Five Republican mistakes that Labour should learn from

The disaster facing the Republicans shows what happens when a major political party becomes dysfunctional. Donald Trump’s eccentric campaign – to say the least – is in danger of falling off a cliff. His numerous gaffes and insults now see him tanking in the polls below Hilary Clinton.

None of what is happening would surprise Geoffrey Kabaservice. Kabaservice predicted that the Republicans would choose a maverick utterly unqualified to be their nominee in the excellent Rule and Ruin, which meticulously charts the rise and fall of moderate Republicanism after 1960. He examines now-forgotten organisations such as the Ripon Society, and nearly men such as George Romney (father of Mitt), William Scranton or Nelson Rockefeller. It is also an eloquent call for a return to “progressive” Republicanism: to values such as civil liberties, free trade and bipartisanship, which have little place in modern Republican circles.

Rule and Ruin is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the Republicans have got themselves into the mess they’re in today. It also has lessons Labour must learn to ensure that we stay relevant and successful.

1) Do not focus on ideological purity

Kabaservice argues that grassroots activists and primary challenges have forced the Republicans further and further right over the last four decades. A familiar pattern repeats itself. First, a group of conservative activists claims they are more ideologically “pure” and take over the party. Then they get into government, realise they have to compromise, and become more pragmatic. This then provokes a further grassroots rebellion from even more extreme activists who claim they are the “real” Republicans. First there was the Goldwater takeover of 1964. After that, it happens again with the Reagan Revolution, then with Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy in 1994. Finally, there is a further populist grassroots wave with the Tea Party revolt soon after the inauguration of President Obama.

The effect of these primary challenges was to remove capable Republicans and elect a Democrat instead. A recent example Kabaservice mentions in the challenge to Mike Castle by a Tea Party challenger, Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell easily lost the Governor Race in Delaware, but chances are Castle would have won if he had been the Republican candidate. Mike Castle was a moderate Republican who would often work with Democrats on some issues, something beyond the pale for Republican activists nowadays. There is a definite parallel with the deselection fights which Labour saw in the 1980s, and is a further underlining that talk of deselecting Labour MPs for supposed disloyalty and lack of ideological purity would be silly and counterproductive.

2) Have a broad church

The most successful Republican politicians from the period Kabaservice is writing about were Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He attributes this to the fact that they were open to both wings of the party. Reagan’s “11th Commandment” was “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”. Nixon was popular amongst Republicans because he was happy to campaign for any Republican on either wing of the party.

Reagan’s eleventh commandment should be followed by every Labour member. There has been much abuse on both sides of the leadership election, but Labour members and politicians must remember that to succeed we need to be tolerant of different views in the party and offer constructive criticism without abusing each other on social media, or booing candidates at leadership hustings.

3) Stay a national party

The height of moderate Republicanism was the late 1960s, at the start of Nixon’s presidency. Kabaservice paints Nixon as a man straddling the moderate and conservative wings of the Republicans. Nixon passed environmental legislation such as the foundation of EPA and staffed his administration with many moderates.

This moderation starts to fall apart in the early 1970s. We see Nixon showing the more conservative side of his nature in response to Vietnam War protests by curbing civil liberties, anathema to moderate Republicans. In the early 1970s the Republicans start to pursue a “Southern Strategy”, and adopt a more conservative position to gain the votes of those in the South at the expense of more “progressive” and ethnic minority votes in other parts of the country.

Kabaservice writes that if the Republicans suffer a wipeout as a result of picking a dysfunctional leader the effect on them would be much worse then in the Goldwater defeat of 1964. This is because the Republicans have concentrated so narrowly on their key electoral strongholds that they do not have a functioning party infrastructure in much of the country. Therefore, Labour should also be wary of concentrating their campaign on their current strongholds, which are big metropolitan cities and university towns, and ignoring the rest of the country.

4) The importance of organising

One reason Kabaservice says that the moderate Republicans suffered was because they were, by temperament, “moderate” and did not have the passion of the conservative zealots. Control of party machinery and voting in primary elections was much more important than was realised at the time. Often moderates failed because they could not agree on a unified candidate or lacked the control of the party infrastructure. It’s a further reminder that all Labour members, if they want their party to reflect their politics, need to organise and campaign in groups that share their view and vote in NEC elections and primary elections.

5) Be open-minded about ideas and policies

A member of the Ripon society said in a debate with William F Buckley Jr (parts of which can be found here) that moderate Republicanism was not about becoming a Democrat. Instead, it was about the Republicans doing well in the places where the Democratic Party was strong. It was about trying to solve the conflicts of the 1960s, such as civil rights, by applying Republican values to them.

The Ripon member goes on to say that an idea is not “Republican” or “Democrat”; it is just an idea until it is given context by politicians. A good example for this is a universal basic income. This is something proposed by moderate Republicans during the Nixon administration, except they called it a negative income tax. Labour are now considering that policy, so it goes from Nixon to John McDonnell in forty years.

Labour should take heed of the message of the Ripon society. Do not just shout down ideas as “Tory ideas”, for instance. Instead we should be trying to solve the problems of the 2010s, such as the impact of immigration, precarious low-paid jobs, and climate change, but by using Labour values.

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Cory Hazlehurst is a Labour member living in Birmingham and is one half of Not Enough Champagne, a podcast about people, politics and pragmatism. He tweets at @paperbackrioter.  

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