By Richard Samuelson at Library of Law and Liberty
The GOP needs more than cosmetic surgery. It’s either showing signs of great health or is in crisis, or perhaps a little of both. The party controls both houses of Congress and is hitting historic highs in governorships and state legislatures. An array of bright, young, plausible Republican Presidents campaigns for the Oval Office—a far cry from 2012, when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won largely because he seemed to be the only person who was truly up to the job.
Viewed from that perspective, only a cosmetic fix seems needed, to show those who live in or close to the Progressive bubble that a “Republican” is not someone who thinks the purpose of government is to punish ethnic and sexual minorities while helping the rich get richer. What a sad commentary on our educational system and our elite media that many people who should know better really do think that way. Looking back at the presidential debates of 2012, the key to Romney’s strong performance in the first round was almost certainly that he demonstrated how false that image was. Many viewers were genuinely surprised by the contrast between Romney the man and Romney the caricature they had been reading about in the New York Times.
Even so, the Republican Party also faces some major challenges—as the success of Donald Trump in the early running demonstrates. Managed well, the troubles are growing pains; left to fester, they could lead to a permanent party split. The challenge can be summed up in the terms “Tea Party” and “RINO” (“Republican in name only”). It is no coincidence that the rise of the former has fostered increasing use of the latter, and not affectionately.
It’s important to note that the party would be in much worse shape than it otherwise would be without the Tea Party. And that’s even taking into account that the disgruntled insurgents have cost the GOP some winnable elections, most notably by blocking the Senate candidacy of former Representative and Governor Michael Castle in Delaware. (GOP insiders also conveniently blame non-Tea Party losses on the Tea Party—Todd Aiken, for example, was not a Tea Party guy.) Establishment figures don’t have the greatest record, otherwise we would have Senator Tommy Thompson, and a re-elected Connie Mack and George Allen.
Meanwhile, as Ben Domenech notes, the Tea Party has, in fact, begun to redirect the GOP, even if most Tea Party people express frustration at not accomplishing more. (Granted, his comments on the budget deal might qualify that judgment.) The most recent debate might indicate that a majority of Republicans are starting to understand that our elite media are, as Glenn Reynolds says, “Democratic operatives with bylines,” and Republicans should treat them as such.
At first glance, the way the term RINO is usually employed seems to get things backwards. The Tea Party represents a movement that is, first and foremost, “conservative” in the American sense (that is, largely classically liberal), and only secondarily Republican. For participants in this movement, the GOP is a vehicle to restore the principles of 1776 to their central place in the regime. The Tea Party upholds the principles of Lincoln, of the equal rights of men, of equality before the law, of, to quote Dr. King, judging people by the content of their character not the color of their skin (hence opposition to affirmative action quotas)–or for that matter, where people work, what school they attended, or how they choose to worship God. The Progressive Left, having embraced race-based quotas and the multiculturalism they foster, in addition to embracing the cult of administrative expertise, rejects those basic American principles.
To the degree that the GOP has made its peace with the modern administrative state, the Tea Party is not truly Republican. More and more of our businesses, following our political and academic establishments, worship the cult of diversity and are quite good at gaming the legal system to favor their interests. If Republicans in office do not begin to address the problems of the modern administrative state, and soon, the Tea Party might walk, and that would put the party itself in jeopardy. In that sense, one could call Tea Party adherents RINOs.
That said, the RINO charge also has some teeth with regard to the GOP establishment, and not simply for its general cluelessness about the connection between the party platform and American principles. Consider Senator Lisa Murkowski. The daughter of a Senator and scion of the GOP establishment in Alaska, she refused to accept the results of the GOP primary in that state, and instead won as an Independent write-in candidate. That’s a sign of not accepting the terms of the primary election in good faith. Absent her maneuvers, Joe Miller probably would have gotten in—graduate of West Point and Yale Law School, and, to boot, a Tea Party guy.
A little money might very well have helped Ken Cuccinelli become the Governor of Virginia instead of Terry McAuliffe, had the establishment experts not written him off. Had Indiana Senator Richard Lugar endorsed Richard Mourdock after Mourdock defeated him in the primary, the GOP might have held that seat. (It is worth noting that the doyen of the establishment, Karl Rove, did try to help Mourdock win.) At the very least, the race probably would have been much closer. Mourdock really did shoot himself in the foot, after all. On the other hand, the Tea Party did back Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and he clearly did not always vote the Tea Party line.
The RINO charge, in other words, has two different meanings. It is applied to someone who is deemed insufficiently supportive of the party’s principles. But it can also, as I’ve said, describe someone who is hostile to the current party infrastructure. On the other hand, if the Republican Party is merely a political gang interested in gaining power and doling out favors, why work for it or vote for it? What benefit it a party if it gains power but loses its soul?
Jay Cost argues that the GOP has been a coalition of big business types and main street types since the late 19th century, with the business types usually in charge. The nearly unimpeded rise of the administrative state might mean that we are at a turning point, however, as the democratic elements of our republic begin to wither. Angelo Codevilla is not wrong to suggest that what America is seeing is the rise of a bipartisan ruling class that is firmly opposed to the principles of 1776, the constitutional practices of 1787, and to democratic accountability in general. It is not a coincidence that whichever party holds the White House, both hire Goldman Sachs alumni to staff the Treasury Department.
Then again, Joe Kennedy was a good choice to run the Securities and Exchange Commission precisely because he knew all the tricks of the trade, and therefore could be particularly effective in rooting out corruption. That brings us to the irony of the outsider Donald Trump’s (R [formerly D], NY) being a lifetime member of the ruling class. My gut instinct tells me that Mr. Trump does not think there’s anything wrong with the current crony system that has served him and his family well. Hence it’s doubtful that he would do much, if anything, to combat crony capitalism. The question he needs to answer, for example, is not whether he used the bankruptcy code to his advantage, but whether that code is reasonable, and how he might change it.
The attack on crony capitalism is, from this perspective, extremely important. It is of a piece with the critique of the growing and increasingly arbitrary rule of regulators and bureaucrats. The more rules there are, the more important one’s connections in business—giving the big, established guys a leg up against the newer and/or smaller players. That is why the “Pork Busters” movement of the Bush years is the precursor of the Tea Party. Will Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Tea Party favorite, abandon his strategic alliance with Trump at some point—perhaps when Trump shows true signs of vulnerability—and go back to the anti-crony capitalist message that had been a prominent feature of his campaign?
Returning to the Republican Party’s roots is not an unreasonable direction to go, for it is an open question whether the United States can function as a large, diverse, multicultural nation with an increasingly large and centralized government. Madison warned that if “federal powers [extended] to every subject falling within the idea of the ‘general welfare,’ ” it would “enlarge the sphere of discretion allotted to the executive magistrate,” which would lead to “an excessive augmentation of the offices, honors, and emoluments depending on the executive will.” And, in turn,
This disproportionate increase of prerogative and patronage must, evidently . . . [foster] the transformation of the republican system of the United States into a monarchy, . . .whether it would be into a mixed or an absolute monarchy might depend on too many contingencies to admit of any certain foresight.
The administrative state must, if it is to function, treat us as members of groups rather than as individual citizens, and treat legislation as suggestions rather than as law. In other words, the cultural and political divisions we see in American politics today are, in part, the result of the growth of a centralized administrative state. The regulators and bureaucrats may give equality as their justification but, on the contrary, they jeopardize human equality. For in what sense are citizens equal if not in the right to make moral judgments? Clearly, we are not equal in talents, height, strength, wealth, or expertise. But we are, as the Declaration notes, equal in our right to pursue happiness. And happiness is, as the Founders knew, ultimately bound up with the question of how to live well.
The trouble is that those who staff our elite cultural institutions, and who staff our government, have contempt for the moral ideas of many of our fellow citizens, and therefore seek to use the tools of the modern American state to limit contrary points of view. It might be that, having abandoned traditional moral ideas, and having rejected their foundation, the ruling class finds a satisfactory replacement in a sublimated form of class bias. The self-image of many Progressives is based upon being smart and decent, unlike the backward hicks of flyover America and the people who would lead them. It makes for a kind of postmodern form of dhimmitude, where those who dissent from the establishmentarian line are, as the Obama administration would have the Little Sisters of the Poor do, forced to pay a tax in order to enjoy their liberty.
Federalism was supposed to allow a diversity of laws to reflect a diversity of opinions about what laws to have. Nowadays, that is harder and harder to do in our system. Meanwhile, as Madison suggested, either the President must have the dispensing power (exercised, at first, in the name of “prosecutorial discretion” perhaps) or the scope of federal law must be radically reduced. And if the President has that power, and is understood to have that power, it is just a matter of time before he and our tenured administrators play the role of the old robe nobility and use that discretion to help friends and supporters and harm enemies.
The abuse of the IRS to block Tea Party groups (the folks at the IRS, believing that the Tea Party is an illegitimate and “extreme” group, probably sincerely believe they are serving the public interest), and the abuse of John Doe investigations, are only the beginning. The circle cannot be squared. An expansive national government in a large, diverse nation of over 300 million citizens simply cannot be reconciled with the rule of law. As Madison knew, the complement to his argument for an extended republic was having a central government with powers “few and defined.”
If the GOP becomes, once again, the party of free and equal citizens, fighting against consolidated unconstitutional power, then there is hope for the party and for the future of the republic. Otherwise the party itself will be Republican In Name Only.
Richard Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.
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… and now, in closing …(Hat tip: “B-Squared”)