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January 6 was a painful inflection point in our nation’s modern history. I know I’m not alone in feeling shocked and horrified at the violence that enveloped Capitol Hill, leading to the deaths of four loyal Trump supporters and Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died after allegedly being beaten in the head with a fire extinguisher. The nation will feel the aftermath of this tragedy for months, and perhaps years, to come.
There is no doubt that the events of January 6 will color the early days of the Biden administration as the country will undergo yet another impeachment trial for President Donald J. Trump once the articles are sent to the U.S. Senate. What’s less clear, yet equally important, is how the final days of the Trump administration will shape the long-term future of the Republican Party, a party that is still smarting from historic losses at the ballot box.
The Republican Party is the first incumbent party to lose the White House in nearly three decades. Democrats gained House control in the midterm elections despite districts gerrymandered to cultivate a GOP majority, and Republican incumbents in the Senate forfeited their seats in a stunning upset to two Democrats in a once-deep red Georgia. Whatever you think about the political talents and policy proposals of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, their dual victory should be taken as nothing short of a five-alarm fire for a party now locked out of power in Congress for the first time in a decade.
What is becoming more and more clear is that committing the party to fight a neverending “culture war” is not only a recipe for electoral rebuke from an increasingly socially liberal electorate, but a decision that will condemn the nation to a no-holds-barred race to the bottom of moral and intellectual desolation.
The GOP’s attacks on the legitimacy of American elections, coupled with broader trends in public opinion, don’t bode well for a party aimed at re-taking Congress and the White House in the near future. Although President Trump overperformed compared to many expectations, his antagonism toward the media and barrage of racist, xenophobic, and sexist attacks made it so that large swaths of the nation were already firmly set in opposition to Trump and his agenda before he even took office. According to FiveThirtyEight, President Trump is the only modern American president to never hold an average approval rating above fifty-percent and it’s unclear if that was ever a goal of his administration.
One would think Republicans might be motivated to retreat from a strategy hyper-focused on conservative cultural grievances and conspiracy theories, because, well, it hasn’t been very successful. Almost 14 years ago during his reelection campaign, former President George W. Bush campaigned on ratifying a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Today, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states and it’s more popular than ever. When Gallup last asked the question in May 2020, two out of three Americans, and half of Republicans, believed that same-sex marriage should be legal. Yet opposition to same-sex marriage still remains in the Republican Party platform. Local governments and institutions continue to remove Confederate iconography from state flags, military bases, and public spaces despite protests from many on the right. U.S. Attorney General Bill P. Barr can decry the secularization of society all he wants, but less than half of people now say that religion is “very important” to their lives, the lowest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in the early nineties. And as was proven in the Georgia runoffs, convincing the party’s base that their nation’s elections are hopelessly illegitimate is not the best “get out the vote” strategy.
During the nation’s racial reckoning last summer, it appeared to become a right-wing in-group identifier to refuse to say “Black lives matter.” Reasonable people who care about racial justice lose patience with leaders who seem more concerned with innocuous slogans and preserving confederate monuments than with addressing the very real challenges that Black people in this country face. The Republican party can both celebrate and nurture the facets of our national tradition that make this country a “shining city on a hill” while acknowledging that this city has only shone for so many.
I could go on, but in nearly every way, the GOP’s fight against social liberalism, from gay marriage to marijuana legalization, has been a complete and utter failure on the public opinion front. In response to this cultural lurch left, one would think those on the right would be desperately trying to understand and integrate conservative ideology into this new cultural dynamic. Instead, conservatives have ghettoized themselves into media ecosystems that insulate them from our changing culture.
Like many liberals and moderates, I echo President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s view that the country needs a Republican party that is “principled and strong.” This country is changing faster than ever before and we need leaders who make us genuinely consider whether all those changes are good ones. But somewhere along the way, the Republican Party decided that it would simply be better to attack the happenings of this new American moment than to join in it as good faith partners wary of where a new direction might lead.
The Republican Party represents nearly half of American voters and has the opportunity to channel a robust intellectual movement that could dramatically change this nation for the better, but it is preoccupied with defining itself in diametric opposition to the morals of an electorate that is becoming increasingly socially progressive. As the nation enters a new juncture in our democracy, Republicans might want to dial back from the rhetoric of a culture war that has now reached a boiling point and focus on improving the material conditions of Americans who are struggling during new waves of joblessness and food insecurity.
While the traditionalism that animates the GOP does not appear to be going away any time soon, the party might do itself a favor by being more judicious in which traditions it decides are worth fighting for (i.e. democracy), and which ones may no longer be compatible with American values in 2021 and beyond.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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