The moral crisis of the Republican party

The Republican Party is facing a crisis that's not purely political. The real problem with the party is an ethical and moral one, far more serious than the political missteps that have plagued it in recent years.

The political problems with the Republican Party are well known. It lost yet another presidential election and its candidates have secured a majority of the popular vote only once in the last five contests. The Democrats control the US Senate and while the Republicans retain shrunken hold in the House of Representatives, they failed to capture a majority of the popular vote in that chamber. Were it not for gerrymandering and geography, they would have lost that chamber too. In Minnesota, Republicans were sharply repudiated last November, ousted by constitutional overreach and infighting.

Republicans know they have a problem. This past weekend in New Orleans they held a conference seeking to understand their problems. For some it is that they nominated bad presidential candidates such as John McCain or Mitt Romney. For others it is not the candidates or the values but the messaging. Some see it as bad campaign tactics, seeking salvation in borrowing from Obama's campaign. Similarly, Minnesota and other Republicans this week will meet to discuss the future of their party, no doubt concluding that the problem are the candidates, the messaging, or the tactics. They are only part of the problem.

Short term the political crisis of the Republican Party is not an issue. The 2014 elections will come soon and in general the President’s party does badly in the midterm elections of a second term. Democrats will need to defend 20 Senate seats compared to 13 for Republicans, and across the country, decreased voter turnout will favor the Republicans. One should not discount the capacity of Democrats across the country to make political mistakes, either by being overconfident, overreaching, or failing to seize the day. Obama’s first term was a lesson in looking aside when given the chance to make historical change. Democrats will make political missteps in 2014 and by 2016 perhaps the American public may be sick of them for failing to deliver, giving the Republicans a political opportunity.

But were the crisis of the Republican Party merely tactical and just about playing politics that would be simple. But the problem is more deep seated–it is the moral or ethical crisis of the party that is the problem.

The problem is with the political morality of the Republican Party. It is a party dominated by an aging white population hostile to diversity, gay rights, women’s rights, and the use of government resources to promote the public good. It is a political party increasingly out of step where the future of America is headed. That future is one less Christian and religious, and more diverse. Public opinion has shifted and it supports gay marriage and rights. It supports a woman’s right to choose, and more importantly, birth control. It does not believe women have natural defenses against real rape, it is less supportive of the death penalty, and it does support some reasonable limits on guns.

It is an America that sees a role for the government in promoting the public good. It is a public that wants good schools and affordable colleges. It is a public that worries about the environment and accepts science. It does not think vaccinations cause retardation. It is public worried about the corrosive effect of money in politics and the problems that rising inequality is causing for a next generation whose life prospects may not be as good as the one we enjoy.

Multiple surveys document these views of the contemporary American public opinion. This is only part of the ethical crisis of the Republican Party. It is not only out of step with where current public opinion is, but the demographics are against them. The values of a new generation of Americans coming up are increasingly at odds where the current Republican Party is.

The main constituency for the current GOP is old or fringe. It is a constituency increasingly seen as greedy, intolerant, and lacking compassion. It is a party in 2011-2 that applauded executions and cheered that some might die if they needed health care but could not afford it. They are a party that seems indifferent to the suffering of others and seems to have taken the position that I have mine and the rest should do it alone like I did. Except that they did not do it alone. They benefited from the New Deal state, sucked it dry, and now want to pass the bills on to the next generation. They are the real takers. They have benefited from their parents sacrifice and investments and in turn are failing to invest in future generations. At one time the Republican Party railed against the 60s generation as selfish and greedy. They are no longer the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Ike. Rockefeller would have no place in their party and it is not even clear that Reagan would fit in. The GOP is now the party of Howard Roark.

The moral crisis of the Republican Party is one where increasingly their fantasy of an Ozzie and Harriet America is not the one that most Americans currently or are in the future going to live in. If fact, it is really not even the world they live in. The America they grew up in was not one of Social Darwinism and untrammeled free market capitalism. It was–to steal a phrase–a kinder and more gentle nation where the government played a positive role in making life better for all of us. Yes, it made mistakes, racism and poverty did excluded many, but it also did great things by helping Americans draw upon their talents and create the conditions that made it possible for many of us to succeed.

The current Republican Party is espousing a constellation of values that deny reality and the dreams of what Americans want. The soul searching that the Republican Party is presently doing will fail. It will fail but at core its values are that of either angry greedy old men or adolescent-thinking ideologues who think they owe no one nothing because no one gave them a hand and that they did it all on their own. It is a party without compassion, a party without a sense of what American’s believe, and what the country looks like now and into the future. This is the real crisis of the Republican Party.

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David Schultz's picture
David Schultz

David Schultz is a professor in the School of Business at Hamline University.