Yesterday, I wrote that every political movement must hold core principles that all of its members accept, and that the movement can only be championed by those who adhere to those principles. The Republican Party is defined by certain ideas about liberty, justice, and constitutional government, and to be indifferent to those principles is to betray that conception of justice. The greatest statesmen of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, grasped these truths and acted accordingly.
These assertions, however, suggest a problem of their own. A party or movement must be able to win in order to act upon its principles. A principled movement will naturally tend to repel a portion of the population; all those who disagree will “go their own way.” The problem resolves itself into this: how to secure enough support to win and govern, when large portions of the population are either indifferent or hostile to those principles.
The examples of the Republican Party in the 1850s and today are instructive. In each case, a segment of the party’s leadership called for the party to moderate its more radical positions in order to make itself more palatable to those who are indifferent or hostile. In 1858 this took the form of Eastern Republicans seeking to adopt Stephen Douglas as a Republican leader, in order to bring all those who opposed the slave power under the Republican banner. This union, however, would come at the cost of fidelity to anti-slavery principles, as Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty was one of profound indifference to justice.
In recent years, this natural tendency has again arisen within the Republican Party, as many within the party have urged that the party move away from its more conservative philosophy and tack to the political center. Even conservative icon Newt Gingrich, in supporting the liberal Republican in the recent special election in New York’s 23rd district, sounded very much like the centrist Republicans he once deplored in Congress. Gingrich said that “If you seek to be a perfect minority, you’ll remain a minority.” The implicit assumption is that a principled Republican party is doomed to failure.
The success of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan suggests an alternative. Lincoln said that “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes and pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”
To defeat slavery, what was necessary was not to abandon principles in order to win a short-term victory, but to persuade enough of the indifferent and hostile to adopt those principles to form a winning coalition. His rhetorical project was to defeat slavery by reestablishing the principles of the Declaration of Independence to their rightful preeminence in American political life, and this is fundamentally a persuasive project: one must persuade others that they are true, and that they ought to form the basis for political action.
Reagan, for his part, conceived of the crisis of his time in a similar fashion: that Americans were turning from their founding principles and toward injustice, this time in the form of the modern state. What was necessary was not to suborn this move, or to abandon first principles, but to return to them. Although referred to as “The Great Communicator” Reagan himself believed that his principles were at the core of his success. In his Farewell Address, he said that “I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”
What made these two men successful where others failed is tied to the way in which they articulated their ideas. Lincoln was as opposed to slavery as any abolitionist, but his policy position was more moderate: toleration of slavery in the states where it existed as a concession to political necessity, opposition to the expansion of slavery into new territories. Without abandoning his principles, he positioned himself as the anti-slavery candidate who could have respectability outside the abolitionist community, bringing together all the factions that composed the Republican Party. He built a governing majority on anti-slavery principles that his more strident rivals failed to achieve.
Similarly, Reagan conservatism in its purest form would seem to require the dismemberment of the modern state. Reagan’s policy proposals and initiatives, however, were crafted to expand the appeal of his principles beyond the Republican base, not by diluting them, but by showing how they could resolve the economic and foreign policy problems of that time. He was so successful in this regard that traditional Democrats who supported him are still called “Reagan Democrats” and Republican candidates still seek those voters.
Lincoln and Reagan were great and successful statesman because of their principles. They succeeded, not by abandoning their principles but by refusing to abandon them, and then by articulating them in a way that was persuasive and appealed to the broader electorate. The Republican Party needs this kind of statesmanship above all else.
Read Part I of The Soul of the Republican Party.