This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
While it is refreshing to see a bevy of conservative intellectuals and former Republicans take on Donald Trump with an eye toward electing Joe Biden as president, this mobilization seems bereft of a strategic plan for re-establishing a center-right party that is not rooted in white grievance politics and an insatiable desire to own the libs. Fair enough; there is a serious enough task at hand. But plan beats no plan, and planning can seldom start too early.
Put simply, if they are ever going to extirpate Trumpism from the Republican party or have a conservative party that is not anchored in the politics of race-baiting and xenophobia, never-Trumpers and anyone who cares about creating a vibrant center-right ought to have their eyes on a comprehensive plan for revitalizing American democracy. In fact, they owe it to the country to get behind a plan.
Only structural democracy reform – notably changes to the Senate – can destroy the electoral mathematics of Trumpism and create the conditions for a vibrant center-right to emerge. Within that context, conservatives would have the opportunity to build a new party, or purge Republicanism of its racist, anti-intellectual and anti-science elements. It’s not a short-term task, but the United States cannot do without another great political party in some form.
John Weaver, one of the Republican operatives behind the anti-Trump ad machine The Lincoln Project recently made clear that it would support important changes under a Biden administration. He named automatic voter registration and a renewed Voting Rights Act as two specifics. So far, so good. But never-Trumpers need to throw long when it comes to democracy reform. Nothing less will do, and everyone will have to pitch in.
Another way to think of structural democracy reform is a test of good faith among never-Trump conservatives, and their willingness to go after Trumpism, and not merely the man himself. Are they truly horrified by Trump and his policies, or is he simply too crass and rough to front for things they’d like to see done anyway? If the former is the case, never-Trumpers have to do more than help deny Trump a second term. History will judge them kindly if they do.
The warning signs that Trump is willing to steal the election — the sabotage of the postal service, the fight against mail-in ballots — are unmistakable. After the election, never-Trump activists should turn their fire on the Republicans who enabled Trump, and de-legitimize their influence on the political process. They broke faith with democracy at a critical moment in American history.
Democrats have proposed a set of reforms, H.R. 1, that has three basic pillars designed to protect and expand voting rights (and end gerrymandering) in secure elections, reducing the influence of big money, and fortifying ethics laws. But there are other ideas out there that will be crucial to purging conservatism of Trumpism. Reforming the judiciary, which is now packed with Trump appointees who would gladly poke holes in democratic reforms, is one step. And so is expansion of the U.S. Senate to include the District of Columbia and possibly Puerto Rico, as well as the abolition of the filibuster.
These last parts, the ones that go beyond H.R. 1, are very important. The U.S. Senate is destined to be the last redoubt of Trumpism, just as it harbored to the bitter end other vicious strains of American politics, notably segregationists. It is not accommodating social change. The current Senate majority represents 48 percent of the U.S. population; by 2040, 68 senators could represent 40 percent of the population. Map that onto the country’s changing demographics and the trend is clear: whiter, older people are likely to have an outsized voice in the Senate. It’s where the people vying for Trumpist votes will dig in. More senators from diverse states, and rules that permit the majority to legislate, can ensure a functioning democracy.
Is it any surprise that would-be inheritors of the Trumpist throne are in the Senate? At least three senators (Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton) are vying for the conservative-populist presidential mantle. One (Cotton) has boiled down his objections to DC statehood to a flatly racist trope about not giving “those people” a chance to vote alongside “real Americans.” There is a strong case to be made that these guys are more dangerous than Trump himself because they have the discipline and focus that he lacks.
Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has pointed out that 115 of the 241 Republicans in the House have been defeated, resigned, or are retiring, if they have not done-so already. And Trumpist, QAnon-spouting candidates are likely to win election in safe Republican seats. Those folks will then threaten Republican senators from the right, at least the ones who don’t toe the Trumpist line.
If never-Trumpers want a center-right party that is not built around xenophobia and grievance, they have to contribute to building a political system that makes it impossible for a party to win without being firmly anchored in the communities of color that constitute the expanding portion of the American electorate. Otherwise, the lure of racialized politics, built around a strategy of locking in white voters, suppressing black and Latino ones and winning narrow victories, will continue to characterize Republican politics. Un-rigging the system will force Republicans to evolve into a center-right party that can win elections based on its platform, not resentment – or face extinction.
The obvious objection that Trump-opposing Republicans will have to face is not hard to define. “Are you not asking us to destroy the party we once loved?” It is true that democracy reform of the sort on the table now would tip the playing field in Democrats’ direction by ensuring that its traditional constituencies can vote. But there are three basic responses.
First, it’s the right thing to do! Sad that we have to say this obvious part out loud, but that’s where we are in 2020. Second, Republicans are doing a fine job of pulling themselves out of the equation right now anyway; a long-term path to renaissance is what’s on offer. Take it! Third, never-Trumpers don’t need to sign up for Medicare for All, a wealth tax or other polices to which they may have good-faith objections to be in favor of a vibrant democracy. Democrats, in turn, should welcome converts to democracy reform; a center-right party that’s not intellectually and morally bankrupt will help keep everyone honest.
To be a Trump-opposing conservative and ignore the heavily race-based, structural defects in our democracy requires a concomitant belief that Trump is an aberration, that his emergence and staying power have no relation to the ways in which Republicans built governing coalitions exploited by a decades long white backlash to the civil rights era in the 1960s. In fact, Trump ran a playbook, crudely and ruthlessly, that had plenty of genteel echoes in the recent Republican past. While it’s comforting that some Republicans are willing to face these facts, democracy reform would be a way to make amends.
A reformed American democracy would also be an opportunity to finally test the thesis that conservatives can and should appeal to, for example, devoutly Catholic Latino voters, who have some natural conservative inclinations. Ex-Republican, never-Trump conservatives: Got a strategy for picking off Democratic voters that doesn’t rely on racist appeals? Have at it. Appeal to the better angels of our nature that your beloved Lincoln once called forth.
Clare Malone of FiveThirtyEight wrote a nice distillation of the Republican history of appealing, or not, to Black and Latino voters, and the question that has long hung in the air on the right:
“Should the party invest in appeals to new voters or pluck racism’s low-hanging electoral fruit?” Without structural reforms to American democracy, that forbidden fruit will continue to exert a strong pull on conservative office-seekers of the future.
Defeating Trump is, heaven knows, an important battle to fight – the electoral fight upon which all the world is fixated. And it can be won. But if conservatives don’t help extinguish Trumpism by protecting that sacred right to vote and promoting other vital reforms, they will have won a pyrrhic victory – for the conservative cause and for American democracy.
Carter Dougherty is a progressive activist and writer based in Washington, DC.