Republican Delegates: Good People, Failed by Their Party

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Like their counterparts in the Democratic Party, they deserve better than the politicians who represent them, and should be more discerning.

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After four hours speaking to Republican delegates and alternates inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday, I am prepared to offer one firm conclusion: the vast majority of people representing the GOP here are decent, polite, civic-minded people acting in accordance with their consciences. Their goodness is a confounding reality of American politics. The congressional delegations from both parties are corrupt. Politicians seeking office constantly misrepresent the truth. Partisan surrogates who speak on cable TV are often hardened, cynical versions of their younger selves. Political consultants are, insofar as they have core beliefs, Machiavellians.

But the closer you get to the grassroots in American politics, the more likely you are to find honest, well-intentioned people who improbably maintain a reservoir of idealism about party politics. Some are fervent ideologues, but not many. Others are intelligent pragmatists who see the flaws in the two-party system, but believe choosing and influencing the side that better represents them is a way to incrementally improve the world. Still others are unthinking in the way that they adopt certain talking points, and naively imagine their party's candidate assures a future of bliss and bounty, while the opponent is a harbinger of doom. Rah Rah Red Team. For the apolitical, critics of the Republican Party, and skeptics the two-party system, it is difficult to understand why GOP partisans pour so much faith into so flawed a vessel. One theory, advanced most often by their partisan opponents, is that the Republican grassroots is selfish and malign.

But it isn't so.

In their midst, it's easy to verify the wrongheadedness of that conclusion. To me, investing in the Republican or Democratic Party is misguided. Cheering its politicians is more tribal than rational, and likely to bring disappointment. What I understand a bit better, after hanging out with Republican delegates and alternates, is why they have a better opinion of the GOP than I do. It's partly because I form my opinion based on the rhetoric and actions of Republican politicians, whereas their notion of the GOP and what it represents is influenced by experiences at the grassroots level, where they see the fundamental decency of other GOP delegates and alternates.

For an observer of national politics like me, the face of the GOP is an amalgam of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Rand Paul, and the results of their combined efforts. GOP delegates and alternates just traveled to Tampa with a group of people who gain neither fame nor lucre nor much power from their participation in politics. You think of L.A. Lakers fans as self-satisfied Hollywood celebrities who show up late to games and are there to to be seen. I think of Lakers fans as my dad, grandfathers, and best friends. No wonder that I have a higher opinion of Lakers basketball. And no wonder GOP delegates have a higher opinion of the Republican Party.

Ron Paul delegates are unlike the others. They are more skeptical of the Republican establishment, less inclined to compromise, and more likely to take their energies outside of partisan channels. In Tampa, they've done their utmost to maximize the influence they wield in a party none of them particularly trust. Their uncompromising streak makes sense to me. That's why I spent my time talking to the delegates who weren't wearing Ron Paul "Not For Sale" buttons.

Can I tell you about a few?

A TEXAN WITH A COWBOY HAT

One woman I spoke to identified herself as "a Hispanic woman," a former Democrat who converted to the GOP in 1984, and "a first-generation college graduate from South Texas." Cynthia grew up in an age when "there were few opportunities" for people like her. "But I had a Mexican mama with big dreams," she said. "She was a pioneer in ambition. And even though she didn't get an education, she was going to make sure her children did. I'm a product of that. And because I'm a product of that, I promote it among Hispanic women especially. Hispanic men too. If they have even a hint of a possibility to better themselves, I will encourage and support them."

For this woman, the Republican Party represents the possibility of more opportunity. "I don't believe in making people servants to the government. That is not a philosophy I ascribe to," she said. "I believe in helping people in crisis. I believe in helping the elderly. I believe in helping the disabled. But I see too many young, able-bodied people living with their grandparents or their elderly parents when they could be out doing something. In my family, they told us, you're never going to be on food stamps even if you work three jobs. Now it has become accepted."

She had a lot of conventional Republican views, all expressed thoughtfully. What I found most interesting was her notion of how successful political coalitions are built. For her, a winning campaign isn't a matter of raising the most money, appealing to swing voters, or adeptly going on the attack.

Here's how her Republican Party works:

CYNTHIA: The perfect example is the recent upset victory of Ted Cruz, our Republican Senate candidate. That was all grassroots. I called up ten people I knew and said, 'I need for you to help me with my candidate. This is why you need to vote for Ted Cruz.' And I got ten people to vote, early vote. And out of those ten people, I got three people to call ten of their friends.

Do the math. That's 40 people, just little old me calling on the phone, saying, 'Hey, what are you doing? Hey, get over there. This is where you can go and vote.' It didn't take an hour to do it. Forty votes.

ME: When you call people what do you say to them?

CYNTHIA: First of all, I call people who know me. And I have a history and a lifestyle of working in charities and causes everywhere I go. I'm involved. I'm generous with my giving. I'm able to do that.

I'm very active in various organizations as an officer, or other things. So I've built a cadre of friendships over the years. So for me to call you up is okay, because I honor who you are, and you know who I am. I'm asking you to trust my wisdom on an issue. So I tell ten people to vote. 'And can you be sure you get ten people to vote?' I say. 'How about your daughter, your son in law?' Just in the small group of people I know. I don't know people with young children. They've got grown children. So I tell them, 'Get your adult children, you've got to help me with this.' And that's all I ask. I say, 'You know that you can count on me if you ever need anything. I remember that. I'm going to help you. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.'

ME: Anything I didn't ask about that you want to add?

CYNTHIA: It's a great time to be alive. I'm here because of the historical impact we can make as citizens of this country. As women, as Hispanics, we can make a difference. But we have to make the decision to make the difference.

After I shut off the camera she spent another ten minutes asking me about my upbringing, my career, my aspirations, and my fiance. Then she offered what I can only sum up as grandmotherly advice. 

A WEST VIRGINIAN FROM A SMALL TOWN

Jack, a senior citizen from St. Marys, West Virginia, wore an eccentric hat. "The delegation from West Virginia is wearing coal miner hats to try to get the attention of the national media as to the importance of coal for our future," he said. "Right now there's a war on coal. They're trying to do away with coal and we can't survive without it. If we don't have coal, we're going to have energy problems and people problems. That's why we're wearing these hard hats. To remind everyone of coal-miners. A war on coal is being waged by the EPA, to avoid having to pass legislation. We've lost 3,000 coal miner jobs in the last year-and-a-half. The southern half of the state, coal is their main way of survival. Chemical plants are closing down too. Just this past week we lost a plant that had 600 employees. There's another that isn't very far behind. And we just want the whole country to know the importance of coal to the livelihood of real people."

"How did you get involved in the political process?" I asked.

"Many years ago, my wife became a member of the local county committee," he said. "And then in 1985 she was fortunate enough to be appointed to a vacant seat as a state senator. She's retained that seat ever since, running several times unopposed in a Democratic district. So I just support her, travel around with her, help her serve the people, and you learn a lot, you really do."

"What have you learned that you didn't expect, that you didn't see from the outside?" I asked.

"You learn how far away from the constitution some organizations are getting," he said. "We have an organization in our town called the Constitution Advocates. We study it. And you really see how they're trying to circumvent it in Washington, to do the things they want to do... We're just a small town of 2,700 people. But we also draw from 11 different counties who come into our meetings. That tells you what people are starving for right now -- what's right and what's wrong."

AN IMPRESSIVE ARIZONAN

With apologies for the background noise, here's a final interview with full video, presented at length because the speaker's views have nuances that you won't catch if you only watch the beginning. He's a former elected official who is now headmaster of a public school in Maricopa County.

The GOP would benefit if its politicians, rather than its delegates, were more like this (again, sorry about the sound quality):



CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

There's a lot I find objectionable about partisans, for I regard their faith in the Republican and Democratic parties as misguided. In fact, I think it's proven to be misguided again and again, as successive parties, vested with a president of their party and Congressional majorities, have failed to address America's deficit and been complicit in reckless abrogations of civil liberties.

Disastrous policies like the drug war are bipartisan in nature too.

Neither Republican nor Democratic politicians come close to living up to the ideals for which they ostensibly stand. The influence of moneyed interests is tremendous, as evidenced most recently by the Wall Street bailouts. The grassroots of both parties are nevertheless well-meaning citizens, rather than malign idiots, as they are so often portrayed by their opponents.

That matters.

They're never going to band together, sans labels, under Michael Bloomberg, who'd just ruin their fun and spy on their Muslims anyway. But like Democrats, the Republicans I met all had some accurate insights into how America might be improved, some defensible core principles they espoused, a pragmatic streak, being partisan joiners, and membership in a party that fell short of their ideals, however imperfect those ideals were. It seems to me that these well-meaning participants in America's political process can be engaged more than they are by earnest critics.

Perhaps they can be persuaded to more critically address the gulf between their ideals and the behavior of the people they imprudently empower -- to rein in the hucksters who presently use their partisan allegiances to get away with more than they'd be able to if political parties weren't so tribal. It's a long shot, this plan of mine, but it has a low opportunity cost, so why not try it? Why not try to persuade Republicans and Democrats at the grassroots level to marginally improve their respective parties?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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