As the Republican Party continues to spin in a seeming death spiral, some say that the party should take lessons from how the British Tories breathed new life into their at the time moribund political party. A piece in Politico, in fact makes this argument. The problem, as I see it is that the Tories did not have the now systemic problem that confronts the GOP: a solid core base of Christofascists and white supremacists who have no desire to adopt more humane and logical policies. With this element of the GOP base, hate, fear and an embrace of backward ignorance are the guiding lights and nothing is likely to change that. Until these elements are driven from the GOP, expect little change, in my view. Here are article highlights:
Scorched earth tactics. Pandering to people’s worst fears. Ugly and alienating rhetoric. Extreme positions that offend vast swaths of the electorate. Yes folks, this has been the apparent political strategy of the GOP over the past eight years. Donald Trump? If the Republicans are in crisis, he’s not the cause. He’s the symptom.
The dawning of that reality is perhaps why so many obituaries are now being written for the Republican Party—some with relish, others with sorrow—and why the GOP establishment is desperately looking for a white knight such as House Speaker Paul Ryan to save the day at the convention in Cleveland in July.
I say this based on my own experience as former senior adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, where I helped turn around a “missing, presumed dead” right-of-center party and implement a reforming conservative agenda in government.
I’m more than aware that there is no automatic read-across from British to American politics. But having moved to California, taught at Stanford, and co-founded Crowdpac (a tech startup focusing on U.S. politics), I can now view with a bit more detachment how the British experience might help the GOP in 2016.
Here is the most basic lesson: The Republican Party’s problems cannot be fixed by better “messaging” or organization. It goes much deeper than that. This was the mistake the British Conservatives made for many years, believing that things like better “outreach” or a stronger online presence would turn things around. No, it’s all about what you fundamentally think, your ideology, and whether it meets the needs of real people. The gap between Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for example, is nothing compared with the much larger gap between the GOP and modern, mainstream America. The Republican Party cannot close that gap unless it makes itself more human, more in touch. And to do that it needs to change its policy prescriptions in a profound way.
In 2005, after Tony Blair of the Labor Party won his third general election in a row, a postmortem for the Conservatives revealed that the top reasons for not voting Tory were a perception that the party was “for the rich,” and that it was “old-fashioned.” By old-fashioned, the British voters meant that Conservative politicians were out of touch with—and indeed seemed to disapprove of—modern life as it is lived: hostile toward working women, ethnic minorities, gay people and young people.
On top of all that, political commentators described the Conservatives as “the stupid party” for relying on simplistic, shop-worn ideological bromides, and “the economics party” for prioritizing tax cuts, deregulation and fiscal calculation over all else.
Ring any bells?
For many years, Republican leaders have allowed—no, encouraged—conservatism to be seen as an inhuman, cruel ideology, dogmatically obsessed with a small number of issues, driven by a destructive mania to oppose at all costs, lacking any interest in understanding (let alone responding constructively to) the real life problems of most people in America.
Well yes. But have you ever considered the possibility that it’s the policies that might be the problem, and not the presentation of them? Now before anyone starts screaming “Judas” at me, I just want to make clear that I’m talking about policy, not philosophy. For a great political party, philosophy should be unchanging. But for a great political party to survive, its philosophy should be applied anew, with fresh policy, to changing circumstances. This the GOP has signally failed to do.
A more human conservatism would simply not tolerate the oligarchic economy that America has become. It would mount an all-out assault on the centralization of power that is allowing giant special interests to fleece taxpayers, rip off consumers, exploit workers and damage society. It would force real, market-based competition into every sector: not just the banks but the airlines, the insurance companies, the telecom providers, the agriculture and food industry, the education system, yes even the political system by moving from corrupt funding to crowdfunding.
And there were symbolic changes too: a young, informal leader who rode his bike to the House of Commons; a visible demonstration of community commitment through public volunteerism by Conservative candidates and activists around the country—and yes, the inevitable new party logo, a tree in place of the previous torch. But this was no greenwashing—the party dropped its climate change skepticism and urged the electorate to “Vote Blue, Go Green.” (Blue is the color of the Conservative Party in the UK).
How might some of the British Conservative experience work on this side of the Atlantic with the GOP? Plainly, the party would need to surrender some of its more unreasonable dogmas, like blanket resistance to any action on climate change. And it would need to experiment. Among Silicon Valley folks, there is an idea that infuses everything we do: prototyping. The idea is to take a concept—a hypothesis—and throw it out there quickly in its roughest manifestation to see how people react. Even if it’s completely wrong, it’s only through testing it with real people that you can validate not just your solution but whether your conception of the problem is even right to begin with.
A more human conservatism would go beyond the stunted, limited debates on education and health care in this country, beyond “scrap Common Core” and “repeal Obamacare” and understand that the very systems we have set up to run these personal, intimate things—teaching our children and looking after us when we’re sick—have become too big and are out of date. Factory schools churn out children equipped for the previous century not this one . . .
Here, we need to learn both from what we instinctively know and what modern science now teaches us through advances in fields like neuroscience, social psychology and behavioral economics. If we want to address the causes of poverty, and not just its symptoms, the single most important factor is the family, because children’s life chances are determined before they even get to school.
To be fair, Hillary Clinton seems to understand this priority and it’s reflected in her policy program. Don’t worry, this is not the start of a “Republicans for Clinton” argument. I’m just saying that a grown-up, attractive, electable party ought to be able to acknowledge when opponents get things right.
In the end, the successful modernization of the GOP will not be accomplished by committees or reports or another postmortem—or premortem—from the RNC. The lesson from Britain is that you can have all the ideas in the world, all the policy documents and think-tank studies and articles like this one. But lasting change happens only when a bold leader sets out a big vision.