“I am rooting hard for you.”
What’s going on in Wisconsin is the very definition of illiberal government — government where “might makes right”. Outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker is working with the Republican legislature in Wisconsin to rush through a bill to significantly reduce the powers of Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers and the Democratic Attorney General. And without any material explanation of a civic purpose for these proposals. Rather, it’s simply about increasing the influence of the Republican legislative branch at the expense of the soon-to-be Democratic executive branch…and after having done the opposite when Republican Governor Walker was elected. It’s about changing the legal rules when it’s to your advantage (and you have the power) to do so. It’s about having no tolerance for the other side.
This politics-as-blood-sport is the opposite of the note Republican President George H.W.Bush left Democratic President-elect Bill Clinton when President Bush vacated the White House: “Your success now is our country’s success”, wrote President Bush. “I am rooting hard for you.”
Today’s “might makes right” approach to politics is also the opposite of how George Washington governed, relinquishing power twice when he didn’t have to, as described by Garry Wills in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment . (Washington’s actions led his enemy King George III of England to say that Washington would be “the greatest man in the world” for doing so.) [https://bit.ly/2rmCfGz]
This “might makes right” approach to politics is also the opposite of Federalist Party President John Adams relinquishing power peacefully to Democratic-Republican Party President-Elect Thomas Jefferson, the first time an American political party different than the one then in power had been elected. (Fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, both Jefferson and Adams passed. Adams’ last words were supposedly “Thomas Jefferson lives.” I don’t think that Scott Walker will ever be saying that about Tony Evers.)
It is tragic that Americans on the political left didn’t choose the word “Progressive” to describe their politics long ago. Perhaps Republicans would have demonized the word “Progressive” instead of the word “Liberal”, and a couple of decades later Democrats wouldn’t also have run away from the term. Perhaps then Americans of all political stripes would have continued to embrace the word “Liberal”–with its belief in constitutional government and the rule of law; hostility to concentrated economic, political and religious power; a belief in tolerance; respect for people’s individual rights; and a faith in progress. (This is Edmund Fawcett’s definition of liberalism from his book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea and I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans embrace these values, if not the “Liberal” label.) And perhaps then we as a nation would have been inoculated from the election of the illiberal President Trump (or, if elected, his illiberal instincts would be less), as well as what is now happening in Wisconsin (and apparently in Michigan, and the illiberal power grab that already happened in North Carolina and is currently being litigated).
I hope that some of the stories about President Bush this week will help people focus on what has been lost since his time, and how our historic heritage is to act more like him, not like too many of our politicians act today. It would be fitting for someone with President Bush’s character to be able to continue to give to his country even at the age of ninety-four, even in his passing.
* * * *
The purpose of this website is threefold. First, to introduce young Americans, and re-introduce older Americans, to a branch of the Republican Party that played an instrumental role in America’s success. It is my belief that the rebirth of this branch of the Republican Party is the key to bringing back pragmatic, consensus-oriented government.
Second, to explore policy proposals that might help form part of the foundation of a Liberal Republican politics.
Third, to post entries about books and articles of interest to those who are keen to alter the conversation, both in government and the media, to a more constructive, pragmatic place, and create a space for conversations about such matters.
Like us on Facebook: The Lone Liberal Republican
Follow us on Twitter: @LoneLiberalRep
Follow our blog
* * * *
FIXING OUR BROKEN POLITICS
By Arthur Winter, The Lone Liberal Republican (not really, but sometimes it seems like it)
Our national motto is “E pluribus unum” (“Out of Many, One”), but should it instead now be “Sinere putrere” (“To allow to fester or rot”)?
Donald Trump is President, and the American nation is as divided as it can be. And as a result of the election, Democrats have joined much of the Republican establishment in benumbed disbelief.
Is there any future in consensus-oriented politics? Now is a good time to ask how the Trump phenomenon can contribute to fixing our broken politics.
This article will argue that a consensus-oriented political future lies in a laser-like focus on equality of opportunity, and an adherence to the best of what Ronald Reagan actually said and believed (as opposed to the ludicrous myths that have grown up around him), together with mining the rich vein of Liberal Republican politics that is part of the Republican Party’s proud history.
* * *
If Lenin, Mao, Churchill and John F. Kennedy were to walk together down the streets of Beijing, Mumbai, Sao Paulo or Istanbul today, they would not argue for a nanosecond about who “won.” The world has become overwhelmingly a planet of people aspiring to live materially rich middle-class lives, where substantial personal liberty if not democracy is the norm, and where people believe that working hard will likely lead to a better future for them and their children. Much of today’s world more resembles America in the Fifties — with local cultures and modern technology — than the politically repressive, anti-capitalist places they were thirty years ago. These benefits have occurred on America’s global watch, and many of these benefits have come from ideas and policies for which America has been the chief proponent.
So why does almost no one in America feel like we have “won” anything in the last couple of decades? This should be obvious to everyone who witnessed the latest election. In America things have flatlined economically for many, and a perception that America’s power is in decline has provoked much anxiety. Frustration with the decay of America’s infrastructure has colored others’ perception of life in America (something President Trump promised to fix, and one may hope that both parties in Congress can start down a road back to consensus by doing so). A sense that there is an increasing disconnect between hard work and achievement also darkens people’s view of their and America’s future.
While it is commonplace to say that America is the land of opportunity, data increasingly demonstrates that we are not providing clear paths to upward mobility. This is in part because of developments in globalization and technology, but also in part because too often our politicians confuse equality of opportunity with equality of result. MANY more Americans will support proactive government policies that are laser focused on equality of opportunity rather than policies that seek to achieve equality of result. After all, the essence of the American Dream is the belief in equality of opportunity and that, with hard work, anyone in America can make a better life for himself or herself and for his or her children.
I. Today’s Republicans Are The “RINO’s” (Republicans In Name Only)
Today’s Republican Party bears little resemblance to its historic self. If you are in your forties or younger, you are unlikely to know how diverse Republican Party politics were when your parents and grandparents were young. In fact, you may be flabbergasted by how many prominent liberal Republicans there were and the principles for which they stood. While the Party always included conservatives, conservative ideas did not dominate the Party nor did conservatives control it.
Most people know the Republican Party was founded in opposition to slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President. (In fact, the Republican Party was long known as “the Party of Lincoln.”) Many people also know about Republican Teddy Roosevelt, an early Twentieth Century progressive President who took on powerful business interests and fostered America’s first major social welfare legislation. But most people do not know that, until recently, progressive Republicans had an even greater voice in the Republican Party than conservatives, or that these Republicans aligned with like-minded Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis to enact major civil rights laws, major infrastructure legislation and laws and policies that underpinned America’s foreign policy in defense of democracy and liberty around the world. For example, the two Twentieth Century landmark civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were supported by a greater proportion of Republican Congresspersons and Senators than Democratic ones. These liberal Republicans included Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith, George Romney (Mitt’s father), Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, William Scranton, Charles Percy and Jacob Javits. Google them. You will be astonished by their politics. And there were dozens more.
The Republican Party also developed as the party advocating liberal capitalism as the best means to achieve broad economic prosperity, including by advocating for national infrastructure development and against the abuses of great wealth (including business trusts and monopolies). It was also the party advocating for ethics and competency in government, rather than the vote-buying, job patronage and electoral horse-trading which were historically characteristic of Democratic machine politics. And it was the party most associated with a preference for individual initiative, decentralized government and fiscal conservatism.
When the Republican establishment that Mr. Trump viscerated in the 2016 Presidential election accused Republicans they regarded as too liberal of being “RINO’s”, they ignored history. It is essential for the American people, especially young people, not to cede control of the Republican Party to these traditional Republican conservatives, let alone to Mr. Trump’s mean-spirited followers (who, by the way, did not elect him President–thankfully there aren’t enough of them; rather, it was people in the middle, many who voted for Presidents Obama and Clinton in the past, who did).
The Republican Party represents half of our established political infrastructure. Ceding control of the Republican Party to the traditional conservative wing is likely to be especially destructive of America’s future because for many of these people (as is the case for some of the most passionate liberal Democrats), “consensus” is a dirty word. President Trump certainly knows how to street fight, but he also is a dealmaker. Deals don’t get made when the people who need to make them don’t even talk to one another. And just as constant infighting weakens families, sports teams, religious congregations and businesses, the constant infighting and gridlock that has characterized our federal government today weakens America.
II. How To End Our Poisonous Political Culture That Punishes Consensus And Compromise
Resurrecting a Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party would be a means to return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Three steps could help us do so.
First, regardless of its size and specific functions, government has to work fairly and effectively for all Americans. To condemn ALL government ties our nation’s hands unreasonably.
Second, our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the assurance of their own reelection.
Third, Americans who believe in the values and policies of Liberal Republicanism, especially young people and others who have become alienated from more Left-leaning current Democratic Party ideology, must reengage at the local level with passion and patience.
A. Why It Is Ludicrous to Regard All Government as a Problem
In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan stated “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For decades that quote has fueled a Republican Party that has morphed beyond Reagan’s belief in limited, decentralized government. By 2012, the Republican Party had taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had advocated. Mitt Romney, a former moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts and the son of the great Liberal Republican George Romney, only won the Republican nomination for President in 2012 by abandoning many of the policies for which he and his father had stood. At around the same time, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pointed out that Ronald Reagan and his Dad, President George H.W. Bush, would have had a difficult time securing the nomination of the Republican Party in 2012.
Reagan’s famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed in 1980.
Reagan’s quote is used today as if the words “In this present crisis” were not part of what he said, as if it were a blanket statement about all government, all the time.
In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:
“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’
It is rational to believe in the small, decentralized government that Ronald Reagan embraced. It is wholly another matter to believe that all government is inherently bad.
Some on the political right who are viscerally against government could help address our dysfunctional, gridlocked government by advocating for efficiency, along with smaller government, rather than complaining that all government is problematic. And, some on the political left who advocate for a larger government role in society could convince people who are skeptical about government to support a broader role for it if they combined their advocacy for large government with an expectation that it function like a well-run business.
Saying that all government is bad limits the tools our nation can use to succeed. It is a bit like arbitrarily saying that only football players whose last names start with the letters A through K can play for our team. Such a team will be weaker than one that uses all the players available.
To illustrate how weakening such an arbitrarily restrictive approach can be, take a look at how the University of Alabama football team performed before and after it integrated racially. In 1970, the University of Southern California’s football team, a fully-integrated team, traveled to play Alabama, a still segregated team. USC won the game 42 to 21. Sam Cunningham, a USC running back, had twelve carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. This thrashing convinced Alabama of the need to integrate, and, in 1971 Alabama recruited its first Black player. The Crimson Tide’s wins, losses and ties in the years before integrating and after speak for themselves.
After the USC-Alabama game, it was said that USC’s Sam Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama in sixty minutes than civil rights legislation had done in twenty years.
Republican politicians today routinely misuse Reagan’s words to pay homage to those who want to strangle government. And almost all Republican politicians who do not adhere to right-wing dogmas are attacked in their Congressional Districts and the States they represent, and challenged in Republican primaries by candidates who do adhere to such dogmas.
B. Restoring the Primacy of Public Service
To return to consensus-oriented politics, our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service to their constituents and to the nation, not as the perpetuation of their own ambitions. The balance most of today’s politicians strike between their reelection and actual public service is hideously biased towards the former.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we can look to our founding father, George Washington. Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, “like the Roman Cincinnatus (the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family), Washington perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. He did this when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, and again when he declined to run for a third term as President.”
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who knew both the King and Washington. Asked by the King what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West told the King he thought that Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King is supposed to have remarked, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington’s values? How did we get to a place where policies most of our legislators agree would be good for America do not get enacted because concerns of partisan politics or generating continuing political contributions get in the way? Our elected officials’ jobs are to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so puts their reelection at risk. As my friend Jasmine Davis has said, “We need more Washingtons in Washington.”
C. Restoring Balance to the Republican Party
The third thing necessary to restore balance to the Republican Party is for people who believe in Liberal Republican principles and pragmatic, consensus-driven government to get involved in Republican Party politics. Some should do so because the latest election has awakened in them a realization that Democratic Party politics are unappealing to too many Americans in the middle, combined with the likelihood that the Democratic Party goes politically more Left and more populist than it is today. And some should do so because they realize that Trump has so shaken up the Republican Party–a month before the Presidential election the press was full of articles about the Republican Party’s upcoming permanent demise–that longer term it may be malleable in ways it hasn’t been for decades.
Consensus-oriented politics will not re-emerge, however, until people who believe in its values and policies are willing to get back into the political arena and duke it out (politically, not literally) with their more conservative Republican brethren. A little more background on how our politics came to be so mean-spirited sheds light on what needs to be done to reverse the tide.
F. Clifton White was a Republican who evolved from moderate mainstream Republicanism to leading the movement that secured the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination for the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. As described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin, White had run for elective office himself in 1946, and apparently his candidacy was sabotaged by Communists. Although the Communists were greatly outnumbered, they got their way through secrecy, rigid unity, manipulation of parliamentary procedure, and sheer ruthlessness. Ironically, White and his conservative colleagues learned to do this by studying the tactics of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. One conservative organizer and former Communist, Marvin Liebman, “felt nostalgic for my Young Communist League days,” as he felt that the young conservatives were “exactly like” the Red Guards of the ‘30’s, “with the same anger and the same passion.”
“Sometimes the Communists simply demonstrated a superior grasp of organization and tactics, for example by voting as a bloc for one candidate while their opponents spread their votes across multiple candidates. At other times they would run roughshod over the democratic process, employing stalling motions to keep a meeting going all night until enough of their opponents had left in disgust, then ramming home the vote. Or they would wait until a rival candidate had built up such a majority that most serious challengers had dropped out, then destroy the front-runner through foul-play and make their own candidate available as a last-minute substitute. That was the fate that befell White, when at the eleventh hour the Communists spread a rumor that he had diverted funds to an adulterous tryst with his secretary. Most of the non-Communists who witnessed these abuses of democracy were horrified; some were moved to join the CIA in order to dedicate themselves to attacking the evils of Communism around the world. White, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the Communists. He saw in their example methods by which a small, disciplined minority uninhibited by bourgeois scruples of fair play or tradition or truth, could defeat a majority and bend an organization to its will.”
White and his colleagues put these strategies to work to nominate the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican Convention. Former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, less than four years out of the White House, “felt it [the use of such strategies] was unpardonable – – and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.” Former baseball star Jackie Robinson, who was one of the most prominent African-Americans in the convention audience, felt that he was witnessing white supremacy in action. “I know now how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
It is fascinating that this long-shot success of White and his colleagues in recasting the Republican Party as exclusively conservative was accomplished using tactics of the Communist Party, whose politics were diametrically opposed to the politics of White and his colleagues. But viewed through the lens of this history, it is no wonder that today’s Republican Party is so uncompromising, and that inter-party communication has become so uncivil. The roots of the modern Republican Party are in Clifton White’s “take no prisoners” politics.
* * *
The decline of liberal Republicanism continues to reverberate in our politics today. (In the case of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her politics actually evolved tomoderate Republicanism from being a “Goldwater girl,” before she abandoned Republicanism entirely, preferring instead the emerging moderate wing of the Democratic Party.) According to Geoffrey Kabaservice, “A symbolic indication of youthful disaffection with moderate Republicanism occurred when Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke addressed the Wellesley College commencement in late May 1969. Brooke, one of the Senate’s most progressive Republicans as well as its lone African American, tried to persuade his restive audience that change within the system was still possible, as demonstrated by the poverty rate’s having fallen from 22 percent of Americans in 1959 to 13.3 percent in 1967. [This was an incredible reduction in poverty, by today’s or any era’s standards]. Brooke was followed on the speaker’s platform by the student government president, Hillary Rodham. [She] departed from her prepared text to tear into Brooke for his alleged indifference to poverty. ‘What does it mean that 13.3 percent of Americans are poor?’ she demanded. ‘How about talking about the humans, not the statistics?’ Her classmates predictably gave her a standing ovation.” Brooke, convinced that she would have attacked any other commencement speaker, gracefully commented: “I was there representing authority, and she was representing the frustrations of her own generation, which she did most effectively.” How ironic is it that in the recent Presidential election Secretary Clinton represented the established authority, and Mr. Trump’s supporters (and Mr. Sanders’) represented the frustrated outsiders anxious to change the status quo.
After the recent election, it would certainly be easy for young people to conclude that our government is such a mess that their efforts should be directed elsewhere, or directed towards Sixties-style protests designed to destroy the political status quo. But turning away from politics or adopting destructive methods are unlikely to move our politics forward. In reality our nation remains unlikely to thrive without a return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Resurrecting the Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party, along with adhering to what President Reagan actually said and believed, would be important steps towards achieving high-functioning, consensus-oriented government. Unfortunately, the likely alternative is the realization of some of the Republican establishment’s and Democrats’ worst fears of a Trump Administration, in which case much of the nation will end up suffering silently in benumbed disbelief.