Legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka recently offered an assessment of the Republican Party in a way only he could: “the Republican Party,” according to Ditka, “has its head up its a--.” The division and confusion within the Republican Party are, by now, very old news. As I wrote here almost a year ago, at the outset of the presidential primary contests, the Republican Party went into this election cycle without a clear, coherent, and unified idea of why it endorses any of its primary policy positions. This has, predictably, led to a virtual dissolution of the coalition that makes up the GOP base, and the rise of Trump from its ruins.
I predicted at that time that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency no matter who emerged from the Republican primary contest, and that when this happened, the GOP would enter a state of serious crisis. With Trump’s Republican candidacy, such a crisis has already occurred. Whatever may be said in Trump’s favor, it is clear that he is not running on a platform that will be sustainable and viable beyond the reach of his own unique personality. He does not have an articulable political vision that can inspire and unite other political leaders now or in the future. This is what the GOP needs to mount a successful long-term challenge to the Democratic Party’s policy program, and this is the task that lies ahead for Republicans no matter who wins the White House in November.
Equality and Minority Rights
The Democratic Party is inspired by a few clear and simple political principles that resonate strongly with its key constituencies and its most influential members. Most prominently, these include the ideas of equality and minority rights, underpinned by an attitude of multicultural and cosmopolitan relativism. The Republican Party has, in recent times, lost badly on both of these ideas, as the disparity in party support among racial and ethnic minorities clearly attests. Equality and minority rights are the watchwords of our time, and Democrats currently have a vise grip on both.
Thus far, the GOP has simply conceded the political high ground of equality and minority rights to Democrats, retreating to other ideas such as liberty, prosperity, federalism, religion, morality, and patriotism. What Republicans have so far failed to notice is that the persuasiveness of these other ideas depends largely upon certain understandings of equality and rights—the very ideas that Republicans have conceded to Democrats. It is only, in other words, by recapturing this political high ground that Republicans can hope to compete with Democrats in the long run on the national level. A recapturing of this ground would, moreover, go a long way toward breaking up the Democratic stranglehold on racial and ethnic minority voting populations.
Recapturing the Conversation
Luckily for the GOP, a means of seizing the dialogue over equality and minority rights has been gift-wrapped for them in their Lincolnian origins. The GOP could make significant inroads among minority voters by embracing the cause of minority rights and integration in a way that is much more persuasive and resonant with the American political tradition than that currently offered by Democrats. The first Republican Party platforms (in 1856 and 1860) opened with a strong commitment to the political principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. These are the very principles of equality and rights currently monopolized by Democrats, but in the Declaration they are given a very different justification than that of multicultural and cosmopolitan relativism: that of “Nature” and “Nature’s God.”
By invoking these Declaration principles, Republicans can wholeheartedly embrace the ideas of integration, inclusion, and respect in a way that remains consistent with their commitments to religion, morality, patriotism, and liberty. Republicans can embrace equality and rights as direct consequences of our common human nature, a nature created by an intelligent and provident Creator. This will, to be sure, lead to different policy outcomes than those favored by Democrats. But if Republicans can provide and vigorously advocate an alternative vision for achieving equality and vindicating minority rights, rather than taking stances against these principles in favor of others, they can take advantage of Democratic complacency while doing the important work of reconnecting American citizens to our founding principles.
By returning to Declaration principles of respect for nature’s relevance for our communities and politics, the GOP can also consistently embrace policies of environmental stewardship and protection, another policy area recently monopolized by Democrats. As I discussed in an earlier article on the topic, the connection between “nature” in the sense of the environment and “nature” in the sense of human nature is fraught with thorny philosophical controversies. Still, for electoral purposes it is safe to say that “nature” is “nature,” and that the American people would not be troubled by all of the difficulties that keep philosophers up at night.
Beginning a GOP Overhaul
No matter what happens in the upcoming presidential election, it is clear that the GOP needs a substantial overhaul. This opens a window of opportunity to take up precisely the same task that Lincoln set for himself at the party’s inception: the task of reaffirming the truth and importance of political principles that we Americans discovered and have uniquely exemplified in our history. If GOP politicians can begin to embrace and advocate “Democratic” values on the basis of Republican principles—and do so in a persuasive and genuine way, without abandoning traditional Republican values—perhaps they could inaugurate a new era of Republican Party dominance.
What would the GOP look like if it attempted to reconnect with its winning Lincolnian formula in the way I’ve suggested? Here are a few general but concrete suggestions.
The central unifying principle of American political society has never been national origin, ethnicity, race, language, or even (more debatably and complicatedly) religion. It has always been commitment to a certain set of political principles—a political creed, if you will, that is expressed best in the Declaration of Independence. What better way to reflect this than to provide a rigorous path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—and new immigrants in the future—that requires them to undergo a meaningful course of instruction in American political principles, to pass a test on the subject, and to affirm their commitment to these principles? It is relatively unimportant for new or prospective American citizens to know how old one has to be to become a senator, or who the current Speaker of the House is. It is much more important for all American citizens to have a basic idea of why our governing institutions are designed as they are. Combining this policy with that of more effectively securing our borders would provide an understandable, coherent, and principled approach that could secure broader appeal than currently available alternatives.
When it comes to minority rights and equal justice for all, Lincoln set an excellent and very useful example. As Lincoln argued, all human beings are equal in natural rights, and violations of natural rights (such as slavery) should be vigorously opposed. Yet equality in natural rights does not automatically lead to a presumption of equality in all other sorts of rights, particularly “positive” or “benefit” rights provided by law or society. One must argue for the relationship between the natural right of liberty and, for example, the political right to vote; or between the natural right of the pursuit of happiness and the social right to be free from discrimination of various kinds. Combining a vehement commitment to natural-rights-based equality with a measured and reasonable approach to broader and vaguer claims to equality could be a more coherent and appealing position than simply opposing the latter on the basis of entirely different values.
These are only two of the more immediately obvious ways in which a return to Republican founding principles would serve the current Republican Party well. If Republicans can win back the conversation about equality and rights by invoking and re-popularizing the Declaration’s appeal to nature as a source for political principles, they can expect an era of renewed success. Whether or not Trump wins the presidency, the time is ripe for the GOP to take the leadership in “making America great again”—the party just needs to achieve clarity, as Lincoln did, on what made America great in the first place.
Adam Seagrave is a political scientist and the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.