How to Save the Republican Party from the Authoritarians

The Republican Party has gotten so bad—so inimical to liberty—that advocates of liberty should join the party and actively seek to capture it from the authoritarians who have overrun it.

That may sound like a crazy strategy. Jonathan Chait is shocked that never-Trumpers do not abandon “the Republican Party because it is authoritarian and toxically anti-intellectual.” Some of my most liberty-loving friends have quit the GOP in the hope that Democrats rout the GOP in the midterms to undermine Trump. But taking over the GOP is the only viable strategy at the level of electoral politics for steering the country back toward liberty. Hear me out.

1. Major-party activism is the only viable means to influence electoral politics.

With a tiny number of exceptions, every politician of consequence at the state and federal level is either a Democrat or a Republican. The rules of our elections heavily favor a two-party system, and I see no serious movement at present to create a new party that might push out the GOP. As I’ve suggested, a viable new party would at a minimum require crossover support of several high-level elected officials—they’d have to switch parties—plus many millions of dollars of funding. At present, if activists wish to substantially influence electoral politics, they must engage with the existing major parties.

Party activists have a major influence on who is elected to state government and to Congress. Whereas most voters choose between the major-party candidates selected for them (or else spend their vote on a meaningless protest), party activists decide who gets on the general-election ballot.

Consider the recent Colorado Republican assembly, which I attended as a delegate. The assembly was under-attended: Of a possible 4,201 delegates, only 2,951 were seated, even after adding alternates. These few delegates—a tiny fraction of Colorado’s 3,219,953 total active voters—decided the person who will probably become the GOP’s candidate for governor (and eliminated the person whom I think would have been a less-bad general-election candidate, Cynthia Coffman).

Given Coffman’s loss and new laws in Colorado that let the unaffiliated vote in primary elections, GOP candidates outside the party’s theocracy-leaning activist core probably will petition onto the primary ballot in future elections. But who helps to gather signatures, raise funds, organize events, and generate publicity for candidates who petition onto the ballot? Again, party activists have enormous influence on electoral outcomes.

Even a dozen dedicated activists could get a Republican candidate of their choice onto the primary ballot for Colorado governor or for any legislative, state-wide, or Congressional office. Such activists would be at a disadvantage if they could not tie in to existing Republican funding and activist networks. But success breeds success, and these dozen activists would have radically better chances electing a candidate than, say, dozens or hundreds of activists working within a minor party.

A couple of caveats: First, some people have good reason to avoid electoral politics, whether because they lead a busy professional life (by which they might choose to help finance worthy causes), they have overriding commitments to family, or they engage in other important causes. So here I address those people with an interest in engaging in electoral-level politics and those who avoid such engagement for bad reasons. Second, some people, either because they live in Democrat-dominated regions or because they care most about certain issues, might instead reasonably join the Democratic party and try to make some headway there.

By and large my thesis stands: People who care about liberty and who wish to have real influence on electoral politics should join the GOP and actively seek to place better Republican candidates on the ballot.

2. The Democratic Party is also authoritarian.

Why, some will ask, shouldn’t people disgruntled with the Republican Party join the Democratic Party instead? As noted, for a few people in special circumstances that might make sense. But overall I do not think it’s a sensible strategy for advancing liberty.

I acknowledge that the GOP veers in a dangerously authoritarian direction. Typical Republican leaders want to ban all abortion and impose other faith-based laws. They seek to restrict legal immigration and subject illegal immigrants (and everyone around them), including immigrants who have long lived peaceably in the United States, to harsh militarized police actions. They endorsed the surveillance state. And they either excuse or actively support Donald Trump in imposing higher taxes on imported goods (thereby risking international trade wars), running up the national debt, bombing other countries without Congressional authorization, attacking private businesses, attacking the news media, praising murderous dictators, allying with miscreants such as Manafort and Bannon and Cohen, lying continuously, and so on.

But the Democrats are hardly in a position to throw stones. Right now mainstream Democratic positions (at least among activist members) include the following:

  • Crack down on charter schools and other forms of school choice even within the public school system. The Democratic Party is almost entirely under the sway of the teacher’s unions. Democrats at their Colorado assembly even booed a charter school teacher (among others) for daring to defend a group called Democrats for Education Reform—the assembly voted that the group can no longer use “Democrats” in its name.
  • Outlaw certain guns owned by millions of Americans, the confiscation of which could happen only by door-to-door searches conducted by heavily-armed police agents. Such actions would make today’s police-state tactics employed against illegal immigrants look like child’s play. Incidentally, such a policy also would almost certainly spark a civil war of some magnitude.
  • Abolish fossil fuels within a few decades through some combination of tax and regulatory policies, no matter the economic damage.
  • Impose universally government-funded (and thereby government-controlled) health care.

Today’s leading “Progressive” Democrats have reacted to Trump by lurching so hard to the left that they risk alienating even more voters than Trump has managed—and that’s saying something.

Do the Democrats now stand for free speech, legal marijuana, and criminal justice reform? On these issues Republicans have made serious inroads, such that it is now easy to find high-ranking elected Republicans with better (more pro-liberty) views on such matters than many prominent Democrats. So what issues do the Democrats have left for advocates of liberty, exactly? I suppose the Democrats still have gay marriage, but that is now the law of the land, and the continued squeals of some Republicans (when they’re in the right company) will not change that. From where I sit, it appears the Democratic Party can appeal mainly to those who love more taxes, more regulations, and more identity politics.

If you are among those who believe they can seriously advance liberty via the Democratic Party, I wish you well. Report back when you find that your strategy is a success, if you can, and then I will reconsider my position.

3. Republicans make the Republican Party.

Conservatives and libertarians often warn against the fallacy of reifying the state, treating it as some sort of superentity with a will of its own and with values of its own, a force above and beyond the individual human beings who compose and direct it.

It will not do to reify the Republican Party, either. The values and direction of the Republican Party are determined by those Republicans who are active in it. Change the Republicans, change the party.

What I advocate precisely is to change the balance of pro-liberty Republicans by encouraging more pro-liberty activists to join the Republican Party.

Do you hate Trump? Do you hate the authoritarian direction of today’s Republican Party? That is not a reason to leave the party—unless you have a viable alternative, and if you are honest with yourself you know that you do not. Is a reason to join the party, if you are not now registered to vote as a Republican, or to expand your efforts to sway the party’s direction, if you are now an inactive member.

And let us remember that, after all, the Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery party, a worthy ideological base.

Do not leave the GOP in protest; change the GOP until your protests are no longer necessary.

4. Be in the party, not of the party.

Worse than the inactive cynic is the party loyalist, the sort of person who will vote for and cheer on any Republican, regardless of context.

The Christians have a saying, be in the world, not of it. The idea is that you can engage with the world without falling into the temptations of the world. I advocate a similar approach with respect to the GOP.

I do not call on people to be party loyalists. I call on people to be principled pro-liberty reformers within a party. I do not call on people to vote for and defend Republican candidates no matter what; I call on people to vote for and defend Republican candidates who deserve to be elected and defended. I a call on activists to help get the best possible candidates on the general ballot, so that if a candidate is a lesser of evils at least the magnitude of evil becomes less severe from election to election.

How does one remain principled while pursuing the Art of the Possible? This is a difficult question and a matter more of art than science. Here I offer only the general principle: Compromise, if you must, in the direction of liberty. The fact that a candidate is not perfect, with respect to your principles, does not imply that the candidate is not substantially better than some alternative.

Judging political tactics given the complexities of the relevant issues is no easy task, but the sensible alternative is not to throw one’s hands in the air and give up. The answer is to do the best we can, given the realities of the political context in which we live. That we cannot answer every political question perfectly does not mean that we can sensibly answer no practical political questions.

Take an analogy to health. I do not know for sure which practices of diet and exercise will optimize my health, but I do not use my partial ignorance as a rationalization to ignore the question, nor do I put my health in the hands of quacks. Right now (to extend the analogy) the Republican Party snorts cocaine for breakfast and gorges donuts and soda for lunch. That the optimal path forward may be obscure does not imply that no paths are obviously better than others.

* * *

I am genuinely afraid for the future of our nation and for my son’s future in America. Yes, I think It can happen here. I even think it will happen, eventually, if we do not change course.

I have laid out the basic case for fighting to reform the Republican Party from within to shift the outcomes of elections toward liberty. (I’ve made this case before.) No, the effort will not be easy. No, electoral politics is not the only (or even the most important) front in the battle for our nation’s future. But, insofar as advocates of liberty seek to affect the outcomes of elections, in most cases they can most effectively do that as a Republican reformer.

If anyone has a viable alternative—not a non-strategy based on ego-stroking self-delusion—I remain open to argument. Cynicism and excuses will not suffice.

We need action with a realistic chance of success.

Image: Justin Hall