A Republican Comeback?

Question: What’s next for the Republican Party?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Right.  Well, this is a great question:  will the Republican Party come back in the midterm elections?  Will it come back in 2012?  I -- I think that it -- as a historian, it's so dangerous to predict the future, and one is very reluctant to really play fortuneteller.  I don't know whether it'll come back in the midterm elections or in 2012.  It certainly seems like it's in a lot of internal chaos right now -- no good leaders emerging.  It seems to be playing an almost entirely kind of negative role in terms of attacking Obama, but not able to really formulate a coherent response.

 

At the same time, I think that the underlying dynamics that gave it strength in the past are still there.  I mean, it continues to have cadres of grassroots activists who are very committed to it, as we've seen in the disruptions of the health care town halls over the summer and the tax day protests and the like.  And it also continues to have, I think, the support of a large number of business people and a kind of intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and political organizations devoted to -- not the Republican Party necessarily at all times, but certainly to an anti-government set of positions.  And I think that if Obama did try to take things farther to the left that we would see a stronger reaction against it from those groups and from those people.  And unless there's another kind of political movement that comes into existence around something like health care that can really counter it, I think that they -- you know, the underlying ingredients for conservative success are still there; they haven't really changed.  So I don't know whether it will happen in the midterm elections or 2012, but I definitely think that I wouldn't write the Republican Party or that kind of movement conservatism off as dead by a long shot.

 

Question: What divides the Republican Party?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Well, I think that today there is -- the Republican Party seems like it's really divided into these different single-issue groups, and -- although there are certain -- I mean, I think it's not -- I think there's been a lot of discussion of the centrality of social issues in the conservative movement today and the sense that -- and different conservative commentators themselves, like George Will, have criticized the rest of the movement for becoming too committed to these social issues, to anti-abortion politics, anti-gay marriage, and letting go kind of the real issues of the market and lower taxes and so on and so forth.  And so there's this sense that the social conservatives are really running the show.

 

You know, I think that it is complicated -- I mean, I would both say that there's this question of what's happened to the mainstream.  But I think even in the Republican Party there are still a lot of people who are very committed to this low-tax, anti-regulation program.  The problem is that -- and I think the two sides -- people have always been able to kind of hold both positions, and even though it seems like there ought to be a conflict, in actual practice there isn't.  And we can talk more about how these positions hold together, but I think they do for people.  And so it's not experienced as a contradiction exactly.  I think the real issue for the real anti-government, the hardcore anti-government people in the Republican Party is that the recession and the financial crisis has really called their ideology into question in a way that it hadn't been challenged for some time, and so just this sort of pure American ideology now seems irresponsible, like it led to this huge panic.  And so I think it's harder to advance it in the same kind of confident, directed way that we've seen in the past.

 

So I think -- it's funny; you see other people in the Republican Party, maybe in response to the total failure of their ideas with the recent economic events, trying to advance other ways out.  The problem is that they're not -- the problem for them is that they're really not committed to it, and so I just think it creates real problems.  There's just something too contradictory about saying the state can be used in this way but not that way.  I don't know.  I think it's internally incoherent for them.

 

Question: Will the libertarian movement strengthen?

Kim Phillips-Fein: I think it's just hard to be a libertarian today or to win new supporters to libertarian causes, in the wake of the recession and fiscal, financial crisis.  At the same time, I think there's a lot of criticism of the bailout and of the actions of the state with regard to the auto industry, and a sense that Obama represents business interests in some ways, or has been willing to work with business people and hasn't taken them on directly.  And I think this actually does fuel a certain libertarianism.  I see it among my students, actually, a sense that there's this relationship between business and government, and neither is really standing for the market, and that the market is the way to success and prosperity for everybody.  So I feel like that idea actually is given a lot of strength by things like the bailout and by Obama's relationship with the financial sector and banking industry.  And so I think that kind of thing -- I mean, that actually would speak to the more rapid resurgence of conservatism, I suppose, this sense that there's this cozy nexus and a feeling of being outsiders and wanting a kind of economic life that isn't in this relationship with the state.

Recorded October 22, 2009

A lack of promising candidates plague a party that is otherwise ripe for a takeover.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.