When dissident Democrats decided to work together, outside the official structure of their party, to launch an energetic, modern response to Reagan’s sweeping victories their first step was to build a statement of beliefs. Although that statement was starkly at odds with many elements of contemporary Democratic politics, it was firmly rooted the party’s older traditions. A few years later, those reformers who had been pushed to the fringes of their party found themselves staffing the White House.
A previous post made the claim that the GOP as presently constituted is becoming a victim of entropy. Over the next eight years it will either be reorganized or replaced. Most Republicans would still regard that prediction as ludicrous, but by the end of next year consensus is likely to shift. Regardless, this is an ideal moment for a party trapped inside an ideological template shaped by the Cold War to begin imagining policy positions more relevant to the nation’s future.
For the small but increasingly worried segment of the Republican polity that recognizes the party’s straits, disaster offers opportunity. A fresh, relevant policy template in tune with reality and with the party’s powerful history would give us the initiative in painful debates that will follow the 2016 election.
The bad news is the good news – almost no one in the party is working on this question in a serious manner. To put it another way, we face no internal competition in the race to construct a 21st century Republican agenda. Build it, and they will come.
The Politics of Crazy outlines a wide range of fairly detailed policies that could form the center of a new Republican coalition. This could be helpful as Republicans begin the effort to imagine new approaches to problem solving, but what is needed most at this point is something less specific and more fundamental.
Step one should be an effort to recall the party’s roots. A new model should be constructed on the party’s foundations, which are well-worth preserving. This statement of the party’s origins, expressed in a previous post, could offer a useful guide:
Republicans were the traders, innovators, investors, and industrialists who built our urban landscapes and brought us our modern economy. Republicans were Progressives, Conservatives and Moderates united by their faith in the power of well-maintained markets to fuel prosperity, innovation, and freedom. Republicans understood that, for better or worse, business is the engine that powers everything else we value.
The Republican Party was not so much about less government or more government. The Republican Party was about making things work.
That commercial, largely urban history could provide a vital pivot point as we confront a sparklingly diverse culture and ever more rooted in cities. Only fifteen years ago half of America’s ten largest cities were governed by Republicans. Now we serve just two of the top twenty.
Based on those foundations, we can turn our attention to the largest challenges facing our society. Half a century ago our politics were defined by a dangerous and seemingly endless rivalry with Communism. Now our challenge is to build the most prosperous, humane and free culture possible in a world of global capitalism. It is a privilege to face this challenge, a privilege delivered to us by great sacrifices from our forebears. Now we must prove worthy of their efforts.
That starts by recognizing the new problems spawned from our victory. Capitalism is not perfect. While far better than any alternative ever initiated, this new global order presents us with troubling challenges. Again, from a previous post:
The creative power of Capitalism hinges on the freedom to visit wholesale destruction on anything which fails to compete in this race toward efficiency. Capitalism is an agent of what economists call “creative destruction.”
Creative destruction is not limited to businesses. Markets will tend over time to destroy aristocracies, racial preferences, tradition-based values, religious assumptions, and shared or public resources. It does not matter how valuable something may be in collective or intangible terms. If it cannot hold its own in a commercial transaction between a free, self-interested buyer and seller, it will be devalued, weakened and eventually swept away.
This is where Capitalism finds itself at tension with Conservatism. It is also where Capitalism faces its own internal inconsistencies. This problem has a name: Externalities.
Republicans are uniquely positioned, should we rise to the challenge, of forming an economic order that could contain the dangerous externalities of capitalism without killing the ‘golden goose.’ From climate change to inequality to racial injustice to international chaos, our society remains burdened by problems that could tarnish our global victory. Recognizing the nature of the difficulties we face, Republicans could form a coherent response rooted in reality and inspired by optimism.
Our first obstacle is the systematic denial that has gripped Republicans. Any new policy template must be founded on a commitment to squarely face facts. Coming to terms with the Four Inescapable Realities will be essential to any new appeal.
With those realities in mind we might recognize the central challenge facing government in an era of accelerating economic dynamism: An older, people-heavy bureaucratic model cannot keep pace with emerging demands. To remain relevant and effective, government must be smarter, smaller, and more nimble.
Informed by its heritage in commerce and by an ideology rooted in individual rights and duties, it seems clear that Republicans should build a response to modern challenges rooted in markets. To make such an appeal work, we need to develop a smarter understanding of what a market is and how to use it. Today, when a Republican speaks of “markets” they are describing the delusion that almost any problem will resolve itself so long as government does nothing.
Effective markets are based on rules. Building markets that address our problems means writing rules that will price-in externalities. Carefully constructed markets can, for example, incorporate the cost of carbon pollution into the price of oil, thereby leveraging the creative power of individuals and business to address climate change.
We can build markets that will price-in the costs of gun violence, illegal immigration, and pollution. Markets will not solve every problem, but a new emphasis on the challenges that they can address would provide an opportunity. Armed with relevant, credible responses to problems that matter to a wide spectrum of Americans, Republicans could a construct a brighter, more optimistic platform, independent of the fear-based appeals that have driven us into a ditch.
Defining a central challenge of our world, the challenge posed to 20th bureaucracy by rising economic dynamism, and establishing a template for our response, carefully constructed markets, we could accomplish three critical goals. We could unmoor the Republican Party from fifty years of focus on white cultural fears, deliver an attractive, optimistic vision for the future rooted in the party’s traditions, and still retain flexibility to pivot on specific policy planks.
Nothing in that formulation dictates particular legislation on abortion or terrorism or tax reform. It merely provides a launching point for more intelligent, more constructive debate – A debate capable of involving a far broader slice of the electorate than the Republican Party attracts today.
A simple, coherent, reality-based policy statement can be the pole around which Republican reformers begin to organize. Like the Democrats who organized the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980’s, Republicans can respond to the unique conditions we face today with a hopeful vision for the future. This may be a long journey, but it starts with a small group of people identifying, in policy terms, the place we want to go.