There are early signs of a second stage of the Republican revolution started by Donald Trump in 2016. Looking forward essays are being written about its future that deal less with grievance and more with definition.
The revolution’s beginning pivoted on the past. Former President Trump, in pungent terms, captured frustration in a constituency that had been a crucial part of the Democrat Party calculus. This constituency—often referred to as “blue collar workers”—had been traumatized by global trade, technology disruption and social upheaval. And the only color in this constituency is the presumed color of the work shirt.
Trump was elected, grievance succeeded. Covid then exacerbated the political disharmony; oxygen was given to conspiracy theories and people who write about politics and the culture for a living gorged on controversy and provocation.
One data point that has forced open a window of deeper examination is revealed in an Axios-Ipsos poll which found that just 37% of Independents say they have confidence in the wisdom of the Party’s choices on Election Day. And 44% of Americans, according to Gallup, identify as Independents—a formidable force.
So even though hard-core partisans frequently determine which presidential candidates emerge in the primaries, the most farsighted candidates try to remain acceptable to Independents. So what is the conservative script for this constituency?
There is no shortage of copy about conservatism and the Republican Party. And, having served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, I’m certainly familiar with how his keepers-of-the-flame guarded it. But what was it?
In President Reagan’s days, it was tightening the fiscal valve on domestic spending, but opening it for military strength. President Reagan generally embraced free trade and certainly low taxes and minimal regulation.
In many ways, the most pronounced conservative philosophy shaped judicial nominees. Roe v Wade (decision creating a Constitutional right to an abortion) was, for a number of reasons, the epicenter of the outcry. The constant: find justices who will not reinterpret words and phrases with their own policy preferences.
Today conservatism is harder to define; plus for it to be a dynamic that voters will find compelling, it must reveal itself open to innovation and adaptation. Being against what the other side is doing is not sufficient. So, let me go upstream from the day-to-day issues.
Before and after my Washington time I was in business. Reality, discovered competitively, was informative. The constant test: does it work? Maybe that should be the new business agenda in politics.
Renewal in a technological age is only available through conceptual thinking, proof of concept actions and then the election of politicians who can reject laws, methods and appropriations that are not working.
And if America’s future is going to be bright, conservatives must insist that Congress resume working. We have three branches of government—one is barely functioning, one is going beyond its constitutional power and the final one, the judiciary, has become the decider. The President orders, the Congress fumes and the Supreme Court decide if the order is constitutional; we might call it the power of ten. At the risk of only slight overstatement, America is a messy autocracy at the Federal level. And this is at a time when Independents believe the Parties do not serve up good candidates.
I believe China is on a debilitating path because the societal disruption that every nation is facing cannot be dialed up or down successfully by an autocrat and his minions. What about America?
Finally, my list of questions for thinkers and politicians who self-define as conservative:
- Where is basic education working? Why? How can the successful models be implemented in every public school?
- Should China’s aggression in the Pacific and beyond cause the US government to reopen negotiations to join the Trans Pacific Partnership?
- What laws, if any, are necessary to protect humanity as we know it from being re-engineered by the manipulation of genes?
- What laws, if any, are necessary to protect privacy from a media business model underwritten by our personal information paired with artificial intelligence?
- What does conservation of the earth’s resources mean to a conservative?
- Is it possible to pull together our immense health care resources in a more efficient and just combination?
Okay, I get it. This is a wish list that borders on the delusional. Where, marketers ask, is the nifty slogan? What about an insistent theme? Will voters pay any attention?
We all have our lists and that is my point. Wouldn’t it be better to actually debate and then answer questions that will determine our peace and tranquility? For example, should the billions of dollars targeting climate change solutions be hidden in two enormous omnibus bills?
And finally, what is conservative conduct? Are conservatives preternaturally cautious, modest, likely to believe that each person is a child of God? I simply ask the questions. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that if interparty relationships are correctly characterized by the Left and Right of cable news, America is in trouble.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.