Movements and institutions are like wells from which people draw guidance for how to live justly. Examples of such institutions and movements can include the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States, the US Congress and Senate, the European Union, the Catholic Church, Silicon Valley and Wall Street, colleges and universities, or even the progressive Enlightenment.
By consulting their traditions and values, we may decide how to govern ourselves, how to conduct ourselves around others, and how to distill meaning from our experiences. As long as these wells are continually replenished by good faith and public trust, they continue to serve as useful foundations for our society.
Unfortunately, several of these wells have been poisoned by deceit and bad faith. I reserve my ire for the Democratic party, the media, and the law and judiciary for another time because I would like to focus on the institutional movement that I believe has been most corrupted by its own fears and weaknesses: the Republican party and the conservative movement. In relying on manipulation and resentments, the GOP has irrevocably ruined their public credibility as keepers of democracy.
Eric Levitz of New York Magazine helpfully lays out why mainstream Republicanism is a threat to democracy.
“mainstream Democrats” have come to view the Republican Party as a threat to democracy because the Republican Party has come to (correctly) view democracy as a threat to itself.
Levitz points out that Republicans have repeatedly sought to “disenfranchise Americans who do not agree with them” and “dilute the influence of those Democratic voters who do happen to make it to the polls through aggressive, partisan gerrymandering.” When Democrats do attain a seat of power, Republicans across the country have tried to systematically limit their power, most recently exemplified in North Carolina. Why go through all this trouble? Because the Republican Party’s proposals are not popular nor do they have the majority of voters or citizens behind them.
The GOP’s tactics for hijacking institutions to become a permanent ruling minority weren’t developed overnight. Their playbook of saying one thing and doing another was honed from years of policy-making. Republicans offer tax cuts and deficit reduction as policy proposals, and yet only cut taxes on themselves and the very wealthy while ballooning the deficit. They advocate for increased military spending while leaving the nation’s economy and security vulnerable to outside actors. The core of Republican socialization consists of discussing the next con or grift they intend to purport on the gullible American public (a trait that I’m afraid to admit is an increasingly common part of Democratic circles as well).
Furthermore, whatever anti-corruption ethic rooted in the defense of individual liberties the party once embodied has been eradicated due to its Faustian bargain with corporations and white supremacists. In hindsight, it is difficult to claim this tradition, which many conservatives claimed was the soul of their party, wasn’t just another cynical ploy to protect the concentration of power in the hands of those historically served by white supremacy and patriarchy.
I have often appreciated the work of conservative critics, who have sought a more morally just society in their advocacy for the arts, beauty, and faith as bulwarks against rational, progressive, techno-utopian visions. At their best, conservative thinkers have looked inward upon communities built on trust and common belief and thus identified aspects of the human experience worth preserving and defending.
The Republican party and the conservative movement embody none of these characteristics. Their animating principle consists largely of myriad resentments and an ever more narrow vision of a racist, sexist, hyper-violent future. Worse, their hate has become an infectious disease, one that seems to be emerging all over the world.
Many of our greatest political and moral challenges are questions of whether we ought to continue drinking from a poisoned well, hoping it gets better, or to abandon the well and build a new one, even if the new well serves a similar function to the old. There are no rules or heuristics for determining when to make one choice over the other. All we have is our ability to observe carefully what these institutions say and do, and to exercise our moral judgment accordingly.
That’s why I believe we must seek the peaceful end of the bipartisan system as we know it that has led to this extremist iteration of the Republican party and the conservative movement, and begin the process of building a true multi-party democracy in the United States of America.
Many American conservatives find the possibility of abolishing the Republican Party unthinkable. Conservatives operate from the idea that there is a trusted in-group and consequently a less trusted out-group. The point of conservatism for many conservatives is to create and defend institutions that are gatekeepers to the trusted in-group.
Alas, these institutions succumb to corruption when the only value the gatekeeper cares about is self-preservation. Conservatives trusted the Republican Party and conservative movement to gracefully apply its traditions to modern society while holding at its center a defense of civil liberties. In return the GOP has given them an authoritarian Trump and tax cut worshipping death cult in which individuals don’t have the freedom to dissent.
Anyone who sincerely identifies with the American conservative tradition should reject the “conservative” movement for its betrayal of their trust. Remaining loyal to this diseased and dying movement isn’t conservatism, it is merely irresponsible dogma.
It won’t be easy to reconfigure the political traditions of the United States. The work of exercising moral conscience is itself taxing, especially when beset by an overwhelming amount of things to care about and understand. But I believe that the stakes are high and getting higher every day.
If we fail to eradicate the diseased corpse of partisan extremism and the conservative movement fueling our country’s increasingly hateful, authoritarian bent, we greatly endanger our ability to build a peaceful truth and reconciliation with our past and our future.