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America Needs a Healthy Right
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America Needs a Healthy Right

An argument against abandoning the conservative movement, or the GOP.

It’s that time again—time for a bit more internecine squabbling between those small factions of conservatives who broke with the GOP over Donald Trump. I’m not saying that the philosophical dispute between friends and colleagues is quite as intense as the fight between the (fictional) Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, but there’s nothing like a factional fight between small factions to get the blood flowing. 

At issue, broadly speaking, is whether anti-Trump conservatives should remain within the GOP and/or fight to retain a foothold in the conservative movement as part of a project to repair the right (build back better) or engage in an effort to defeat the right (burn it down.) Politically, I’ve been clear in my position for a long time—don’t vote simply to punish the GOP but instead evaluate each politician and candidate on his or her merits. Does he or she possess the character necessary to serve? Do they broadly advance public policies that I believe are best for the nation?

Pass both prongs of the test and you get my vote. Flunk either prong, and you don’t. 

But we spend way too much time talking about our vote and too little time talking about our voice. In between those moments in the voting booth, how should we use whatever platforms we possess to preserve our republic and contribute to the security and prosperity of its people? 

To answer those questions, we have to go back to the basics. Last week, in the midst of my marathon dialogue with my critics, I was asked what I thought was the greatest existential threat to the United States of America. My answer was quick—our own polarization and division. No external enemy can defeat this land, but we can tear ourselves to pieces. 

I’m so concerned about polarization and its consequences that I wrote a whole book about it

At the same time, I was asked what was the greatest cultural threat to the United States. I answered that it was the partisanship and cruelty of the Christian church. Or, to put it another way, if the “salt of the earth” loses its saltiness or the “light of the world” goes dark, then the consequences for this nation and its people are grave indeed. 

The more I think about our interrelated national and cultural challenge, the more I think three tasks are necessary and urgent:

  1. The Christian church must reject partisanship (note, I did not say “reject politics”);

  2. Conservatives must reject reactionary populism; and

  3. Progressives must reject toxic illiberalism.

In many ways, each of these changes is dependent to some degree on the others. When the church ties itself closely to any given political party, it ratchets up the intensity of political disputes, and it dilutes the Gospel message with the package deal ethics of partisan loyalty and compromise. 

Moreover, if one party becomes dominated by its most toxic elements, it dramatically ratchets up the stakes of any given political contest and creates temptations to engage in extreme measures to stop extremism. We saw this exact vicious cycle of fear and grievance when the Trump right fed off the excesses of the #Resistance and the #Resistance grew increasingly alarmed by the outrages of the Trump right. 

But stating the challenge raises the next necessary question: How does one accomplish these goals? The answer is complex and long—too long for a single essay—but I firmly believe that institutions and individuals are more responsive to internal critique than external criticism, no matter how thoughtful or eloquent. 

Or, to put it another way, while thoughtful external criticism has its uses, at the end of the day, only the church can reform the church, only the right can reform the right, and only the left can reform the left. In fact, in a hyperpolarized time, critique of the right from the left (or the left from the right) often only serves to empower its targets. 

Not only is it generally true that we’re more apt to hear criticism from insiders than outsiders, it’s especially true given the current American demographic realities. Simply put, as I explained at length in my book, we’re frequently walled-off from opposing points of view. The “Big Sort” means that we’re increasingly likely to live around people of like mind. The combination of algorithms and personal choice mean that we can silo ourselves electronically as well as geographically. 

A recent study of 180 million American voters (Sarah first highlighted the study in her newsletter last week) found that “aA large proportion of voters live with virtually no exposure to voters from the other party in their residential environment.” In fact, “high levels of partisan isolation can be found across a range of places and densities and are distinct from racial and ethnic segregation.” The report also found that “Democrats and Republicans living in the same city, or even the same neighbourhood, are segregated by party.”

In the study, Harvard professors Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos found a striking amount of what they called “hyper-segregation.” The charts below are instructive:

https://twitter.com/RyanDEnos/status/1368966515802963970

And:

https://twitter.com/RyanDEnos/status/1368966519951069188

But this geographic segregation does not necessarily yield a hive Red mind. There is no Red Borg. While Red and Blue might be distinct from each other, there is still considerable disagreement within each broad partisan and ideological tribe. There’s much to say about the religious and ideological divides within the Democratic Party, but it also turns out the Republican Party may not be as united as public opinion polling about Trump would indicate. 

For example, a recent poll of registered Republicans or voters who “identify as Republicans” revealed that “five factions have emerged after Trump’s presidency”: 

Those “tribes” were identified as “Trump Boosters,” “Die-hard Trumpers,” “Post-Trump G.O.P.,” “Never Trump,” and “Infowars G.O.P.” The latter group, among other things, was described as viewing QAnon conspiracy theories favorably and believing in many of them.

And what is the percentage breakdown of these voters?

The group identified as “Die-hard Trumpers” — supporters of the former president who would back him in a hypothetical primary regardless of who else was running but who don’t believe in QAnon conspiracy theories — comprised 27 percent of the Republican voters surveyed. Another 28 percent comprised the “Trump Boosters,” Republicans who said they approve of how Mr. Trump did his job, but only a slight majority of them support him being the nominee again, and they are more supportive of the Republican Party than Mr. Trump personally.

The “Never Trump” Republicans comprised 15 percent of the Republicans surveyed. Another 20 percent were described as “Post-Trump G.O.P.,” who like Mr. Trump but want to see someone else as the party’s nominee.

The smallest faction is the so-called “Infowars G.O.P.” representing a mere 10 percent of Republicans. What does this all mean? The fight over the direction and ethos of the Republican Party (and the conservative movement) is far from over. Or, in the immortal words of Will Smith in the cinematic classic, Independence Day, “I ain’t heard no fat lady.” 

What else does it mean? At the present time—especially if you’re a Republican office-holder, party official, or staffer—there are solid reasons to stay and fight. Leaving the party may well mean that your forfeit meaningful participation in a conversation that’s far from over. There may come a time when leaving is necessary. I don’t think that time is now.

I don’t identify as a Republican any longer in part because I want to disentangle evangelicalism from the GOP, and I need to walk that walk. Moreover, I think political independence helps me do my job better. It clears my mind. But my path doesn’t need to be every Republican’s path. Indeed, it shouldn’t be. 

But I still identify as a conservative and refuse to surrender the definition of that word to the reactionary right. In modern American politics, it’s a word that is tied to the classical liberal founding of the United States. It’s inseparable from the defense of life, the protection of the family, the defense of the constitutional order, and from a robust American presence in the world that’s indispensable to economic prosperity and preserves the long peace between the great powers. Properly understood, it rebukes Trump and the movement he spawned.

None of this means that conservatism should be ideologically rigid and inflexible in the face of changing times. Conservatives should be open-minded in the face of policy innovations and open-hearted to critiques about the history and present reality of their movement. And, no, the existence of a right-wing civil war doesn’t mean sparing time to oppose the worst excesses of the illiberal left, but let’s not forget where our true influence lies—it’s in our own home, not in our ideological or religious neighbor’s across our national street. 

One more thing …

After the incredibly frenetic pace of the last five years, I have to say that I’m enjoying the slower news cycle. In podcasting, it gives Sarah and meI space to breathe and to answer listener questions. If you want to know if Democratic SCOTUS appointees truly vote more in lockstep than Republican nominees, or if you want to know how to hire a lawyer, or if you want to know when holding to a judicial philosophy can ever cause you to root for your side to lose, then this is the podcast for you:

One last thing …

I have five words for you: Thursday night. Snyder Cut. Glorious.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.