What I’ve Gained by Leaving the Republican Party

Published February 6, 2019

The Atlantic

I’m a politically homeless person these days. For most of my life, I’ve been closely affiliated with the Republican Party. My first vote was cast for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I worked in his administration, as well as that of George H. W. Bush; for seven years, I was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush.

Most of my professional friends and almost all of my former colleagues—those with whom I served in government as well as in the think-tank world—have been Republican. The GOP has been my political home since college, a party I was once proud to be a part of, and a source of cherished relationships. Part of my identity was undoubtedly shaped by my party affiliation.

I saw in the Republican Party a commitment to human freedom, democratic capitalism, and a traditional social order; to upward mobility through self-reliance; to the dignity of work; to the cultivation of character and respect for the Constitution; and to a foreign policy that placed a high priority on human rights, a strong national defense, and American leadership. Republicans argued for limited government, economic growth, and free trade. The party respected the role of religion in public life and envisioned America as a welcoming society to immigrants and the unborn. It was hardly a perfect party. Like all political institutions, it fell short of its ideals; it was also led by some deeply flawed individuals. Yet in the main, it stood for principles that I believe promote human flourishing.

The GOP was also the party of Lincoln, the greatest of all Americans; and the party of Reagan, whose personality and outlook I prized, including largeness of spirit, graciousness and gratitude, and freedom from bitterness and resentments. What John F. Kennedy was to a generation of young liberals, Ronald Reagan was to a generation of young conservatives.

But since the political rise of Donald Trump, I’ve found myself at first deeply disappointed and now often at odds with the GOP. The party of Reagan has been fundamentally transformed. It’s now Donald Trump’s party, through and through.

That’s turned out to be quite a problem for me, because from the moment he announced his run for the presidency, I believed that Trump was intellectually, temperamentally, and psychologically unfit to be president. Indeed, I warned the GOP about Trump back in 2011, when I wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal decrying his claim that Barack Obama was not born in America. From time to time, people emerge who are peddlers of paranoia and who violate unwritten codes that are vital to a self-governing society, I wrote, adding, “They delight in making our public discourse more childish and freakish, focusing attention on absurdities rather than substantive issues, and stirring up mistrust among citizens. When they do, those they claim to represent should speak out forcefully against them.”

Instead of rejecting him, however, the Republican Party eventually nominated Donald Trump. His defenders say, with some justification, that he has delivered on the agenda that they wanted. But that is hardly the whole story. Trump has shown himself to be a pathological liar engaged in an all-out assault on objective facts—on reality and truth—concepts on which self-government depends. The president is also cruel, and dehumanizes his opponents. He’s volatile and emotionally unstable. He relishes dividing Americans along racial and ethnic lines. He crashes through norms like a drunk driver crashes through guardrails. And he’s corrupt from stem to stern. The difference between Trump supporters and right-leaning Trump critics is how we balance the scales of his conservative achievements (like with the courts) against the harm he’s caused and the ways he’s changed the Republican Party and the country, as we weigh what will be most definitional to his presidency.

Some Republicans quiescently accept Trump’s transgressions, unwilling to take him on, fearful of incurring his wrath. Others convince themselves that the Trump agenda is worth the price of lavishing praise on him and turning a blind eye to his offenses. Still other Republicans protect and defend him at every turn, serving as his attack dogs. As an institution, the party rallied behind him. The few Republicans who have challenged Trump from time to time—Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and Mark Sanford come to mind—feel the anger of the party’s base. It cost all three their seats in Congress. The Republican Party is both shrinking and getting more Trumpified.

At the same time, unlike some vocal Trump critics who have left the GOP, I remain philosophically conservative. This means that the modern-day Democratic Party, lurching farther and farther to the left, doesn’t have room for me. (A 2018 Pew Research poll found that 46 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters identified themselves as liberal, compared with 28 percent a decade before.) Two  illustrations of the journey the party has taken: First, it wasn’t that long ago that referring to a Democratic Party politician as a democratic socialist was viewed as a libel; today democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez galvanize the party’s base. Second, the Democratic Party has moved from a stance that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” to Governor Andrew Cuomo lighting up New York City’s Freedom Tower in pink after signing a bill “celebrating the legal right to abort fetuses that could survive outside the womb,” as Alexandra DeSanctis put it in these pages.

More than ever before, then, I identify with the words of the 20th-century French journalist and philosopher Raymond Aron. “To me, loyalty to one party has never been a decision of fundamental importance,” he said. “According to the circumstances I am in agreement or disagreement with the action of a given movement or a given party.” He added, “Perhaps such an attitude is contrary to the morality (or immorality) of political action; it is not contrary to the obligations of the writer.”

The main thing i’ve gained in unfastening myself from the GOP is critical distance and detachment. One can see certain things from outside the silo that one cannot see within it.

When I was a card-carrying member of a political party, I wasn’t automatically blinded to other points of view, or unable to challenge conventional orthodoxy. I did it on issues ranging from climate change, to the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric, to the characterological and temperamental defects of Newt Gingrich; so have many others. Nor did I knowingly put party above country. That’s a common charge made against party loyalists, when in fact most members of a political party believe that the success of their party is tied to the success of their country. They might be wrong, but that’s how many of them see things.

But here’s what I think does happen. People who are part of a tribe—political, philosophical, religious, ethnic—are less willing to call out their own side’s offenses. That’s human nature. To be sure, some are more willing to show independence of judgment than others, but none shows complete intellectual independence. I certainly didn’t.

Some of this has to do with feelings of solidarity, of not wanting to alienate those whose affirmation and support are important to us. Some of it has to do with the fact that our brains filter information differently, depending on whether it confirms or challenges our preexisting political commitments and affiliations. When we’re part of a team, we have a natural tendency to let our sympathies shape our views and opinions of others. As a result, we perceive the world differently, often more narrowly and sometimes incorrectly.

And some of it has to do with being willing to overlook certain things, consciously or subconsciously, that should trouble us, because we give the benefit of the doubt to those in our tribe. They’re advocates for most of the causes that we share, after all, and that we believe to be right and just. (The flip side is that we are often unforgiving and not inclined to give those in the other tribe any benefit of the doubt.)

Here’s a concrete example of how I see things differently today than in the past. In 1988, the then–presidential candidate George H. W. Bush focused on a furlough program supported by his opponent, Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts. The Bush campaign ran ads (“Revolving Door”) on the furlough program—and then a political action committee ran an ad (“Weekend Passes”) that featured a menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, an African American man who had been released as part of a weekend furlough, from which he failed to return. He was later convicted of a brutal rape and assault.

At the time the ads ran, and for years after, I thought that they were fair criticisms of Michael Dukakis for his furlough policy. Liberals took them as self-evidently racist; I thought that charge was toxic and partisan.

Willie Horton was a real person who committed awful crimes; to say that this couldn’t be pointed out in an ad because of his race struck me as wrong. In addition, it was Al Gore who first raised the furlough program (if not Horton directly) in the 1988 Democratic primary. Further, I didn’t know any Republicans whom I considered remotely racist; the idea that this ad was a Republican “dog whistle” was one I considered misguided. I didn’t for a moment think that appealing to overt or subliminal racist sentiments would garner anything other than a few votes on the malicious fringe of American politics—and believed that any such gains would come at the expense of the majority of Republicans, who would be repelled by that kind of appeal. If Horton had been white and committed the same crime because of the same furlough program, I believed, an ad with a white Horton would have been made. The point was the criminal who committed the crime, not the race of the criminal who committed the crime.

Similarly, I assumed that the claim that the Republican Party’s effort to win the South’s support in the late 1960s was part of a “southern strategy” relying on a coded racial appeal was unjust. Enforcing law and order is certainly a legitimate issue for politicians to run on, and a basic function of government.

Today I see the Republican Party through the clarifying prism of Donald Trump, who consistently appealed to the ugliest instincts and attitudes of the GOP base—in 2011, when he entered the political stage by promoting a racist conspiracy theory, and in 2016, when he won the GOP nomination. He’s done the same time and time again during his presidency—his attacks on the intelligence of black politicians, black journalists, and black athletes; his response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; and his closing argument during the midterm elections, when he retweeted a racist ad that even Fox News would not run.

It would be deeply unfair to claim that most Republicans are bigots. But it is fair to say that most Republicans today are willing to tolerate without dissent, and in many cases enthusiastically support, a man whose appeal is based in large part on stoking racial and ethnic resentments, on attacking “the other.” That has to be taken into account. At a minimum, their moral reflexes have been badly dulled.

It’s impossible for me to know with any precision how much of the Republican base is motivated by ethnic nationalism and racial resentments and anxieties, but it’s certainly a higher percentage than I’d thought. A conservative friend of mine recently had a meal with a prominent Republican officeholder who, when asked what explained Trump’s growing appeal in his state, told my friend it was in reaction to Obama and it was mainly a matter of race.

So the rise of Trump has led me to reexamine these earlier episodes in the party’s history. I’m not insisting that my most recent interpretation is the only reasonable one, in part because discerning the motivations of others is difficult. (My own motivations are complicated enough to understand, let alone those of people I don’t know.) All I can say is, I’m much more open to the case that the political operatives who produced the Willie Horton ad intended at least in part to appeal to racist attitudes, and that it fit into a two-decade-old strategy. (Lee Atwater, the legendary Republican political strategist who was Bush’s campaign manager, admitted in a 1981 interview—the full interview was published in 2012—that the GOP’s southern strategy used coded language such as forced busing and states’ rights to make racist appeals. And as he was dying of brain cancer in 1991, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of a remark he made about Dukakis in the campaign and for his comments about making Horton Dukakis’s running mate.)

Here’s what I hope: Detaching myself from my longtime political party means that I find myself more willing than I was to hear the views of people I once tended to tune out, to listen to those I once thought didn’t have much to teach me, and that I now put a greater premium on epistemological modesty than I once did. Aware of having been wrong in the past, I’m more open to being wrong today, and I trust that I’m more open to correction. “There are truths to be discovered,” in the words of the political scientist Harry Clor, “but truths complex and many-sided.”

I might have shed one particular set of blinders, but I’m hardly free of others. I have certain predilections and life experiences that affect my angle of vision. But I do think I can see better than before how easy it was to turn those with whom I had political differences in the past into caricatures and cartoonish figures. As a very tough, vocal Trump critic, my challenge today is to resist the temptation to turn Trump’s supporters into caricatures, making sweeping, uncalibrated assessments of tens of millions of Americans that are unfair to them.

That goes for liberals as well. Trump supporters may be mistaken, but it doesn’t make them malevolent. And if liberals find it satisfying to hear a conservative question his own past certainties, they should think about whether they have some certainties of their own to question—whether conservatives who perceive religious bigotry in what some Democrats say and do might have a point, for instance, or whether Trump voters who think political and cultural elites look down on them with contempt might have one, too.

More than ever before, I appreciate the approach of the 20th-century Scottish novelist and politician John Buchan, who in his autobiography, Pilgrim’s Way, wrote, “While I believed in party government and in party loyalty, I never attained to the happy partisan zeal of many of my friends, being painfully aware of my own and my party’s defects, and uneasily conscious of the merits of my opponent.”

But there are losses as well in finding oneself politically homeless. The most obvious for someone who has spent his life in politics is being alienated from a community that was once important to me. There’s something vivifying about being part of a team, a tribe, in which the bonds are based on a commitment to a common cause, a shared purpose. If you’re no longer institutionally a part of that, you miss it.

But there’s more to it than just that. Political coalitions serve useful purposes in politics, including being the means by which we translate philosophical commitments into policy, legislation, and law. Martin Luther King Jr. was the moral force behind the civil-rights movement, but it took Lyndon Johnson (and in that case, a bipartisan coalition fighting bipartisan opposition) to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So parties matter, and partisan loyalists can do good if the cause they are loyal to is just.

I certainly don’t have problems with those who decide to stay in a party in order to improve it. There is even something admirable about doing so. If the GOP were to embrace a humane, aspirational conservatism—one that seeks to defend truth rather than to deconstruct it—I would certainly be open to returning to the fold. But whether I ever do or not, what troubles me in the here and now are those who, having decided to stay in the Republican Party, are allowing that affiliation to seriously impair their moral judgments and intellectual standards; to lead them to enable those in power to do grave damage to our civic and political culture; and to encourage them to protect a Republican president for acting in ways that they would condemn in any Democratic president.

The Republican Party, like all parties, has its flaws. While I was within it, those flaws were harder to perceive or acknowledge; from the outside, I see them more clearly. I’ve lost something, though, by my present alienation from the party. If I’m one day able to return, I hope that I’ll bring the compensating gifts of greater insight and critical distance back with me. And if I don’t, I like to think that the things I’ve gained still outweigh the things I’ve lost.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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