When you read this article, I doubt the vote counting for the 2020 national elections will have produced a clear winner. However, these elections will have one result, they will sound the death knell for the Republican Party. It had a good run, 180 years since it elected its first President, Abraham Lincoln, and abolished slavery. But it’s over.
My old college political science textbooks define political movements by how they approach the need for change in a political system. At one end of our spectrum we see those movements that find society’s imperfections so great that it must be torn down and a new society created in its place. Let’s call them ‘Radicals’ for short hand. At the other end of the spectrum we see movements that also find society’s imperfections unacceptable but who believe that only a return to an idyllic past can save them. We call them ‘Reactionaries’. Radicals and Reactionaries share one belief: they alone know the truth and believe that they must drag their fellow citizens to Salvation, even against their will. Others, who also agree that society has imperfections but usually not as bad as extremists would claim, argue that they can cure the imperfections through incremental change with the consent of the citizenry. We call them ‘Conservatives’. Radicals and Reactionaries believe they can attain perfection; Conservatives know that perfectionists will always be disappointed. Radicals and reactionaries often wrap themselves in the mantle of populists, a Latin origin word synonymous with the Greek word demagogue.
We legitimately called the Grand Old Party conservative for most of its life. Until the 1920s, when it fell under the spell of the Gilded Age, it was the very definition of a progressive political movement moderated by its belief that progress came incrementally and as needed. It had only two radical (for the time) political moments, abolishing slavery under Lincoln and fighting monopoly capitalism under Theodore Roosevelt. The Party advocated good government at an optimal size – not the mindless ‘small government’ mantra of later years. The traditional GOP wanted effective government and was willing to pay the taxes needed to sustain it. The highest marginal tax rate during Eisenhower’s Presidency was 91%. The old GOP led the country in advancing racial equality. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Earl Warren, the Supreme Court Chief Justice he appointed, were pioneers of desegregation. The contemporary Democratic Party straddled both sides of the spectrum, a ‘liberal’ wing rooted in trade unions and farmers and a southern wing, the ‘Dixiecrats’, that lived by and for ruthless exploitation of white hatred for blacks. It was indeed a pact with the Devil until Lyndon Johnson broke the Pact.
Richard Nixon conceived the idea of exploiting Johnson’s leadership in ending racial segregation by recruiting the Dixiecrats to join the GOP. Nixon, for all his cleverness, did not understand that southern politicians are the smartest politicians in America. They know how to gain and maintain power by exploiting resentment and hatred. They hijacked the GOP and built a political base that depends on fear; a fear that can be assuaged if we just get back to the good old days, when blacks knew their place, when preachers controlled the lives of their followers, when women stayed home, and when kids obeyed their parents. Toss in a few more scares; scares that gun owners will lose their guns and the very rich will have to pay more taxes for good measure, and add a few more nostalgic fantasies and you have the Republican message of today. Today’s GOP fits the ‘reactionary’ definition. Trump didn’t create it; he used it to ride to power. (I personally do not remember that my pre-boomer generation obeyed our parents any more than the generation that just left home. We were just smarter at keeping secrets to avoid physical punishment.)
The new GOP offers only a return to old times that never existed. Unfortunately for them, the demographic this message appeals to shrinks every day. Old white men get older. Legally or illegally, immigrants will enter the country because there is no one else to work the jobs and pay the social security taxes that finance the Medicare of Old white men. The GOP has no appeal to the younger generation. Like it or not, blacks no longer fear to vote. Today’s GOP resembles a snowball in the summer sun.
The Democratic Party will fill the ever-expanding vacuum between a dwindling reactionary right and a moderate center and the (relatively small) radical left. The Democrats appeal to everyone and unless another force appears on the scene it will dominate politics for the next generation or longer. But power corrupts and power will inevitably corrupt the Democrats. America needs a new centrist conservative political party to keep the Democrats honest. The current GOP lacks the vitality to reform itself. Its ever-dwindling base has become an endogamous society, doomed to extinction.
I find hope in those Republicans who have broken the shackles of tribal party loyalty, the Lincoln Project, the former RNC head Michael Steele, Governors Hogan of Maryland, Kasich of Ohio, and Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who have risked reputation and fortune (and their lives if some of the Trump supporters have their way) to save the GOP. But they should not waste their time trying to take back the reactionary zombie the Dixiecrats created. They must coalesce around the legacy left us by such great leaders as Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush ’41, all giants who put country before power and, together with others like them, create the New Grand Old Party.