The Republican Party’s attempt to focus and better articulate its values needs to start with a clearer definition of conservative. Just as important the GOP has to decide why conservative, an ideology, equates with Republican, while moderate has no place.
If conservatism means limited government, then why use it, as one of many examples, to codify a definition of marriage? Shouldn’t classical conservatism mean government’s responsibility to ensure legal and equal rights for all through civil unions, letting religious entities determine who has the blessings of marriage? Why is government being called on to define what had been a religious word now secularized in popular society?
Historically, Republican leaders fought monopolies, championed the environment, and fought for civil rights for minorities. Today, Republican Members of Congress are shills for the oil, coal, and banking industries. Of course many Democrats aren’t much better.
In the 1950s, Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith challenged Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunts. California Republican Gov. Earl Warren, Thomas E. Dewey’s 1948 running mate, was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Dwight Eisenhower, leaving a legacy of thoughtful constitutional progressivism.
Prior to 1975, Republicanism, as Dewey articulated, meant government was progressive and solvent, it had a head and heart, and it could serve the people without becoming their master. It was under Dewey the nation’s first civil rights legislation was passed in New York in 1942. He advocated for the end to racial segregation in the military.
Republican New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay racially and ethnically diversified the police and fire departments and aggressively recruited minority teachers in the 1960s. He also ordered the New York City police department to stop harassing gays and lesbians.
Responsible Republicanism recognized government was a tool and when used cautiously and responsibly could improve the lives of people. Even Richard Nixon saw its value when he created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Today, Republicanism has moved toward a half-baked theocracy undermining Barry Goldwater conservatism. U.S. Senator and Republican 1964 presidential nominee Goldwater may have been the last genuine conservative of his party. He espoused a kind of libertarianism that had long defined his wing of the GOP. During his time, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller represented the moderates.
Although both political titans represented ideologically different philosophies, neither believed in the social conservatism espoused today. Goldwater had particular disdain for Rev. Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority, which has proven to be neither moral or a majority.
It’s been said Rockefeller Republicanism is almost dead, if not dead. Only a few GOP moderates are in Congress and seem to be only tolerated by social conservative colleagues. Yet it is equally true Goldwater conservatism has been pushed aside for an evangelical fundamentalism attempting to use government and a political party to legislate God, religion, and morality. This is a far cry from what had been Republicanism. Ironically, it’s what social conservatives purport to disdain the most – activism falsely packaged as limited government.
Today’s GOP social conservatives lament their liberty is threatened when someone else is empowered with personal rights with which they disagree and though they are not impacted. It’s an odd argument coming from a group who fears government, yet seeks to use it to define values and personal responsibility for others.
If Republicans truly want to engage in genuine soul-searching to rebuild their shattered party, then they should start with a history lesson. At one time they championed the separation of church and state to protect religion. In the past, respect and good stewardship of the land was considered conservative. And Republican, conservative, and moderate had nothing to do with God. Until this generation of Republicans learn their own history, reform of the GOP seems futile.
Paul Jesep is an attorney, policy analyst, and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically.