Bartlett: Identity Crisis
The Republican Party must define itself to survive.
On paper, the 2016 election cycle was an overwhelming success for the Republican Party — one that saw the Senate, the House of Representatives and, most importantly, the presidency fall under GOP control. With control of the White House and Senate, the administration of President Donald Trump was able to appoint Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, all but guaranteeing a strong conservative presence on the nation’s highest court for decades to come. Yet, in spite of the resounding triumph within each of the United States’ three branches of government, the Republican Party remains more fragmented than it has been in decades. Typically, divisions within major political parties have coincided with the presence of a crushing defeat, not an overwhelming victory. However, the recent failures of the GOP are anything but innocuous for a party that, despite its legislative dominance, seems increasingly disunified.
The recent division is a byproduct of the two-party system. A large quantity of American voters wanted a change in Washington or were unhappy with some facet of society. Voting itself is never anathema to the democratic process, but because Americans prioritize different beliefs and still confine themselves to the restrictions of the two-party system, the Republican Party finds itself in a difficult position. In victory, the “Republican” cause is one that is held together more by moniker than by unified political principles. The Republican Party finds itself torn apart by multiple perspectives on any given issue, all fighting for dominance over the political rhetoric of the entire party. From internal conflict stems a lack of consensus and, subsequently, a lack of productivity. While some beliefs are more uniform among conservative lawmakers, there exists a lack of a defined ideology, impeding political cohesion and frustrating constituents.
It is simple to see why many Republican voters are dissatisfied with the performance of their supposedly Republican government. During presidential elections, the ideals espoused by presidential candidates are assumed by many voters to be representative of the entirety of the parties they represent. Thus, the policies of a nominee — Trump, in this instance — are viewed as not merely unique to himself, but as representative of the Republican cause. It is not surprising, therefore, that voters are vexed by congressional actions in the opening months of the Trump administration — or, more accurately, congressional inaction. Trump pledged to repeal former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Nine months later, several attempts have failed in spite of Republican control of Congress. Trump confidently proclaimed that “I believe [the United States] are going to build the wall!” Low and behold: no wall. In both instances, the implementation of public policy is far more nuanced than a straight yea or nay vote. But when two of Trump’s best-known promises, declared time and time again to voters throughout the roughly 18-month election cycle, have yet to even be begun months into his presidency, voters will begin to grow impatient. Impatience is never a good thing for a politician seeking reelection.
A Republican government will always draw prolific criticism from supporters of the Democratic Party; the converse is true in years of Democratic government. Such external pressure is to be expected, and it occasionally precipitates greater political consensus among conservatives, for it provides something against which they are able to unite. Internal divisions like those seen this past year are neither typical nor conducive to success for both a government and a party. The latest attempts at health care reform are perhaps the most demonstrative of this paradigm. Sen. John McCain, a prominent Republican leader and former presidential nominee, refused to support September’s health care initiative. “I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried,” he told The New York Times. Cooperation is paramount within politics, and its pursuit is never an unholy ideal — although this refusal merely further isolated facets of a constituency that desires immediacy to perfection. Problems continued when other prominent conservatives, such as Sen. Rand Paul, criticized the health care bill for not being conservative enough. Paul said the repeal effort was, in fact, not a repeal but a continuation of Obamacare. Two leaders, one espousing compromise and balance and the other greater action and polarity, represent immaculately the current polarity of the Republican identity, which is injurious to the success of the party.
Even in government, the identity which once defined the party is no longer that which comprises it. “Republican,” a term once associated with defined conservative ideals on stances from abortion to health care, is no longer the concrete platform of years past. When one thinks of the Republican cause, vague ideals, not defined principles, come to mind. Voters making their voices heard at the ballot box expect from candidates the generality of this depiction; they want a “Republican,” but the image for which they are voting is no longer definitive of the party which shares that label. It is as a result of this disparity between expectation and reality that the GOP is struggling.
The best course of action in aiding these woes would be to consolidate the party’s platform and make the new-and-improved beliefs of the Republican Party lucid to the general public. Doing so will inevitably isolate many of the current Republican members of Congress, frustrate a large portion of conservative Republican voters that are not in agreement with the new platform and likely cause the GOP to lose a substantial quantity of political power in the near term. But most importantly, doing so will provide the Republican Party a solid ideological foundation upon which it can build in the future. Politically defined, the new iteration of the GOP would possess the understanding of itself necessary to properly and effectively represent its constituents. Unified adaptation to the ever-changing political climate of the United States will be a simpler task — one cannot aim for the finish line without knowing where the race begins, after all.
As the old adage goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” So, which is it, Republican Party? Do you make the difficult choice and unify those whom you are able, defining once and for all what it means to be Republican? Or do you allow various conservative factions to evolve in disparate directions until your ideology is muddled and the GOP irreparably damaged? The clock is ticking.