Should We Care What Happens to the GOP’s Soul?

A healthy democracy needs a reality-based conservative party. We haven’t had one for a very long time.


For more than a year, thoughtful Republicans have been posting warnings about the state of their party’s soul. A few days before the recent Alabama Senate election, David Brooks was particularly eloquent:

“What shall it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The current Republican Party seems to not understand that question. Donald Trump seems to have made gaining the world at the cost of his soul his entire life’s motto.

The question came up during the 2016 Republican primaries, when Trump began pulling away from the crowded field, in spite of — or maybe because of — his blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, and disregard for truth. It came up again at the Convention, when Ted Cruz briefly took a principled stand before eventually slinking back into line. Evan McMullin’s and Gary Johnson’s third-party campaigns attempted to appeal to a more upright form of conservatism, and managed to shave off a few votes here and there, but had little effect on the election’s outcome.

And then, in the campaign’s final month, the Access Hollywood video came out; it showed the inheritor of the mantle of Lincoln bragging about sexual assault and infidelity. More than a dozen women soon came forward to give the specifics of the assaults Trump had only alluded to. Briefly, party stalwarts like Paul Ryan tried to distance themselves from Trump, without actually denouncing him. Behind the scenes, religious-right heartthrob Mike Pence offered himself as a last-minute alternative. But Trump held firm: Both he himself and the women who accused him had been lying. (“Locker room talk“, he called it — an innocent variety of fib similar to fishermen’s stories.) In spite of his own words, no pussies had actually been grabbed.

Across the country, Republicans — especially the white Evangelical Christians who had denounced Bill Clinton with such vigor two decades before — stood firm behind their man. Despite losing the popular vote by  larger margin than any victor in U.S. history, Donald Trump was President of the United States.

But even that was just the beginning, as Brooks acknowledged.

There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him. … That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

And so congressional Republicans completed the theft of a Supreme Court seat by approving Neil Gorsuch. They went along with Trump’s appointment of cabinet secretaries who were either unqualified — like Rick Perry (who didn’t even know what the Energy Department does), Ben Carson (whose main qualification to run HUD seemed to be his race), and Betsy DeVos — or conflicted, like Putin-approved Rex Tillerson, whose company (Exxon) stood to profit massively from his intention to relax sanctions on Russia. They showed no interest in Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency, slow-rolled both the House and Senate investigations into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, and have increasingly cooperated with Trump’s craven effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. Brooks comments:

Trump may soon ask them to accept his firing of Robert Mueller, and yes, after some sighing, they will accept that, too.

But ultimately, what shall it profit them?

Roy Moore. Fundamentally, there are two kinds of moral codes. One insists that you do the right thing, but the other has a lesser demand: Before you do the wrong thing, you have to agonize about it. Again and again, Republicans have demonstrated the second kind of morality.

I had expected the pattern to play out once again with regard to Roy Moore. Faced with a financially corrupt pedophile who has no respect for the rule of law and pines for the days of slavery, both national and Alabama Republicans would agonize greatly, but ultimately they would come through for their party. Alabamans would elect him and the Senate would seat him.

I was wrong, sort of. Apparently, some Republicans finally reached their limit with Roy Moore. Not many, but just enough that a big turnout in the black community could push Doug Jones over the top: According to the exit polls, Moore got 91% of the Republican vote and 80% of white born-again Christians. Statewide, he lost by a mere 21K votes out of a little more than 1.3 million. 649K Alabamans voted for him.

Turning point? So it’s possible that future historians will look back on the Moore debacle as a turning point, when Republicans began to reclaim their party’s soul, as inside-the-tent critics like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Flake have been pleading for them to do.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s no soul to go back to, or if there is, it’s been lost much longer than the GOP’s internal critics realize. As Ezra Klein observed, the problem didn’t start with Trump and Moore:

It is tempting to split today’s Republican Party into factions, to see Trump as a bizarre aberration, to see his voters as alienated and marginal, to see Roy Moore as an inexplicably Alabaman phenomenon, and to frame establishment Republicans as fundamentally normal politicians suffering through an abnormal moment. This is wrong.

Trump could flourish in the Republican Party precisely because “normal” Republicans like McConnell and Ryan spent years dismissing the facts they didn’t like, undermining the institutions and information sources that contradicted them, indulging the conspiracies and falsehoods they found convenient.

No reputable economic analysis predicts that the cuts in the current tax reform proposal will pay for themselves through growth, but virtually all Republicans voting for the bill say otherwise. They also say that global warming isn’t happening, or that fossil fuels can’t be blamed for it, or that nothing can be done about it anyway. They blame poverty on the poor’s lack of motivation, promote the myth of voter fraud, and insist that guns have nothing to do with mass killings. And racism? What racism? We don’t see any racism.

No major faction in today’s GOP is taking a firm stand on the side of reality, or proposing realistic conservative solutions to problems that actually exist. The intra-party debate is entirely about which fantasies and falsehoods they will run on. In such an environment, best and most brazen liar — Trump, in this case — always wins.

Should we care? For a liberal Democrat like myself, it can be tempting to take a pass-the-popcorn attitude when a kook like Moore wages a primary battle against a swamp creature like Luther Strange, or Mitch McConnell faces a Bannonite revolt.

Maybe, from our point of view, crazier is better. Doug Jones probably wouldn’t have beaten Strange, no matter how corrupt the deal that put him in the Senate. Claire McCaskill might have lost to someone saner than Todd Legitimate-Rape Akin. Harry Reid might have gone down, had the Nevada GOP not gone off the deep end with Sharron Second-Amendment-Remedies Angle. And who knows? An establishment figure like John Kasich or Marco Rubio might have beaten Clinton cleanly, without the distortions of the Electoral College or James Comey or Russia.

In any particular election, Democrats probably do better against off-the-wall crazy candidates than against mainstream Republicans. And yet, after each such race, the national conversation seems a little crazier. Even in defeat, I’ve come to believe, such candidates pollute our political discourse. After Roy Moore’s loss, will it be easier or harder for Republicans to nominate the next Roy Moore, and maybe even to elect him? I suspect the answer is easier. Crazy ideas seem less crazy the second and third and fourth times you’re asked to take them seriously.

That’s why lately, in spite of the prospects in this election or that one, I’ve been rooting for Republicans to get their act together. The Republic needs a reality-based conservative party, and we haven’t had one for a very long time.

Disraeli or Hitler? For historical perspective, it’s worth looking at the recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy by Daniel Ziblatt. In it, Ziblatt examines the very different paths that various European countries took towards democracy between 1848 and the 1950s. Some nations evolved gradually but steadily, with an ever-larger electorate and the ever-increasing power of elected officials over aristocrats and generals. But other countries spent that century ping-ponging from revolution to counter-revolution and back again.

What was the difference? All the countries went through economic ups and downs. All of them experienced the internal tensions of capitalists out-pacing landed elites, and labor organizing itself against capital. All of them endured foreign-policy disasters, deaths of important leaders, and corruption scandals. Why was the path to democracy so much rockier in Portugal or France than in Sweden or the Netherlands? And why, for that matter, has the Arab Spring turned out so much better in Tunisia than in Egypt?

The book retells the political history of Europe during that key century to argue for a counter-intuitive thesis: The difference between the easy-path countries and the zig-zag countries was whether or not the old-regime aristocrats and rising capitalists organized themselves into a politically viable conservative party. Where they did, that party might win or lose as circumstances changed. But where they didn’t, eventually the privileged classes would try to protect their interests through extra-constitutional means.

After a wide-ranging defense of his thesis, Ziblatt then zeroes in on two cases to examine in detail: Britain and Germany.

The aristocratic dilemma and its obvious-in-retrospect solution. By definition, an aristocracy is a small class that wields a lot of power. By its nature, it will fear “mob rule” and try to block or delay democratic evolution. But what happens when it can’t avoid yielding power to democratic institutions like a Parliament chosen by a broad-based electorate? Is its goose cooked, or will it find some acceptable (to itself) way to change with the times?

In every country that transitioned to democracy, some kind of conservative political party developed to represent upper-class interests. And that worked fine as long as the electorate was only a little bit larger than the aristocracy itself. The various upper-class and professional-class people who owed loyalty to a local lord would vote that lord (or his chosen representative) into Parliament. But the continuing pressure for democracy resulted in ever-larger expansions of the electorate, each of which required the conservative party to form a larger coalition if it hoped to stay viable.

First they welcomed in the capitalists, but there aren’t very many of them either. Then respectable shop-keepers, small farmers who owned their land, and so on. But eventually working-class people got the vote and became the majority, which led to a dilemma: How do you convince factory workers to vote to preserve upper-class privileges?

The obvious-in-retrospect answer, which you can see very clearly in the development of the British Tories, and which still echoes in America’s religious right today, is to ally with the established church in a coalition to preserve “traditional values”. The conservative party, then, will rally around symbols of patriotism and faith, make a God-and-Country pitch, and hope to appeal to enough workers to keep itself competitive. [1]

Particularly as workers move into the middle class, the conservative party can make a persuasive argument to defend the status quo: If you want to preserve what you have, help everybody else (including the rich) preserve what they have.

How conservative parties fail. In the zig-zag countries, though, the conservative parties failed to make this transition. Rather than put forward a broad traditional-values-and-the-status-quo appeal, they stayed more insular, and relied instead on the unfair advantages their legacy position gave them (like the ability to rig elections or block reform through an anti-democratic upper house). Landed aristocrats didn’t play well with industrialists, and churches developed their own parties. [2] Rather than accept democracy gracefully, the German Conservative Party (DKP) was known to be “more monarchist than the Kaiser”.

What’s fascinating in Ziblatt’s narrative is that he makes heroes out of a class we often think of as villains: the professional politicians and party organizers. Those larger coalitions came about precisely in the countries where a conservative party establishment developed organizational power that allowed it to keep the grass-roots forces (like anti-Irish or anti-Jewish racism) in check, and to resist being dominated by single-issue pressure groups and individual donors. But in Germany, a weak party establishment at the DKP (and its Weimar successor, the DNVP, German National People’s Party) was unable to keep candidates focused on “serious” issues like economics and foreign policy when anti-Semitism could raise more energy, particularly in the rural areas.

The decision that ultimately proved suicidal for the DNVP, though, was to let its own hold on reality slip and instead embrace a comforting popular mythology: Dolchstosslegende,  the theory that Germany only lost World War I because its valiant army was stabbed in the back by traitors on the home front, who were often portrayed as Jewish.

Once the competition shifted to who could tell the most compelling and energizing myth, Germany’s aristocrats and conservative intellectuals were lost. They had hoped to harness popular grass-roots mythology and prejudices against Weimar’s Social Democrats and Communists. But Hitler and his Nazis were much better equipped for that job. What DNVP politicians indulged in as a vice, Hitler saw as a virtue. Freed to tell whatever story he and his public wanted to hear, he was far more convincing.

Sunrise, sunset. Ziblatt is focused on why democracy might fail to take hold in a country, not how it might decay, so he says nothing about contemporary America. But I find the parallels to Trump and Trumpism unavoidable: The conservative role that Ziblatt sees as necessary for a healthy democracy needs a sane and sensible conservative party to fill it. We don’t have one.

In any democracy, some people are going to believe that change is happening too fast, and that old ways that have worked well enough for a long time should not be cast aside lightly. Some sizeable slice of the electorate is going to feel that the reality of what they are being asked to give up is more valuable than the gains they are being promised. Some voters will be skeptical of government programs, or will want to use the power of government to keep what they have rather than right ancient wrongs that seem intractable anyway. Others will grow tired of the governing coalition, whatever it is, and want a change of faces, but not a revolution.

Those people need a place to go, a party that represents them without raising their deepest fears and exploiting their darkest passions. The Republican Party, the party of people like Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, used to be such a place.  It no longer is.

Two generations of leaders — from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, through the two Presidents Bush, and up to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan — thought they could harness the electorate’s darker, more virulent impulses without being tainted by them. During elections, they could dog-whistle to racists, delegitimize journalism and science, and wink at myths from the Trilateral Commission to global-warming-is-a-hoax to Birtherism — and then govern like rational men.

They never saw Trump coming. The vices they indulged in during campaign season are the virtues he practices every day. He leads the rabble they merely exploited, and glories in the adulation of those they were ashamed to be seen with.

Germany only made it to a stable democracy after it crashed and burned; and for decades democracy only took hold in the part occupied by the armies of foreign democracies. Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece had to endure periods of autocracy, sometimes multiple periods. I don’t know any examples of corrupted conservative parties that reformed themselves without disaster.

I may not be optimistic, but still I have to hope that our Republicans can be the first. If they’re going to reform, though, they need to understand where they are: A simple return to the pre-Trump status quo will just lead to another Trump. They need to go back much further. A less virulent strain of mythology won’t do the trick. For the sake of America, the party needs to return to solid standards of truth and fact. It needs to confront real issues rather than manufactured ones, and propose plausible conservative solutions.


[1] Somehow, I had let What’s the Matter With Kansas? convince me that this kind of coalition was unusual.

[2] One disadvantage Germany had was its more-nearly-even Catholic/Protestant split. British Tories could ally with “the Church”; German conservatives had to choose one church or the other.

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Comments

  • edwinabaethge  On December 18, 2017 at 10:43 am

    dear– the SOUL is the Decision-making function of the Human Being.

    Soulishness is being TOO DECISIVE, at the expense of humaneness, compassion, gentleness, vulnerability.

    soulish ppl are by-the-book, bottom-line thinkers. they rush to judge, rush to fix, rush to keep their own powers intact and un sullied. Pharisees, Philistines, Hedonists, Epicurians. Ideologues.

    thanks for the reminders. edwina.baethge@yahoo.com

    Sent from my iPhone

  • Michael  On December 18, 2017 at 10:44 am

    What was the “German Conservative Party (DKP)” . If you look at the list of parties in the Weimar Republic there was no “Deutsche Konservative Partei” .
    DKP was the abbreviation for the (marginally important) communist party after WW2 in West Germany.

    The situation in Weimar was a bit more complex than this:
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weimarer_Republik#Parteienspektrum

    • weeklysift  On December 18, 2017 at 11:20 am

      The DKP was a pre-Weimar party that merged into the DNVP after World War I, but kept a certain amount of independence within it. I oversimplified by not separating the two in the pre-and-post Weimar discussion.

      • Chris Wendl  On December 18, 2017 at 11:08 pm

        You might want to double check whether “DKP” is the appropriate designation for the Deutschkonservative Partei (what the German Wikipedia calls it, but the acronym never appears). As far as I’m aware, “DKP” has for many decades referred only to the Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, and I can’t find any evidence on the German internet that it ever referred to anything else. (The caveat is that I am not German, though I do live in Germany.)

      • weeklysift  On December 19, 2017 at 7:17 am

        DKP is what Ziblatt uses. I’ve edited to match his usage more closely, shifting to DNVP after the merger.

  • John G Messerly  On December 18, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    As always a wonderfully insightful piece. Thanks. John Messerly, Ph.D. reasonandmeaning.com

  • Dale  On December 18, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    The Republicans cannot be brought back. They lost their soul over 50 years ago. We are only witnessing it now.

  • Anonymous  On December 18, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    it seems you are looking at things from where we are and what to do about it- yet I think there is also virtue in seeing things from an idealistic perspective- why do we need to have an elite class at all? that a permanent class of elites exist to belies truths of unity and equality and to me is the source of manufactured beliefs in scarcity competition and having an underclass becaue there is “not enough to go around”

  • cgordon  On December 20, 2017 at 6:32 am

    It seems to me that what you and Mr. Ziblatt refer to as the conservative party is actually the reactionary party, and sometimes the violently reactionary party. A lot of this stuff makes more sense to me in light of the fact that conservatism and reaction are in most ways opposites.

  • Langdon Winner (@langdonw)  On December 26, 2017 at 10:36 pm

    Today’s GOP is power mad and shows no inclination to return to the kinds of sobriety US democracy requires of “conservatives.” (After all, what at they conserving?). When opportunities arise for those like Flake and Collins to show courage and character, they now head for the hills, bow down and attend those “Oh thank you great leader” gatherings at the White House.

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