Less than two years after a Time magazine cover proclaimed Republicans an “Endangered Species,” the GOP is back in black. With its largest number of House seats since the election of 1946 and its largest number of state legislative seats since 1928, the Republican party seems to have repopulated its native environment.
Questions lurk underneath this phoenix-like rebirth. Who composes the newly emerged Republican majority? How can this coalition be transformed from one defined by its opposition to Obama into one defined by its support of a coherent set of principles and policies? What principles and policies can bind these Americans together into a group with a common identity and make one out of many?
Articles addressing these questions typically look at the American people as ingredients in a demographic recipe. But such an approach inevitably falls short, because it lacks the most important ingredient: principle. So I’m going to start where Ronald Reagan did when he considered the question of how to build a renewed Republican party, with a discussion of conservative principle.
Go back to Reagan’s 66th birthday, Feb. 6, 1977. If you thought the death knell had been sounded for conservatism after 2008, you clearly did not live through 1976. Reagan had lost the GOP nomination, and President Ford had been defeated by a fresh face who promised hope to a discouraged nation, Jimmy Carter. What’s more, the Republicans had been reduced to a mere 143 seats in the House and 38 in the Senate, many of which were held by men well to the left of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
Reagan, however, saw what the others could not. Addressing a then-young Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) holding its fourth convention, he proclaimed that “the principles and values that lie at the heart of conservatism are shared by the majority.” This majority comprised more than Republicans and independents concerned about the economy; it included “blue-collar, ethnic, and religious groups themselves traditionally associated with the Democratic party” who focused on “so-called social issues.”
Reagan argued that these groups could form not merely an alliance but “one politically effective whole.” They could do this because they adhered to a shared set of values that ultimately derived from one core principle, the primacy of human freedom. Arguing from this principle, conservatives could contend that government needed to be limited in its scope, in order to create the sphere inside which individuals, families, and voluntary associations could act for the betterment of adults, children, and the community. Since government existed to protect freedom, it needed to be energetic in the defense of human rights, whether at home or in the then-paramount conflict with the Soviet Union. Housed in a Republican party that would be “the party of the individual,” conservatives could show Americans that “modern conservatism offers them a political home.”
Now come back to 2010. We’ve just fought an election that was focused on the question of human freedom to a degree not seen since 1980. The Tea Party arose to defend freedom and persuade its fellow citizens that freedom was at risk. Opposition to Obamacare’s individual mandate was based on Reagan’s maxim that “liberty can be measured by how much freedom Americans have to make their own decisions, even their own mistakes.” Poll after poll showed that those who voted Republican did so because they had been persuaded that the administration and Congress were making government too large and spending too much. The result was a historic victory.