‘The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” the Israeli diplomat
observed in 1973. As the unfolding Biden fiasco looks set to present Republicans with an unusually promising political moment, will the same prove true of America’s conservative movement?
It’s easy to understand Republican complacency. Why not sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Democratic ineptitude and ideological overreach and wait to receive its fruits? On current polling evidence, the GOP is well-placed to win back control next year at least of the House and perhaps the Senate too, setting itself up for a good shot at the White House in 2024. In the face of your opponents’ implosion, masterful inaction is usually the order of the day: Don’t just do something, stand there.
Yet tempting as it is, merely waiting out Democratic failure and the swing of the pendulum would represent a historic missed chance for Republicans.
Out of the current turmoil they may have an opportunity not only to reverse 30 years of mostly indifferent political outcomes for them but perhaps even to begin bridging the great divide in American politics and build a governing coalition the country hasn’t seen in a generation. Will they seize it?
Three temptations are currently dangling before Republicans:
First the Trump temptation. He delivered Republican majorities in 2016; he seems on current polling ready to do it again.
But it’s a Faustian temptation, and most people know it. For all the legitimate concerns conservatives have about the trashing of their values and the erosion of their cultural legacy
promised to reverse, the man himself remains an ominous threat to the health of the republic.
It takes an act of willful blindness to deny that his continuing rejection of the 2020 election is a unique challenge to orderly constitutional government. I’m genuinely dismayed at the number of senior Republicans who acknowledge this in private but say nothing in public. Conservatives have their own cancel culture. Hundreds of top Republican officeholders are silenced today by fear of the Trump mob.
The second temptation is the opposite: to attempt a reversion to Reaganism.
This would not only miss the electrifying effect Mr. Trump had on voters angry at what’s gone wrong in America in the past 30 years. It would ignore also the failures the Republican Party itself contributed.
was a political genius whose economic policies transformed America’s fortunes. But 1980 was a very different time. The complex challenges the country faces today won’t be fixed by big tax cuts and deregulation.
The third temptation comes from an interesting new group—a collection of deep thinkers convinced that liberalism in its classic sense, with its emphasis on individual autonomy, has failed because of the atomization of economic and social life it has wrought. These conservatives espouse a postliberal philosophy such as “common-good originalism” or Catholic integralism. I am Catholic and have much sympathy with critiques of modern liberalism, but if you think America is ready for some kind of Habsburg Restoration, you are definitely best placed of all to miss the opportunity conservatism faces.
The answer, at least in the short term, may be simpler: Seize the moment to build a coalition of economic populism and cultural conservatism that addresses the dystopia in modern American life, elevates the family and traditional values; resists the advance of cultural nihilism, and rejects the pure neoliberal market economics that has in some ways exacerbated the crisis. Grotesque inequality in the face of rapid technological change and intensifying market concentration isn’t going to be addressed by further corporate tax cuts or a regulatory environment shaped by the interests of corporate donors to the Republican Party.
If the GOP succeeds, it might break the strange stasis that has gripped American politics for 30 years.
Since 1992 there have been eight presidential elections. In none of those contests has any candidate received more than 53% of the vote. In the eight preceding elections, from
John F. Kennedy
in 1960 to
George H.W. Bush,
four candidates exceeded 53%:
in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988. Johnson and Nixon both topped 60%.
America has become an entrenched 50/50 nation—or maybe 52/48, with a slight tilt to the Democrats.
claims a mandate for transformational change on the basis of a victory in the popular vote of less than five percentage points.
The near symmetrical split is both a cause and a product of the caustic partisanship that is corroding faith in American institutions.
Recent political trends suggest the electoral opportunity: a multiracial coalition of the working and middle classes that disdains the progressive authoritarianism of the left but wants policies that address their daily economic struggles. Republicans may simply choose to enjoy the bounty of Democratic failures. But that would miss a rare opportunity to start the larger work of rebuilding a fractured nation.
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