The Republican Party is experiencing a significant identity crisis. Much of this has been encouraged as a result of the past four years of political choices made by the party’s most prominent leaders. In my last piece entitled, “To The GOP, How On Earth Did We Get Here?” I attempted to touch on the three main reasons as to why this is occurring and how it’s affected the conservative identity of the party. After publishing those thoughts, I experienced some pushback and even complaints about how not enough information was shared about what conservatism should be or what it should look like. I stand by what I wrote and believe that the first step in determining who we are is to first realize who we are not (or in this case who we should not be or what we should not stand for). As put so eloquently by actor Matthew McConaughey, “...the first step that leads to [finding] our identity…is usually not, I know who I am… The first step is usually, I know who I am NOT. Process of elimination. Defining ourselves by what we are not is the first step that leads us to really knowing who we are.” Having now identified who we, The Republican Party, are not or should not be, I believe it is imperative for the survival of our party, and ultimately the success of our democracy, to return to and more fully embrace the following six principles.
1. Belief In God or a Higher Being Serves As a Key Principle of Conservatism
Perhaps the most common, yet simple belief among conservatives across the United States is their belief in deity. Although the means by which many religious Republicans worship and revere a higher being is different, it is through this common faith that conservatives base their standards of how a people should be governed. Conservatives believe it is important to embrace and acknowledge that all the rights we enjoy in this life stem NOT from government but from God. These rights are considered to be broad and far reaching yet they could be summed up in this short phrase written by Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness...”
This statement, written by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, has served as a template for the basis on which the Republican Party has built its message. Which is, that government’s role is to “protect [these] freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice.” Therefore, whenever a conflict presents itself in the form of healthcare, education, abortion, or family values, the question that conservatives ask themselves is not what government can do to solve our problems but rather what government should do. If there is a way to pursue other means (i.e. the free market or nonprofit work) to achieve greater peace, economic success, improving communities, etc., it should be done by other means than expanding bureaucracy. The overall emphasis is this: the greater and larger our federal government is, the more likely our American society is to view our political leaders and institutions as the source of all rights and overarching guidance. This isn’t to say that strong federal governments can’t experience success; they certainly can. But, the success of our federal government and nation is tied to the presence Christianity and other devout religions across the United States. As Toqueville once said, Christianity (and, to some extent, other religions), is “necessary for the preservation of free government” because it ties Americans to a religious moral code independent of political elections and personal hubris.
2. Advocate For & Promote Smaller Government
Finding ways to keep government at a minimum while capable of handling our nation’s critical needs has always been a delicate balancing act. Furthermore, because of how fast communities, such as Boise, Idaho, Fort Myers, Florida, and Austin, Texas are growing, it won’t get any easier. Not to mention, balancing other critical societal needs, such as maintaining an adequate national defense to deter the aggressive actions of Russia and China, handling the COVID-19 pandemic, and providing adequate political representation, are all critical issues that demand a competent level of governance. However, as seen in even the most successful businesses across the United States and the globe, the bigger a company gets the harder it is to make necessary, critical changes and the more cumbersome and slow policy undertaking becomes.
For example, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has given me personal insight into why seeking answers outside the means of the federal government can be far more helpful and productive to resolving society’s pressing issues than creating additional regulations or growing expanding federal government. Over the past year, I have been working for a nonprofit called Crush The Curve Idaho. Our group’s whole purpose has been to alleviate the stress of local medical groups across the state, increase Idaho’s COVID-19 testing capacity and assist with vaccinating as many Idahoans as possible. It is almost indescribable to summarize just how critical a role our group has played. So far, we have helped over 100,000 people get COVID-19 tests exclusively through Crush The Curve and helped hundreds of thousands more find where they can get a COVID-19 test or vaccine in their local communities. And most recently, we’ve helped close to 4,000 people receive their vaccine with that number growing each week.
The experiences I’ve had and the personal role I’ve played in helping people get the critical help they need have been incredible. At the same time, it’s been perplexing wondering why the response of the state of Idaho has been so slow? Why did it feel like leadership was lacking and that decision making at the state level with allocating federal funding, encouraging mask mandates, and the handling of multiple spikes in COVID-19 cases was so poor? This was in part because political leaders were paralyzed by fear and the potential of over- and/or under-reacting to data they received regarding the coronavirus. Not to mention, political alliances certainly factored into the situation as medical groups sought to be the solution to testing and vaccination distribution in order to assert dominance in the medical market. Overall, I believe U.S. citizens were expecting a bureaucratic solution, but their expectations in government were misplaced. The best way to overcome the COVID-19 crisis in the state of Idaho (and the United States) was through entrepreneurial ingenuity.
While reflecting on the differences between the rapid response of Crush The Curve vs. the passive response of the state of Idaho, a coworker of mine shared an eye-opening analogy with me. He explained that both our nonprofit and the state are like boats. Crush The Curve is a speed boat that has had the ability to navigate through the waters of democracy and society at a much quicker and a much more efficient rate because we didn’t have too many decision makers. We also weren’t held back by regulations or political alliances which were inhibiting the COVID-19 efforts of the state. As a result, we were able to respond to the needs of Idahoans much more quickly as we were able to set up massive COVID-19 testing clinics in just a matter of days and create effective messaging campaigns and information resources such as Vaccinate the 208 in just a few weeks! Albeit, there were some growing pains as we sometimes didn’t have the necessary resources or the best informational background to accomplish our goals.
The state government, on the other hand, is a much larger ship (and to some degree too large due to excessive bureaucratic thinking), and as a result, they travel at a much slower pace and aren’t able to act quickly. However, the larger ship is able to carry more weight which could be compared to having greater access to funding, medical supplies and leveraging state resources such as the Department of Health & Welfare or the National Guard. The state can also navigate larger, much more arduous waters of our society and democracy of legal and logistical issues because of their access to federal and local resources. Resources which our small nonprofit do not have access to.
This analogy my coworker shared with me helped me realize a few things in regards to conservatism and its view on small government. First, there are absolutely times where it’s imperative to allow state and federal governments the powers they need to protect and promote the economic and personal liberties of Americans. This includes the need for state and federal governments to have the trust of its citizens to activate temporary policies, such as mask mandates, adjusting medical laws and policies to allow pharmacies to help with COVID-19 testing, and granting emergency relief aid to help alleviate the economic impact of COVID-19 mandates. Second, state and federal governments need to have the ability to govern. However, we should be careful to avoid thinking that the government can be the source for all solutions to our most pressing policy questions. Keeping that in mind, we must rely on the free market to be another source of solving issues like COVID-19 testing and vaccination distribution. Third, the response of politicians to issues such as gun violence, pandemics, and stimulus funding tends to be very slow. Creating additional levels of bureaucracy won’t solve that problem. Instead, it’ll make it more complex and timestaking for issues to be resolved. Where possible, conservatives must continue to support advocating for the creation of nonprofits to confront pressing issues and allow businesses and communities the individual freedom to test out potential solutions as future COVID-19-esque hurdles come our way.
3. Seek to preserve the Rule of Law & The Constitution
This is another critical belief of conservatism that many Republicans would agree on practicing and embracing without disagreement. However, the recent 2020 U.S. General Election gave many Republicans pause on how to uphold the Constitution and federal laws. As a result of frustration with the election results, several Republicans (albeit more extremist driven Republicans) participated in peer pressuring election workers by holding massive protests over the 2020 U.S. General Election. During these protests, outraged Republican voters brought personal firearms and gathered around voting stations shouting “Stop The Vote” in states such as Georgia and “Count The Vote” in states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona. Perhaps even more concerning, many level-headed Republicans were sympathetic to these extremist acts which snowballed into a situation where the rule of will came uncomfortably close to toppling the Rule of Law (i.e. the January 6th coup).
Each of us experiences feelings of frustrations when elections don’t go our way. It’s an understandable feeling. As a result, it is easy to become very upset and frustrated with other voters. Some conservatives' frustration stem from the belief that Joe Biden and his administration would alter U.S. laws or historical precedence in ways that would hurt our nation. These concerns are to some extent valid as we’ve seen the continued use of executive orders and talk of packing the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, it is important to remember that The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and previously existing U.S. laws are not set in stone in such a way where there can be no interpretation or room for liberals and conservatives to both feel justified in their policy implementations when studying these documents or laws. Furthermore, when the Founding Fathers established the Constitution and laws of the land, there was no way that they could have found all the answers for our nation’s modern-day problems, such as Civil Rights issues, COVID-19, and technology. As former attorney and prominent member of the U.S. Department J. Reuben Clark explained, the U.S. Constitution was not “a fully grown document… On the contrary, we believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.”
While there must exist a belief that the Constitution and the rules established by the United States are growing, we must not trick ourselves into promoting or advocating violent or discriminative means in order to preserve the U.S. Constitution and federal laws in ways we see fit or believe is just. Such actions only promote the rule of will instead of the rule of law and undermine the foundational values of the Constitution. Choosing the rule of will over the rule of law at moments when we are frustrated with political outcomes only serves to harm our party and our country.
Four Basic Truths Conservatives Believe About the Constitution
As we, Republicans, seek to move past this crisis of faith in America’s election system that has occurred in the past year, it is imperative to remember what former Utah Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks said: “Our loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution… not to any office holder.”. When appropriate, we should peacefully and honorably seek to protest that which we do not agree with such as excessive state overreach on issues such as abortion or excessive COVID-19 restrictions as seen in states such as California. Furthermore, when we think of the Constitution, we must remain focused on four basic principles that all conservatives should be committed to.
First, the source of any and all powers that the government receives comes from the people. As a result, choosing to exercise our democratic rights to protest, recalling elected officials, writing our Congressional leaders, etc. are all very appropriate means by which we can reinforce this principle.
Second, the separation of powers between the federal government and each state is critical to promoting democracy. Each state should be allowed to operate as independent laboratories of democracy when and where possible and within Constitutional guidelines.
Third, believe in and trust in the separation of powers between each branch of the federal government. True conservatives trust the outcomes of the judicial courts of the United States when they are called upon to defend democracy. True conservatives should not seek to abusively increase the power of the Executive Branch (aka the White House) when a leader of our own party is in office in the forms of executive orders or Lyndon B. Johnson-esque peer pressure.
Fourth, support and seek to better understand the Bill of Rights and seek to protect not just your constitutional rights but also the rights of everyone, even those you vehemently disagree with.
4. Fiscal Responsibility
Besides devotion to the Constitution, fiscal responsibility is another cornerstone of conservatism. Setting balanced budgets, saving up enough money for rainy day funds, and proactively finding ways to cut wasteful spending are all critical ideas that conservatives promote. There is perhaps no better example of this than Senator Rand Paul, who is known for being a budget hawk in the U.S. Senate. However, more recently in U.S. history, the Republican Party for the most part has not lived up to its commitment towards fiscal responsibility on a national level. As Danial Drezer a political scientist of Tufts University explained:
It has been a truism in American politics for the past 30 years that: a) when the GOP does not control the executive branch they are very concerned about deficits (see: Contract With America, tea party); and b) that deep distress about deficits magically evaporates once a Republican is elected president (see: Bush 43, Trump).
This is a discouraging thought by Dr. Drezer nonetheless it’s true. For example, between 2017 and 2020 under President Trump, Republicans assisted in raising the U.S. debt by over $7.8 trillion! The federal government must get back on track with its fiscal spending. No more spending more than what we have in our GDP! At some point, our nation is going to have to be held accountable for our porous spending on budgets. Do we really want our kids or grandkids to have to do that? Or worse, do we really want to set that example that we can continue to kick the eternal can of financial responsibility down the road? Conservatives must remain assertive and committed in their belief that we find ways as a federal government to balance our yearly budgets and decrease the overall staggering $28 Trillion U.S. deficit.
5. Term Limits
Perhaps one of the most underrated ideas among conservatives in the Republican Party but it doesn't make it any less important. Issues such as balancing fiscal budgets and draining the Washington DC “swamp'' will be impossible to solve as long as politicians can make a long, lengthy career out of their time in Congress. If we were to ask the average Republican voter if they felt Congressmen such as Senator Mitch McConnell or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi should still be in office for over 30 years, how many would honestly answer yes? Although there are great examples of politicians who have served for extensive periods of time, such as Senator John McCain or Representative Elijah Cummings, there are far too many examples of those who would trade their moral values for cheap, temporary primary and general election wins in order to remain in power.
There is also addressing the potential idea of repealing the 17th amendment and allowing state reps to once again appoint U.S. senators as opposed to setting term limits. Although this is a potentially intriguing solution, Dr. John H. York of the Heritage Foundation does a phenomenal job of breaking down many of the issues with making repealing the 17th amendment a reality (the story is linked to his name). One of the most pressing issues that Dr. York identifies if we were to use a system of state reps appointing U.S. Senators is the fact that state representatives can be far more tribalistic in their thinking and their devotion to their party beliefs. As a result, this can increase hive thinking and reduce the likelihood (which isn’t that high to begin with) that political outsiders are able to find ways to enter office. Furthermore, politicians of both parties tend to reward political devotion through office appointments and although that isn’t always a bad thing, it reduces the likelihood that we’ll have ingenuitive, outside the box thinkers serving in office.
In order to promote opportunities for political outsiders and reduce the hold that interest groups have on politics right now, the most feasible and realistic way we can achieve this is through term limits. As stated up above in the section on the U.S. Constitution, is not a fully grown document. As a result, things such as term limits, in my opinion, still need to be looked at and adjusted. For example, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Congress passed the 22nd amendment saying presidents can only serve for two terms. Overall, I believe that system has benefited us and would only serve to help us even more if term limits were put in place for U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives.
6. Embrace Civility and the Belief that Our Actions Affect the Future
Perhaps this doesn’t seem to be a critical principle to discuss in regards to the Republican Party and conservatism but recent actions indicate otherwise. Recently, there seems to be a disconnect with the idea that our actions we commit today will absolutely affect the future of our nation and the choices available to our posterity. Republicans have accepted short term victories in the forms of giving temporary tax cuts to the middle class that will ultimately increase their taxes substantially and undermining the U.S. election system. In no way should we consider these actions to be an indication of what conservatism means or what it should look like.
As discouraging as these recent examples may be, we can look to the actions of some conservative that have acted honorably and civilly. This includes leaders such as Senators Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Pat Toomey who fell under heavy political scrutiny for the positions they took on the results of the U.S. election. Each of these senators chose to take a stand against injustices committed by President Trump during his final months in office. It’s also critical to acknowledge the efforts of the 10 Republicans in the House of Representative who also participated in this effort. In a time where there has been so much disappointment, it was a sign of hope that the Republican Party can return to its former glory of being greater than polarized politics. Not because these Republicans chose to stand against President Trump, but because they chose to make the statement that their devotion was to constitutional principles and to their country, not to any one man or individual.
The Republican Party is currently in a time of major flux. There are still many more critical issues to dig into that weren’t discussed here in the forms of racial, environmental, and foreign policy issues. It also remains largely unclear who is the current leader of the Republican Party. These won’t be easy answers to solve. Conservative Republicans can only solve and tackle so many issues at one time. For now, reestablishing the conservative vision of what the Republican Party should look like is critical. There is still time to reestablish and reaffirm these beliefs. However, the lack of unity and a common vision for the Republican Party remains a major hurdle for party members and leaders to overcome.
As we struggle with the question of “Who Are We?”, let us find the resolve and courage to more fully embrace these six principles. We must hold to our loyalty to the Constitution and not to any one leader. We must identify those that represent the conservative morals and values that we appreciate. However, that can only happen if we place our values to a high enough place where they cannot be knocked down or desecrated. As conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once said, “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” Let’s not blow this. Let’s not destroy something that is not easily created. The Republican Party can return to its form of the Grand Old Party only if we make the tough choices now to eliminate the terrible choices we’ve made previously and instead embrace a far nobler, wiser party platform moving forward.
About the Author: Lance Sayers lives in Boise, Idaho. He is currently working with a nonprofit called Crush the Curve Idaho as the Director of Community & Corporate Outreach. He received a Bachelors degree from BYU-Idaho in Political Science and has experience working on multiple campaigns. He is also one of two Philadelphia Eagles fans in the state of Idaho and enjoys watching their post season aspirations die before October each year.