and highly theocratic media has captured the party. Mainly this means Fox News, run by the supremely eminent Roger Ailes and, ultimately, Rupert Murdoch. This has created an echo chamber in which American conservatives can have their prejudices tickled, with limited original thinking or challenge to prevailing orthodoxies, long before modern social media compounded the problem.
And then there was The Donald. The most pungent Presidential campaign since Barry Goldwater’s run in 1964 has shocked America and the world, forcing the complacent elites against which he has, without a hint of irony, railed to realise the frustration in their midst. He may yet enter the White House. While his campaign has been a phenomenal success, the manner in which senior Republican figures like John McCain and Paul Ryan have fallen into line, despite their obvious horror at everything Trump stands for, has been depressing.
In Britain, the divisions between our main political parties no longer make any sense, but the forces stopping the creation of a new party – principally our disgracefully unjust electoral system – have proved insurmountable. In America, such forces don’t exist, at least not to the same degree. If Trump wins in November, all bets are off.
If he loses, which is still just about the more likely outcome, moderate Republicans – who do exist – will have to go all out for the capture of their party, or rather the recapture from the loons currently in charge. If they lose the inevitable, coming power struggle, the honourable course of action may be to admit they have lost, and start over.