I consider myself a conservative. This alone shouldn’t be cause for concern (although on this campus, I’m certain not everybody would agree with that sentiment). The label itself encompasses a wide variety of political viewpoints that range from “reasonably moderate” to “radically regressive.” And for the better part of the last 60 years, these widely varying ideologies and political factions have all banded together under the banner of the Republican Party.
I am also a registered Republican. Given recent history, one could be forgiven for considering officialized affiliation with the party to be, indeed, a cause for concern. As the Republican Party’s voter base has aged and money has come to play a preposterously large role in politics, distinct but intertwined forces have unintentionally stretched the party’s moral platform to its absolute edges and, in the process, eliminated any credibility that the GOP may have once held. The Republican Party is now more radical and less in touch with reality than it has ever been.
The reasons for this phenomenon are varied and complex. Nonetheless, a few chief perpetrators have played an outsized role in this decades-long moral erosion. One of the primary culprits for this was a collective failure in long term strategy and decision making.
Years ago, the Republican leadership chose to prioritize cultural battles as a central target for legislative efforts. As America has eased into the information era however, conservatives have failed on nearly every front. Gay marriage, abortion, drug laws, bathroom bills and more — the list goes on and on. It would be one thing to advocate for one side of these issues with dignity and to accept their eventual defeat with a certain amount of grace. What has actually played out, however, has been much more damaging — because rather than simply lose these individual battles, the Republicans’ drawn-out campaigns of denial have managed to alienate throngs of potential young voters. Frankly, any party whose leaders don’t accept gay marriage in 2017 simply has no long-term prospects in the modern political arena.
In its failed attempt to win the culture wars of the last decades, the party managed to spend nearly all of its political capital on an unwinnable (and in some cases, immoral) fight, at the expense of its actual political platform and tangible plans. This process has whittled the party’s voter base down to the type of people that the supposed bastion of liberal America would deign to call “deplorables.” By appealing to such an ideologically narrow slice of the American populace, the party is only ensuring that honest political discourse will continue its downward spiral.
Modern cultural changes alone weren’t solely responsible for the demise of the GOP. Another enormously detrimental feature of the conservative political landscape has been special interest spending. Once the party of the egalitarian, enlightened individual, the Republican Party’s moral foundation has been distorted beyond recognition via the influence of privately funded super-PACs.
It is a fact that the majority of political campaigns are won by the candidate who spends more money. And thus, if hypothetically, the NRA agreed to contribute $500,000 to a given political campaign, in exchange for favorable stances toward gun laws, it would far too easy to take the money and look the other way regardless of prior opinions of gun control or utter reasonability. Individual ambition outweighs moral conviction in all but the most resolute of people. The vast majority of senators and congressmen capitulate to the hard cash of these special interest groups, in the process compromising rationality and common sense.
In the modern political climate, doing so is an absolute necessity in order for a politician to maintain their own longevity. Perversely, elected officials are incentivized to follow the money in order to keep their own jobs. And although campaign finances is an issue that affects both sides of the aisle, time and time again the Republican Party has found itself especially susceptible to the temptations of K Street lobbyists.
For moderates, the effects of this phenomenon have been disastrous. Tax policy has come to be dominated by a relentless desire to shield the 1 percent from economic deterrences so much that it’s almost difficult to envision a time when the GOP wasn’t inherently tied to the idea of protecting the ultra-wealthy. Out-of-touch evangelicals have made the party almost unapproachable for young people, while the more unsavory groups of conservative society have convinced the left that every card-carrying party member is either uninformed or downright racist. Calling this an image problem is a laughable understatement. By making itself so unappealing to reasonable people, the GOP is assuredly sealing its own ruin.
I personally share fewer and fewer opinions with the Republican Party. This is not because the college experience has pushed me to the left but rather because my disgust with the party that is supposed to represent my interests has grown to the extent that I now see eye-to-eye with party leadership on an exceedingly small list of issues.
I support higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy. I think it would be, at the very least, sensible to have background checks on high-caliber firearms purchases. I don’t believe that the alt-right deserves a seat at the table of legitimate political thought. And yet, despite all of these opinions maintaining at least a vague aura of sensibility, the GOP has managed to squeeze out nearly all room for ideas like these.
What we are left with is a party that has no well-defined space for moderates. Consider this Senate primary in Alabama just last month. On one side of the contest was Republican A (supported by Steve Bannon), whose Wikipedia page opens with the line: “Moore has earned significant national attention and controversy over his strongly anti-homosexual, anti-Muslim, far-right views, his belief that Christianity should order public policy, and his past ties to neo-Confederates and white nationalist groups.” On the other: Republican B (supported by Donald Trump) who “was a leading voice in urging the president to leave the Paris Climate Accord” and gained nationwide recognition for failing to recognize the legalization of gay marriage. These are no silly anecdotes. Its characters are, ostensibly, the torchbearers of conservative America. Republican leadership now consists of editors of alt-right websites, egomaniacs and a soon-to-be-elected United States senator whose CV reads like a Richard Spencer to-do list. All of this would be almost be funny if it didn’t have such dangerous potential to affect our nation’s collective trajectory. The GOP has become a caricature of itself.
Gone are the days when morals and justice guided Republican thought. The resulting ideology is a mish-mash of outdated ideas, special interests and outright fallacies that are strangling the very lifeblood of conservative America. A party-wide implosion could in fact be the medicine that conservative America needs to take a step back and reexamine its values. Unfortunately however, that’s not happening any time soon. Voters are too entrenched and money still flows, so the Republican Party will forge onward, radicalizing itself further and further until it eventually capitulates under the weight of its own idiocy. In the meantime, an enormous swath of American conservatives will languish, feeling that they have few true representatives in Washington.
I frequently ask myself why I continue to maintain an official affiliation with the Republican Party. Any pride I may have once associated with this label has been replaced by a profound sense of shame, both for the party itself and the broad state of American politics. My final remaining excuse is that no viable alternatives exist. This particular vacuum might just be the most terrifying aspect of all. Indeed, little optimism remains for the American right.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.