I contend much of today’s political turmoil can be traced back to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The Occupy Wall Street movement sprung up on the left, and the Tea Party movement on the right. While there are many differences between the two movements, both expressed dissatisfaction with the state of our economic system, which seemed rigged against the average person. The political response to the Great Recession did nothing to blunt the momentum of these two movements.
These groups turned their anger into political action. The Occupy Movement pulled the Democratic Party leftward, while many candidates elected at the height of the Tea Party era still have tremendous influence within the GOP. Fast forward to the 2016 Presidential election and Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist and favorite of the Occupy crowd, nearly won the Democratic nomination. On the GOP side, Donald Trump blasted his way to the nomination and the Presidency, smashing former Tea Party favorites Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio along the way.
All of this means a return to the genteel pre-Trump days seems unlikely. The forces that led to his election in 2016, and propelled Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Democratic stardom, are not going away any time soon.
Conservative scholar Russell Kirk said conservatism has no rigid dogma and accepts a wide variety of opinion. This thinking can serve the conservative movement well during this tumultuous time. Conservatives must craft modern solutions to address modern problems, while remaining true to time-tested conservative principles.
From 2011 to 2019 I served in the Georgia House of Representatives. I was elected during the height of the Tea Party movement, and witnessed the rise of Donald Trump firsthand. In 2018, I was a Republican candidate for Secretary of State. Seeing what winner Brad Raffensperger endured in 2020, I can say I’ve never been so glad to lose a race in my life.
Despite losing, the 2018 primary race afforded me the opportunity to talk to Republican voters across the state of Georgia. I learned many things about my state and its Republican voters. My suburban state House district was changing rapidly from a GOP stronghold, to a swing district, and now a solid Democratic seat. Meanwhile rural Georgia moved more and more into the pro-Trump column. Many of the rural folks I spoke with felt scorned by America’s cultural and academic elites. They felt mocked by them and shut out of educational and economic opportunities other Americans have access to.
Meanwhile, back in my increasingly diverse suburban House seat, I spoke with racial minorities who felt rejected by America’s business and institutional elites. They felt shut out of economic and educational opportunities available to other Americans, based on institutional racism and other factors.
The events of 2020 only intensified feelings of resentment and disconnect within these groups. People with the ability to work from home call for endless pandemic lock-downs, but have no problem seeing other people risk their health to work in grocery stores or deliver them goods purchased online. Tragic (and sometimes illegal) deaths at the hands of police have intensified feelings of anger and mistreatment among racial minorities. Parents of all races worry their children are falling behind as schools remains closed, and teacher’s unions continue moving the goalposts for reopening. Many feel strongly that key American institutions have let them down. In addition, while some government officials have performed better than others, a general failure to deal effectively with the covid19 pandemic has undermined already shaky trust in government.
While the present is gloomy, there is a tremendous opportunity for conservatives and the Republican Party. Conservatives going back to Edmund Burke have believed the nation’s elites have a responsibility to be a guard against tyranny. If the GOP is to remain the home of conservatism, it’s leaders must not amplify the anger of its base, but protect the country from the type of unchecked mob rage we saw on January 6th, 2020. Republican leaders must view their jobs and more than building their own personal brand, and instead unite people behind principled responses to the problems our communities face.
What I see is an opportunity for common cause among rural Trump supporters and urban minorities because they are both being mistreated by elites (for lack of a better word). We can apply conservative ideas to solving the problems both groups face because their plight is not as far apart as some might think, and because members of both groups want what we all want: access to opportunity and the promise of America.
Many institutions of American life are blocking people from educational, business, cultural, and economic opportunities – whether it’s rural Americans because of their perceived backward ways, or racial minorities because of prejudice or racism. Republicans must fight to reform these institutions on behalf of all Americans, whether they vote Republican or not.
What would this look like? As a conservative, I believe many of the policies we have fought for over the years continue to be relevant today. However, we should work to insure all Americans see the value of conservative solutions. This would include advocating for a law enforcement and criminal justice system all Americans can trust. Defunding the police is a terrible idea that would have devastating impact on minority communities, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to reform the way we enforce our laws.
Occupational licensing reform and school choice have long been championed by the Right. But there are elements within our coalition that oppose these policies. We must work to convince those skeptical of the value of these programs that these reforms will increase opportunity and economic mobility, especially for those most in need.
Many other policy ideas could assist in creating an opportunity and human flourishing agenda. My purpose here is not to advance an exhaustive list, but to spark discussion and thought.
All Americans, no matter where they live, the station to which they are born, the color of their skin or national origin, deserve access to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “a promissory note” to all Americans. The path forward for the Republican Party is to fully embrace that notion, and fight to see the promissory note paid in full.