Assertions without storylines are simply argumentation—mostly arguments do not persuade and often they devolve into stridency.
I have in the last few years been entangled in a mild version of “cancel culture”. If talk turns to my resistance to the former President, I am told that I should be supportive because his policies were good. Now, acknowledging oversimplification, let me go from a candidate to the Party.
Quoting from a Wall Street Journal commentary by Hyrum Lewis, a noted academic, he states “Each party stands for a bunch of unrelated policies that are connected only by happenstance, not philosophy.” He calls the ideological narratives about progress and conservation words to “give the illusion of policies that are incoherent.” I agree.
Trump’s policies were a grab bag of Republican establishment reflexes like lower taxes and fewer regulations mixed with circumstantial reactions. For example, Republicans have generally promoted free trade with strategic exceptions; Trump opted for nationalistic trade. If commerce and then trade become vassals of the government all consumers will suffer.
And Trump, until he decided to run for President, had been pro-choice on the abortion issue but then, as President, appointed justices that overturned Roe v Wade which guaranteed some level of choice. When it came to foreign affairs he was enamored with autocrats from Russia to China to Saudi Arabia and dismissively critical of any democratic ally that had not spent 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on their military.
Trump had an overarching slogan which he smartly used as narrative: Make America Great Again. Now simply MAGA. The slogan was shaped and reshaped to meet the politics of the moment.
Trump, of course, was following a long line of Presidents who used slogans. But in the 2020 election cycle he dominated the Republican Party and its platform committee punted on a platform while President Biden made a pact with Bernie Sanders, making a turn to the left having run as a centrist.
Today both Parties are often more defined by their opposition to each other than principles or coherence and that is where Republicans have grasped the short end of the stick. If conservative is your storyline, then what about citizens who like to think in terms of making progress?
So follow me briefly in a guessing game as I turn the clock back several decades. Progress often occurs when the truths of yesterday inform the actions of today.
He (to be guessed) “was positive, optimistic, idealistic, energetic, growth-and-opportunity-oriented. He was incapable of personal attack and negative campaigning, even when it cost him.” “The purpose of politics,” he said, “is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.’… He wanted his own party to once again be the ‘party of Lincoln’. Even before very conservative audiences, he argued the the GOP should again become the “natural home of African Americans, “as it had been from Lincoln’s time to Franklin Roosevelt’s”. Did you guess Jack Kemp? Kemp was a member of Congress who became a national leader and had earlier starred as the Buffalo Bills quarterback. The quote was from a biography of Kemp written by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes.
Now turning the page, the main problem with the progressive movement today is that the claimed progress is often illusory. To me the centerpiece of conservatism should be efficacy (does it work). For example, progressives today sweep much of the youthful and quite diverse population into elementary and secondary schools that are measurably inferior to the best charter and private schools. They bend to the teachers union. Indeed the teacher union’s president is a member of the Democratic National Committee.
And what about various spending gushers that follow enactment of utopian titled legislation? Progressive? No, often illusory and assured of one thing: more debt.
Back to the Republicans. They lost the mid-term elections in part because as a Party they are perceived to be “climate change deniers”. The negative gap they faced with young voters was telling. I can look at my own family and report without doubt that younger citizens care about climate change. And also, without doubt, there is a climate change agenda that honors conservation and is rational.
Let me wrap up with the United Nations (UN). Finland and Sweden following egregious felonies by Vladimir Putin sought membership in the organization Trump flirted with blowing up. It is called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is made up of democracies. Perhaps it needs to be re-titled to welcome nations not in the North Atlantic.
NATO, or its successor, should become what the dreamers thought the UN would become and do so in both security and economic affairs. If done right (not easy) it could become successful in a far more sweeping manner. It could light a light in the Pacific, not just the Atlantic. And it could embrace free trade. Now there is something I could get excited about.
Regardless, leadership across a broad spectrum of private and public organizations that influence politics should insist on party platforms. They should understand their importance beyond narrow interests and use their influence accordingly. If the corporate we wait for coherence from the current lineup of so-called political leaders we will find ourselves waiting for Godot.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.