The GOP is lost. Can it find its way back to the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt?
If America’s Founding Fathers had their way, there would be no political parties. Political parties aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, which only describes the United States as a Republic. But the American system evolved into a “democratic republic,” which Abraham Lincoln defined as “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The founders disagreed about how powerful a national government should be. Some wanted a strong federal government, while others believed it should be more limited. Eventually, disagreements about slavery led to the creation of the Republican Party and the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.
Republicans have made critical contributions to American history ever since. President Theodore Roosevelt, best known for his commitment to conservation, created 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land.
Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th president. The 34th, Dwight Eisenhower, distinguished himself in the Second World War as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. He launched an Atoms for Peace initiative, created the interstate highway system, played an essential role in ending the Korean War, and he reduced tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Overall, 19 of America’s 46 presidents have been Republicans. Four — Lincoln, Roosevelt, Grant and Eisenhower — are among the 10 most popular.
If only by their signatures, history credits Republican presidents with some of the most important achievements in U.S. history: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 1875 Civil Rights Act, the Environmental Policy Act, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Voting Rights Act and the Clean Air Act.
This distinguished history begs the question: What the hell has happened to the GOP?
A two-party system is essential. The creative tension between conservatives and liberals propels America forward without leaving behind its most important attributes. In theory, liberals liberate us from policies and traditions that hold us back, while conservatives keep us from throwing babies out with the bathwater.
But now, it’s the Republican Party that’s throwing out America’s most important offspring: democracy. The party’s leaders appear to methodically be sowing division, turning a blind eye to violence and insurrection, all while often disregarding facts and truths. Public opinion research shows MAGA Republicans are only about one-third of the GOP’s voters and only 15 percent of all voters. But this minority has cowed virtually all Republicans into allowing former President Trump’s totalitarianism to control Congress.
Meanwhile, the GOP has gained a following of neo-Nazis, white separatists, white supremacists, anarchists and Christian Nationalists — and some appear to have even welcomed them and their ideology into the GOP tent.
Following his 2020 defeat, Trump told his followers, including such extremists, to “fight like hell” as though they were his private army — and they subsequently mobilized in an attempt to overthrow an election. Unfortunately, he appears to be mobilizing his followers again to apparently intimidate the justice system as it investigates his alleged crimes.
As it turned out, Trump had no policy agenda to “make America Great Again,” and his administration became the swamp he promised to empty. Yet, Trump is heading into another bid for the White House. In contrast, another likely Republican presidential contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s policies are very specific, and they have elevated him to commanding general of the army against “woke.” He dictates what children can read in Florida and what teachers can teach. He and other Republican leaders punish companies and money managers who allow social and environmental concerns to factor into their investments. As the New York Times reports, we now see “a fast-growing network of conservative groups” fueling book bans. “Over the last two years, they have become vastly more organized, well-funded, effective — and criticized.”
A cabal of 20 or so Trump acolytes appears to control the House of Representatives. Their most prominent member is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a congresswoman who lost her committee assignments in the last session because of rhetoric that was deemed racist and anti-Semitic, baseless conspiracy theories, and support for violence against Democratic officials. In the current session, she has maneuvered her way into prominence via selfies, photobombs and headlines. She seems to have turned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — third in line for the presidency — into her lap dog: He reportedly told a friend, “I will never leave that woman. I will always take care of her.”
The GOP’s current strategy of fostering fear and hate has infected the nation’s spirit, even among Republicans. A CNN poll earlier this month found 70 percent of Republican-aligned Americans believe the nation’s best days are over, and 38 percent feel increasing racial and ethnic diversity threatens the country. Moreover, most political violence in recent years has come from the far-right, and support for political violence is growing faster in the GOP than among Democrats. It shouldn’t exist at all.
There seems to be a method to this madness. When a society is infected with fear, distrust of institutions, division and confusion about what’s true and what’s not, then society is ripe for takeover by despots who claim they will get things under control. That appears to be the contemporary Republican Party’s strategy.
However, it has built a coalition of organizations that each believes its vision of America is the only legitimate future. Should a Republican win the presidency in 2024, the groups will turn from warring against Democrats to warring against each other.
Years after he left the presidency, John Adams wrote to a colleague, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” By that standard, America’s democracy has had a pretty good run these past 246 years. But if we want it to continue, we must rise to its defense soon.
So, can the Republican Party get its soul back after selling it to the devil? Maybe not, but patriotic Republicans would earn a modicum of redemption if they tried.
William S. Becker is co-editor and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” a collection of more than 30 essays by American thought leaders. He also is a contributor to the upcoming book, “Democracy in a Hotter Time.” Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.
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