That goes for liberals as well. Trump supporters may be mistaken, but it doesn’t make them malevolent. And if liberals find it satisfying to hear a conservative question his own past certainties, they should think about whether they have some certainties of their own to question—whether conservatives who perceive religious bigotry in what some Democrats say and do might have a point, for instance, or whether Trump voters who think political and cultural elites look down on them with contempt might have one, too.
More than ever before, I appreciate the approach of the 20th-century Scottish novelist and politician John Buchan, who in his autobiography, Pilgrim’s Way, wrote, “While I believed in party government and in party loyalty, I never attained to the happy partisan zeal of many of my friends, being painfully aware of my own and my party’s defects, and uneasily conscious of the merits of my opponent.”
But there are losses as well in finding oneself politically homeless. The most obvious for someone who has spent his life in politics is being alienated from a community that was once important to me. There’s something vivifying about being part of a team, a tribe, in which the bonds are based on a commitment to a common cause, a shared purpose. If you’re no longer institutionally a part of that, you miss it.
But there’s more to it than just that. Political coalitions serve useful purposes in politics, including being the means by which we translate philosophical commitments into policy, legislation, and law. Martin Luther King Jr. was the moral force behind the civil-rights movement, but it took Lyndon Johnson (and in that case, a bipartisan coalition fighting bipartisan opposition) to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So parties matter, and partisan loyalists can do good if the cause they are loyal to is just.
I certainly don’t have problems with those who decide to stay in a party in order to improve it. There is even something admirable about doing so. If the GOP were to embrace a humane, aspirational conservatism—one that seeks to defend truth rather than to deconstruct it—I would certainly be open to returning to the fold. But whether I ever do or not, what troubles me in the here and now are those who, having decided to stay in the Republican Party, are allowing that affiliation to seriously impair their moral judgments and intellectual standards; to lead them to enable those in power to do grave damage to our civic and political culture; and to encourage them to protect a Republican president for acting in ways that they would condemn in any Democratic president.
The Republican Party, like all parties, has its flaws. While I was within it, those flaws were harder to perceive or acknowledge; from the outside, I see them more clearly. I’ve lost something, though, by my present alienation from the party. If I’m one day able to return, I hope that I’ll bring the compensating gifts of greater insight and critical distance back with me. And if I don’t, I like to think that the things I’ve gained still outweigh the things I’ve lost.