The Plight of Moderates in the Republican Party

Editor’s Note: This article was written for the Princeton Tory Freshman Contest in November.

Never in the history of contemporary American politics has a group been as loved and loathed simultaneously as the moderate at this present time. When candidates run for office, they fight for moderates’ votes in the general election. On the other hand, when moderates run for office they are often criticized for holding views that are not far enough to a particular side of the political spectrum. This phenomenon is most pronounced within the conservative Republican Party.

As a self-described moderate, I do not fit neatly into either of the major political parties. I regularly agree with pragmatic moderate Republicans and occasionally centrists Democrats, but I strongly disagree with the socialism of Senator Bernie Sander’s liberal left. The reason I do not join the Republican Party is that many of my Republican colleagues lambast me for “not being conservative enough.” Usually, I welcome constructive criticism of my political philosophy when it analyzes flaws or exposes me to a perspective different from my own. However, I do not welcome criticism when it denounces me for not following party orthodoxy. Such an idea, of strictly adhering to an ideological doctrine, in my opinion, fits more appropriately in authoritarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union rather than the party of conservatism that champions free speech and difference of opinion.

My centrism is a product of my hometown. I grew up in central Delaware along the divide between northern and southern culture. If I drive 15 minutes northward, I arrive in liberal Yankee country. If I drive 15 minutes southward, I find myself amongst conservative southern-minded farmers. As a result of this environment, where I am constantly exposed to both ideologies, I became a moderate.

Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the perceived “Establishment” make me feel as though my own moderate ideology is under siege. Some of these “Establishment” politicians that he attacks are merely centrists who have successfully led the Party of Lincoln for decades. The Republican Party has been undergoing a Crucible-style witch-hunt to convert or quell moderates for the past two decades, which, in turn, has shifted its platform further to the right. It is unfortunate that this purge is occurring because it has alienated many moderates who would normally vote Republican. Our country needs the basic conservative principles of a limited federal government, fiscal responsibility, and the protection of constitutional rights now more than ever. Conservatives must embrace moderates within the Republican Party both as voters and candidates for their beliefs to prevail. History has shown that the GOP was strongest and helped the American people most when it was ideologically diverse and welcomed moderates.

Conservatism has been integral to the country’s development. When discussing ideologies from a historical perspective, it is important to define my frame of reference to place certain political beliefs on a spectrum relative to each other much like a physicist defines a frame of reference to determine the relative motion of particles. For example, from a worldwide perspective, the American revolutionaries were liberals who rebelled against the old European aristocracy. From an American perspective, these revolutionaries were conservatives who wanted to preserve the autonomy that Great Britain had granted them and then subsequently infringed upon. For this article, I discuss conservatism from a purely American frame of reference.

Throughout the country’s history, conservatism has added and abandoned certain beliefs. In the Gilded Age, conservative leaders advocated for high tariffs to protect growing industries. A century later, conservatives promoted globalization and free trade. However, there are two tenets of conservatism that have remained constant. They are the beliefs in a limited government and that change should occur slowly over time instead of in radical spurts. This second tenant is known as Toryism or Traditional Conservatism. For the first third of the country’s history, conservatives were usually split between two political parties. The creation of the Republican Party in 1854 gave a singular voice to both moderates and conservatives.

A cursory survey of American history may characterize Civil War era Republicans as a group of liberal abolitionists, but a closer analysis will show that they were centrists and conservatives who led the country through its most divisive period. Founded upon the principle of abolition, the Republican Party wanted to halt the expansion of slavery. This strategy would lead to its eventual extinguishment as the Founding Fathers had envisioned. They did not want to immediately outlaw slavery, thereby demonstrating their desire for slow change back to the country’s original intended path in the spirit of Traditional Conservatism. Near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln proposed a moderate plan to reintegrate the south. After his assassination, a radical wing of the Republican Party, called the Radical Republicans, gained control and attacked their moderate colleagues. They scrapped Lincoln’s plan and created a harsher agenda for the Confederate States. Their ascension to power damaged relations between the north and the south for several decades. By marginalizing centrists in the Republican Party, the Radical Republicans hurt their own party by eliminating the moderating voices that would have slowed the rate at which they wanted to change the south, a rate that southerners probably would have tolerated. Moderates were attempting to maintain the spirit of Traditional Conservatism by advocating for slow change. Today’s “pure” conservatives should take note of their party’s history. Although their intentions may be well placed in trying to preserve American traditions, their methods for doing so, like those of the Radical Republicans, are too dramatic for the general populace. This is where moderates are needed in the Republican Party: to ensure that these changes occur gradually at an acceptable pace for the American people.

Contemporary Republicans nostalgically glamorize the country under Ronald Reagan but often fail to recognize the diversity of political thought within their own party at that time or the integral role that moderates played. After the tumultuous 1960s, Americans were disillusioned with liberalism. Their taxes were incredibly high and civil unrest was rampant. Richard Nixon called upon the “silent majority” to elect him in 1969. Eleven years later, Reagan moved into the White House with his newly created support group that was united under the banner of conservatism. Historians refer to it as the “Reagan Coalition.” At that time, there was no singular set of beliefs that defined a conservative; it was used generally as a word for those who opposed the Democrats’ liberalism. As the word “coalition” suggests, Reagan’s supporters were a mix of factions that had conservative elements. The Reagan Coalition included: the Religious Right who wanted a return to family values, Paleoconservatives who opposed internationalism and also desired a return to traditional values, Libertarians who feared big government, and Rockefeller Republicans who were socially moderate yet fiscally conservative. While each faction shared at least one common belief with the socially and fiscally conservative internationalist President Reagan, they did not necessarily agree amongst themselves. Despite their differences, the Republican Party and conservatism flourished. The moderate Rockefeller Republicans were perhaps the most important faction to Reagan’s political success. When Reagan was first elected to office, the Democrats controlled the Senate and House of Representatives, maintaining their majority in the latter throughout his presidency. Reagan often relied on his party’s leaders in Congress, both of whom were moderates, to get legislation passed. Senator Howard Baker was the Republicans’ leader in the Senate and became known as the “Great Conciliator” for his ability to broker compromises. Even though he was much more moderate than his fellow conservatives, Republicans greatly respected him. This respect led Reagan to appoint him as his chief of staff.

Moderates lost their prominent role in Republican politics after Reagan left office. The term RINO, Republican In Name Only, emerged in the 1990s when firebrand Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of the House and used it to label any moderate who even slightly deviated from Reagan’s “perceived” conservative orthodoxy. In the following decades, conservative Republicans increased their efforts to remove moderates from their party. They successfully homogenized their party’s beliefs, but it has caused the Republicans to lose a significant amount of influence in certain parts of the country. One of the best examples of this is in my home state.

Delaware was once a bastion of moderate conservatism, but the Republican Party’s shift to the right has caused Delawareans to favor liberalism instead. Centrist Republican titans by the likes of Governor Pierre du Pont IV ’56, U.S. Senator William Roth Jr., and U.S. Representative Michael Castle dominated the state’s political landscape during the late twentieth century. Castle, though, was a victim of this moderate purge, and it was to the Republican Party’s own detriment in Delaware as well as the Senate. In 2009, Joseph Biden vacated his senate seat to become the Vice President. Consequently, this led to a special election in 2010. The Republican primary featured a race between experienced Michael Castle of the “Establishment” and ideological extremist Christine O’Donnell. The far right of the Republican Party regarded Castle as an unacceptable moderate who championed environmental protection and voted to reinstate the assault weapons ban of 1994. At the same time, he was a fiscal conservative who fought against corruption and wasteful government spending. Certain groups, such as RemoveRINOs, worked diligently to replace Castle with a “true” Republican who would be strongly conservative both socially and fiscally. Christine O’Donnell was relatively new to the political arena but had the support of the Tea Party. O’Donnell won the primary solely because she was the more conservative candidate. She then lost to her liberal Democratic rival, who originally had thought he would be a “sacrificial lamb” running against Castle, by nearly 17% of the votes. If Castle had won the primary, as most Delawareans had believed, it was predicted that he would have won the general election by a whopping 21% margin. RemoveRINOs received their wish, but it caused the Republican Party to lose its foothold in Delaware’s politics and disaffected moderates from conservatism as a result. This election garnered national attention by signaling the incremental death of the moderate Republican wing at the hands of more conservative Republican factions. Since 2009 only two Republicans, incumbent (since 1989) Thomas Wagner and newly elected (2014) moderate Kenneth Simpler ’89, have held a statewide office.

The 2016 presidential election is a fight for the nation’s ideological future. Sander’s socialist rhetoric and Trump’s populist bombast have turned moderates away from both parties. A Pew Research poll in 2014 found that 37% of Americans identify as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 24% as liberal. Though conservatives are the largest group, elections are rarely won by pluralities. The ongoing purge within the Republican Party has pushed moderates away from conservatism and into the more liberal Democratic Party. Rather than view moderates as enemies, Republicans should welcome them as allies. A recent Third Way poll found that 52% of moderates fear big government, a conservative sentiment. Throughout American history from Lincoln to Reagan, moderates have helped the Republicans advance conservative principles. This recent trend to marginalize moderates feels like a stab in the back to them.

When candidates label themselves as the “most conservative,” voters should perceive this only as a description of their policy proposals and not necessarily as a badge of honor. Instead, they should judge candidates by their prior political experience, voting record, constituent services, and moral character. The goal of democracy is to have one’s voice represented in government. I believe that a candidate’s electability should also be a major factor. In my humble opinion, it is within a conservative’s best interest to select a moderate Republican who can win the general election rather than pick an unpopular staunch conservative who will most likely lose to their liberal opponent.

I will remain an independent for the near future. If conservatives continue their rightward march and refuse to embrace moderates like myself into the Republican Party, then Republicans’ influence amongst the general populace could wane until they no longer represent the silent majority that they swore to represent.

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