[This article, under the editor-named title of “RIP GOP,” appeared in the November 1976 issue of New Guard, the national magazine of Young Americans for Freedom, pp. 18-20.]

 

A New Political Party? 

By Dwight D. Murphey

 

            I can remember the time, really not so many years ago, when in my youthful enthusiasm the very words Republican Party were super-charged with a thrill of meaning.   The Party was far more to me then than a mere aggregation of people.  It was the political vehicle for the defense of American ideals against the pervasive erosions of the New and Fair Deals, and as such it took on vast spiritual and intellectual connotations. 

            In those days it was impossible to attend a Republican rally without being treated to a stirring rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  The song always put my heart in my throat—and to me at such a time loyalty to the Republican Party was the same thing as loyalty to the values I cherished.

            Somewhere deep within me I will always keep the bittersweet memory of my love for the Republican Party as I perceived it then.  I have become increasingly disillusioned during the 25 years since I served as state chairman of what was then called the Colorado High School Young Republicans.  And because my hopes for the party were once so high, I am fully aware of the tragedy implicit in that disillusionment.

            But now I am willing, almost anxious, to see something happen that in those days would have seemed unthinkable: for the Republican Party to die.  With many conservatives, I would welcome the formation of a major new party that would give effective expression to the ideals of a free society.

            Some of the reasons I now feel this way are obvious, while others have received far less attention than they deserve:

·        An empty shell.  Two years ago, I was the Republican county chairman in Kansas’s largest county.  It struck me at that time that the Party hardly existed at all in fact.  It existed on paper as a legal fiction.  Half of the precinct committee jobs were vacant; the other half were occupied mostly by members of a local courthouse clique.  There was almost no participation by the average person, either in time or money.  It was difficult to get even so few as three women to work at the party headquarters on a given day, and the money to keep the miniscule headquarters open came exclusively from a small handful of wealthy men.  Statistics show that Republic registrations are at a low ebb nationally, but an even more significant story is told by the level of interest and participation.

·        A lack of ideas.   From time to time, I have served on Republic speakers’ bureaus.  While listening to the various speakers on a program, I have been utterly dismayed by their consistent avoidance of ideas and issues.  It has been possible to attend Republic dinners for years without ever hearing a serious idea discussed.  Lincoln stories, smiles, a total absorption in vacuity—these, unfortunately, have been the substance of what the Party at the grassroots has offered the public.

            I was once asked to represent the Young Republicans on a radio panel discussing state finances in Colorado.  As part of my preparation for it, I went to talk to the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.  I withdrew from the panel, though, after he told me something quite remarkable: “I really can’t say we’ve had a policy,” he said.  “We’ve voted for all the appropriations and against all new taxes.”

            This is characteristic of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy I’ve come to associate with the Party.

·        Venality.  Such a point merges imperceptively into an associated observation—that the Republican Party has for many years been shot through with venality.  Today it is commonplace to point to Watergate and the national level, but I have especially seen it in local politics.  For several years, in fact, I was surprised that there were not more scandals.  The local and state politics I’ve seen have had an enormously low moral denominator.

            One of the best illustrations comes from my own experience.  Within ten days after I was elected Republican county chairman in January, 1974, I began to receive information about possible criminal activity inside the department of one of the Republican officeholders in the county courthouse.  I decided the right thing to do both morally and politically was to turn this information over to the District Attorney, even though he was a Democrat.  When the local newspaper broke the story of the scandal a month later, I issued a brief statement indicating that the Party had assisted in the investigation.  I thought we were in a good position to go to the voters with a new candidate, and by a strictly honest policy could over a period of time develop so substantial a credibility with the voters that they would take the Republican label as a virtual warranty of the merit of a local candidate.

            But that wasn’t the way the “party regulars” saw it.  They set up a hue and cry that I was a “traitor to the Party”—and promptly called a meeting of the central committee to recall me as county chairman.  Accordingly, I was forced back to a purely academic existence, which reminds me of Emerson’s observation about an earlier withdrawal of intellectuals from practical affairs: “It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas.”

·        “Pragmatic” rejection of its finest leadership.  For many years, some excellent conservatives—first Taft, then Goldwater, then Reagan—have struggled to give the Republican Party national leadership based on principle, but each has been frustrated and cut short.

            In 1952 there was an historic opportunity to reverse the American drift, but the promise that “Ike can win” was so overpowering that most Republicans gave principle a low priority.  They nominated Eisenhower without the slightest idea of where he stood philosophically.  The result was that the first post-New Deal Republican administration has as its primary effect the consolidation of the developments since 1932.  And the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Warren, appointed by Eisenhower, not only confirmed but extended the Constitutional revolution that had occurred under the New Deal.

            Twelve years later Barry Goldwater received the Party’s nomination, but by the time he received it it was an empty shell.  Two ingredients made the nomination worthless: the incredible viciousness of the attacks on Goldwater by Scranton and Rockefeller and by the other members of the liberal wing of the Party during the months preceding the convention; and, equally significant but far less often mentioned, the venality of the average rank-and-file Republican who was anxious to dissociate himself from what he perceived as a losing cause (and was thereby assured of being one).  I was the North Denver chairman for Goldwater during the fall campaign and remember the total lack of volunteers in that entire quadrant of the city.

            This year we have seen Ronald Reagan defeated for the nomination by Gerald Ford. The preference of the overwhelming number of rank-and-file Republicans was frustrated by organization politics and by the legacy of the Nixon debacle.  It is often said that Ford and Reagan are both equally conservative, but I see them as substantially different: Reagan is an articulate defender of conservative principle, while Ford represents an interest-group conservatism that involves no moral, intellectual presentation at all.  Helsinki, the Panama Canal negotiations, the snub of Solzhenitsyn, the quiet acquiescence in the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, support for the Equal Rights Amendment, a multi-billion dollar deficit—these and many other acts of the Ford administration would be inconceivable under Reagan.  But what is most bothersome is that an inarticulate, befuddled conservatism can offer no ultimate leadership, and will wind up being pulled along by the Left.

·        An inappropriate home.  Years ago, as I have indicated, I took it for granted that the Republican Party, as the opposition party to the New Deal, must necessarily be the repository of individualist principle.  But the long-standing split between the liberal and conservative wings of the Party throughout the post-New Deal era serves to highlight an important fact about the Republican Party.  This is that it is historically a mistake to view the liberals as intruders who have somehow managed to thwart normal Republican aspirations.  Instead, they are heirs to a long-standing liberal tradition within the Party.  No doubt the Party included a mixture of elements during its long predominance after the Civil War, but we should recall that it arose out of the active-government Federalist-Whig tradition, not out of the laissez-faire milieu of the Jacksonian Democratic Party.  Hence, it long favored high protective tariffs as against free trade.  And it is relevant to observe that Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was the first president to be profoundly influenced by the leftist perspective, as witness the influence of Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic, on his New Nationalism.

            It was by an odd turn of history that the Democratic Party rather than the Republican became the party of Franklin Roosevelt and the Welfare State.  This twist somewhat ironically made the Republican Party the center of anti-New Deal principle, but at no time was the entire Republican membership willing to undertake such an historic function.  The result has been the recurrent frustrations of the conservative-versus-liberal battles, and this is also at least part of the explanation for the weak-willed pragmatism of so many in the Party.

            Much more could be said about the insufficiency of the Republican Party as a conservative vehicle, but it is not the entire purpose of this article simply to underscore the need for a new conservative party.  In addition, I wish to issue a sobering warning, so that conservatives will appreciate the full dimensions of the task before them.  If we don’t understand those dimensions, our activity may be feverish and exciting, but it will also be quixotic and will have far less chance of succeeding.

            The important thing to realize is that the crisis in American freedom that we have witnessed in the twentieth century is part of a worldwide crisis of freedom and is the product of fundamental civilizational cleavages and deficiencies.  It is only superficially the result of a “wrong turn in American politics” in 1933, as so many conservatives who don’t know their history believe.  Instead, the politics have followed in the train of the underlying factors—and these factors were coming into being well before 1933.

            The first of these factors has to do with the intellectual underpinnings of modern society.

            The second has to do with the qualitative level of the people themselves—in their character, their self-reliance, their willingness to think and their participation.

            These mean the answer does not lie basically in the political arena.  I fully support the idea of a new conservative party, but I know that its ultimate success will depend upon the extent to which it and other on-going processes can effect a change, amounting really to a renaissance, in the intellectual and spiritual dynamics of our civilization.

            It is awfully hard—almost unnatural—for a party to do this.  Normally it is underlying factors that nourish a party, giving it sustenance for its political task.  If a party must reverse this process and instead act from the top down, attempting to create the proper civilizational base for its own existence, it faces a Herculean task.  It is attempting, in effect, to put the cart before the horse.  I wouldn’t be in favor of trying if I saw a viable alternative.

            What is crucial, then, is that as the new party develops it see its task as not just political and institutional, but as regenerative in the broadest intellectual and spiritual sense.

·        The intellectual factor.  Earlier, I listed the “lack of ideas” and the “pragmatic rejection of its finest leadership” among the Republican Party’s current failures.  But these are not uniquely the failures of the Republican Party.  They reflect, if we look at them in a long-term perspective, the profound intellectual deficiency from which our society has long suffered.

            In the eighteenth century, both in Europe and America, there was a substantial intellectual group that supported limited government and capitalism.  This continued especially within classical economics and neo-classical economics.  But early in the nineteenth century—on the continent, in England and in America—the intellectual community began to move sharply away from individualistic values (and, of course, aristocratic authors had never sympathized with them).  The main consequence, when the intellectuals allied themselves with the “have-nots” in a joint ideological movement, has been the rise of socialism in Europe and of the welfare state in the United States.

            There have been several causes for this, which it is beyond the scope of this article to explore.  But it is worth noting that tragically the free society has “turned off” some of its most natural philosophical exponents.  In America, the successor to Jefferson as the philosopher of our society would most easily have been Ralph Waldo Emerson.  But instead he shared the general intellectual alienation of his generation, writing of the “abuses in which all connive” and of the withdrawal of the “man of tender conscience” to “the world of ideas.”  In England, it might have been expected that John Stuart Mill would take the place of his father and of Jeremy Bentham as the leading intellectual in support of a free society.  Instead, he leaned more and more toward socialism.  It is by no means irrelevant to this that he had long complained that “the energies of the middle classes are almost confined to money-getting” and that there was among the middle classes “a general indifference to those kinds of knowledge and mental culture which cannot be immediately converted into pounds, shillings and pence.”  Joseph Hamburger tells us that as a result Mill and his followers “withdrew from politics with disillusionment and bitterness.”

            It is probable that no conservative party will enjoy an exciting level of intellectual content, with the programs and consistency of principle that potentially would accompany it, until there is a substantial conservative intellectual group and until the average man in our society has at least enough interest in serious ideas as to be able to relate appropriately to the intellectual.  The difficulty in achieving each of these preconditions merely underscores how fundamentally different the future course of our society will have to be if we are to reverse the historic tendency away from a free society.  The failure to establish a sufficient intellectual base would deal a death blow to the prospects for an effectively articulate new party, since a “silent majority” cannot really sustain it.  (I am speaking more of the prospects for a classical liberal content for the new party.  Burkean conservatism, associated originally with aristocracy and in the current period with conservative Catholic thought, has never lacked a highly literate intellectual movement.)

            Because of these things, I believe one of the main functions of a new party must be to stimulate, if possible, a new classical liberal intellectual interest.  It cannot merely assume the old pattern of Republican activity, but must seek to establish a continuing concern by its members for ideas and issues and an effective relationship with a significant portion of the academic community.

·        The quality of participation.  One of Jimmy Carter’s favorite homilies in 1976 was that “the American people deserve a government as good, as fair, as honest as they are.”  This made excellent campaign flattery, and Carter may even believe it himself, but the fact is that the decay of our political participation, the venality of our politics and corruption of our officeholders, the slide toward socialism after years of a growing welfare state, the loss of will for the protection of our vital national interests in the protracted conflict with Communist expansion—all these things are not accidental excrescences foisted upon us by outside forces.  Rather, “they hold the mirror up to ourselves.”  They are to be understood, if we speak the full truth about them, as manifestations of the general spiritual, moral and intellectual condition of Americans at this juncture in our history.

            Is it really so surprising that extracurricular sex should become a favorite pastime of Congressmen in a society in which sexual restraint has long been under attack as a mere bourgeois fetish and in which a preoccupation with pleasure has become the all-absorbing trait of millions of people?

            Is corruption by officeholders, say, just a passing aberration in a society in which cheating has become a commonplace of the college classroom, not just at West Point and the Air Force Academy, but at universities everywhere?

            The fact of decadence suggests both what a new conservative party must do and the great difficulty it will have doing it.  We all know it must “raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”  But what we may not appreciate fully is that the American people are ill-prepared to share in such a course and to support it.  Here again the new party must be prepared to act from the top down, creating its own underpinnings as it goes along.  And I hardly need point out that this is a monumental task.

            At the same time, the new party must seek to raise the level of participation by the average American in the political process.  I have been dismayed to see the extent to which the charge has actually been true that “the Republican Party is the party of the rich.”  I have already mentioned the almost total lack of public participation in the Party while I was county chairman, and that all the money came from a few wealthy men.

            The Jeffersonian-Jacksonian party was a party of the people.  So also must be a new conservative party.  I do not mean in a vulgar populist sense; it ought not to be demagogic and red-neck.  Rather, it must be built upon what every democracy, if it is to survive, necessarily requires: a people given to civic participation and civic virtue, showing a healthy vitality about the processes of their own government.  I feel that this is something that is easy to say, almost cliched; but it will be tremendously difficult among a people who are as lazy and spoiled as ours are.  Almost half the American people don’t even bother to vote and that is only a minor part of what reasonable political participation would call for.

            Limitations of space prevent me from adding more.  In quick summary, I can only say:

·        That the time has come when the Republican Party should indeed die.

·        That a major new conservative party ought to rise to take its place.

·        But that the problems it will seek to address are so rooted in our civilization that the new party will by no means be an easy panacea.  It will take the equivalent of a spiritual and intellectual renaissance to overcome them.