Is the GOP Fit for Liberal Democracy?

Shadia B. Drury

The Republican Party contains a motley collection of ideologies that are either profoundly illiberal or staunchly undemocratic—or both. In what follows, I will identify four ideologies within the GOP that need to be totally discarded. The fifth has some potential but needs a makeover if the Party is to be fit for power in a liberal democracy.

The first and most pervasive of these ideologies is the free market. This ideology has its source in Friedrich Hayek’s concept of “spontaneous order,” which he describes in The Constitution of Liberty. The idea is that unbridled capitalism yields meritocratic results. So, if governments were to refrain from interfering in the economy, the result would be a world in which the creative, daring, and hard-working will rise to the top. It follows that any effort to dampen economic inequality will amount to taking away from the deserving few and giving it to the undeserving many. The tax bill passed by the Republican Congress in 2017 is a textbook case of this fanciful ideology.

In reality, the whole idea of a free market is a delusion. The absence of governmental constraints on capitalist enterprises, which pollute the environment and threaten the lives of citizens, is a clear case of government acting in the interest of capital. The resulting economic inequality undermines the political equality that democracy requires. It is no exaggeration to say that the United States is an oligarchy that has been exporting its form of government to the world in the guise of liberal democracy.

The second of these ideologies—and the most menacing to the world as well as the nation—is neoconservatism. This ideology came to the fore in the George W. Bush administration but has deep roots in American self-understanding. The 9/11 terrorist attacks gave neoconservatives the excuse to embark on their quest to remake the world. The messianic nationalism at the heart of this ideology cannot avoid endless war, in which the children of the poor are sacrificed not for universal freedom but for the profits of the war economy. Donald Trump vowed to put an end to America’s “stupid wars.” Nevertheless, the combative rhetoric of Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, is classic neoconservatism—a blend of moral self-righteousness and ominous threats that undermine global peace.

The third and perhaps most ascendant ideology within the Republican Party is that of white nationalism. Donald Trump tapped into the economic disenchantment of those who believe that they were left behind by global wars, global capitalism, and illegal immigration. These are legitimate grievances, but so far, Trump has addressed them only by his bigoted rhetoric: scapegoating Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants. The result is to embolden the neo-fascists, sowing division and disillusionment. Mutual hostility and suspicion is destructive for a liberal democracy, which needs plurality as much as shared values.

The fourth ideological group within the GOP is that of the Christian evangelicals, who voted for Trump in large numbers. They have been rewarded mainly by Trump’s culture wars in defense of “Merry Christmas,” his aversion to the bathroom freedom of the transgendered, his appointment of the anti-abortionist Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, and his war on cannabis, even in states where its sale is legal. This gives evangelicals the expectation that their religious morality is on its way to becoming the law of the land. These folks are not satisfied with the religious freedom that a liberal democracy grants them. Like the Taliban, they are determined to rob others of the liberty to live according to their consciences in matters that affect only themselves and their families. The power of the evangelicals can only make the nation more theocratic, illiberal, and intolerant.

Fifth and last, there is a democratic, though not particularly liberal, ideology that lives on the sidelines within the GOP—civic republicanism. The latter is associated with the political ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Harrington, and Niccolò Machiavelli in the Discourses. In this view, democratic freedom requires political participation. As Rousseau would have it, people are free only when they submit to laws that they have made themselves. In other words, freedom is being subject to laws that one rationally accepts, which is why political participation is so important.

Among American conservatives, I associate this view with David Brooks. In his interviews, columns, and books, Brooks maintains that what afflicts the United States is having chosen the wrong philosophers. According to him, Americans would have been better off had they relied on Martin Buber instead of John Stuart Mill, Viktor Frankl instead of Jeremy Bentham, and St. Augustine instead of Rene Descartes. In other words, instead of the quest for individuality (Mill), Americans should have chosen the primacy of community, connectedness, and relationships (Buber’s I-Thou relationship). Instead of emphasizing the pursuit of pleasure (Jeremy Bentham), Americans should have emphasized the moralistic search for meaning (Frankl). Instead of the rational aspects of our humanity (Descartes), Americans should have embraced the emotional aspects of human nature (St. Augustine). In short, Brooks prefers communitarianism, moralism, and religiosity to individualism, rationalism, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, there is no guarantee that religiosity will enhance morality—once he discovered God, Augustine’s treatment of his beloved was monstrous! Nor is there any guarantee that political participation will be morally ennobling and not employed for self-interest. Moreover, there is a danger that when politics endows life with meaning and identity, it can be uncompromising and intransigent. In contrast, liberal politics is directed at the mundane and material means to the good life—in all its plurality.

Even though civic republicanism is not a liberal ideal, it is a democratic ideal that valorizes participation. If implemented, the wealthy career politicians who occupy the House of Representatives would be replaced by ordinary men and women who represent their districts for a term, then return to their previous occupations—as the Founders imagined. In this way, the civic republican ideal may end the oligarchic stranglehold on the nation.

The trouble is that civic republicanism is often hostile to liberalism. Brooks himself is inconsistent on that count. If by some miracle the GOP were to abandon its hostility to liberalism, it might become a party fit for liberal democracy. If the Democrats manage to end their enchantment with identity politics in favor of individual liberty, then one party would valorize democracy and community while the other would promote liberty and individuality. The resulting balance would be fit for a liberal democracy.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Many GOP ideologies are profoundly illiberal or staunchly undemocratic—or both.

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