I’ve Witnessed the Decline of the Republican Party

Over five decades, the GOP has transformed into something I no longer recognize.

Getty / The Atlantic

I have been immersed in national politics in Washington for five decades. Over my time here, as an academic, a congressional staffer, a think tanker, and a commentator and public figure, I have gotten to know and worked with a wide range of key actors in politics and policy. I have seen up close the changes in our politics and culture. Nothing has been more striking or significant than the transformation of the Republican Party, from a moderately conservative party to a very conservative party to something else entirely.

One sign of this change? A five-term Republican congressman from Colorado, elected in the Tea Party wave in 2010 and now a Trump loyalist, was recently defeated in a primary by a candidate who runs Shooters Grill, where servers are encouraged to carry firearms, and who has indulged the QAnon conspiracy theories and who is now endorsed, not repudiated, by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Another? The current buzz surrounding Tucker Carlson as the party’s hope in 2024—even as he takes sudden leave from his show to go fishing, after one of his writers was tied to racist and misogynistic posts on an internet message board.

Few of the dozens of Republicans in high office I have known and admired over five decades—in a party not my own and holding views that, in many cases, I did not share—would be represented in the Republican Party of today. While some of my friends and mentors were and are moderates, others were proud conservatives, who genuinely believed in fiscal discipline but also valued government, albeit in a limited form. But the radical and unconservative idea that all government should be disdained, that tax cuts that blow up the debt are just fine, would be anathema to them.

And the idea that the Republican Party would be a force for ethnic and anti-immigrant animus and racial division would appall them—including my late friend Jack Kemp. The Republicans I knew best and worked most closely with were almost uniformly for civil rights—they represented the party of Everett Dirksen and William McCullough, who were instrumental in passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The individuals I knew, admired, and worked with were not the entirety of the Republican Party, even then. Plenty of lawmakers and others were quite content to exploit racism. They sought out the votes of segregationist former Southern Democrats, such as Strom Thurmond, to refill their party’s diminishing moderate ranks in the Northeast and the Midwest, and on the West Coast. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy and Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign, some Republican politicians ran for office using rhetoric that, at best, cynically inflamed racial divisions.

But even as I opposed many of the initiatives and campaign tactics of that Republican Party, I appreciated its efforts to solve problems and work within the governing institutions. The party of Nixon, with all its pathologies, created the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed a health-care-reform plan as sweeping as the later Affordable Care Act, and considered offering Americans a guaranteed annual income on a par with Andrew Yang’s universal basic income. The party of Reagan, which tried to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and which slashed taxes in 1981, precipitating ballooning deficits, also cut deals with Democratic Representative Henry Waxman to bolster Medicare and Medicaid; championed bipartisan Social Security reform in 1983; and supported tax increases in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 to offset the earlier cuts and reduce the deficits. The party responsible for Iran-Contra is also the party that championed democracy and moved in concert with Democrats to create the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute.

In 1976, I worked on a project to reorganize the Senate’s committee system. The effort was led by Democratic Senator Adlai Stevenson III, but involved Republicans, including Bill Brock, Bob Packwood, and Pete Domenici. After a long day during which Domenici had worked nonstop on our committee, I asked the freshman senator why, with so many other assignments, he was giving so much to a panel whose rewards were limited. Any changes we made in committee numbers, assignments, and jurisdictions were sure to infuriate his colleagues. “Serving in the Senate is the greatest honor I can imagine,” he told me. “I am determined to leave it a better place than it was when I came in.”

Domenici, like many other Republicans of his generation, had a great amount of what scholars call “institutional patriotism”: a concern for the operation and integrity of Congress as an institution, and its relationship to the other branches. They cared about integrity in governance and personal rectitude. They believed in the independence of Congress and its need to provide a check and balance against corruption and maladministration in the executive branch, whether the president was from their own or the opposite party. Unfortunately, they were unable to transfer those values to succeeding generations, or to overcome the regional shift in American party politics, the rise of manipulative leaders, and the growing influence of extremist tribal media.

The Republican Party’s slide away from those values preceded Donald Trump, providing the conditions for his rise. In recent years, the GOP has thrown away its guiding values and embraced its darkest instincts. It has blown up long-standing norms in the Senate, creating divisions that outstrip anything I have seen before; done nothing about rank corruption in the White House and the Cabinet; accepted the politicization of the Justice Department and lies from the attorney general; avoided any meaningful oversight of misconduct; and failed to curb attacks on the independence of inspectors general.

The GOP now distinguishes itself by inaction. It has stood and watched as this administration separated children from their parents at the border, mistreated asylum seekers, botched its response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, attacked science, and opened new avenues for toxic materials in our air and water. It said and did nothing about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and is actively blocking efforts to combat a recurrence in 2020. It has refused to pass a new Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the legislation, which, reflecting the GOP of the past, had passed the House unanimously. It has refused to deal in any fashion with urgent problems such as climate change, immigration, global competition, hunger, and poverty. It confirmed nominees who lied to the Senate, who inflated résumés, and who failed to meet minimum qualifications for the job. It confirmed judges who were unanimously rated unqualified by the American Bar Association.

The party jammed through a tax cut at a time of low unemployment and low economic growth, making a mockery of modern economics and leaving little flexibility to deal with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It slashed the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivering an 80 percent cut to global-health programs designed to fight pandemics, and leaving the agency without the resources necessary to battle COVID-19. It has said almost nothing about the pitiful and reckless responses of the president to the pandemic, which has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths that should never have occurred. And now it is silent as we learn that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers, while the president said and did nothing.

I grew up in a family of Democrats. My maternal grandfather, who had emigrated from Russia to escape czarist pogroms, moved to Minneapolis and became a labor leader, a member of the small “kitchen cabinet” that convinced Hubert Humphrey to enter politics and run for mayor of the city. My idols, growing up were giants of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, including Humphrey, Orville Freeman, Walter Mondale, Art Naftalin, and Donald Fraser.

I was a young student at the University of Minnesota before I talked to a Republican at length. That’s where I met Doug Head, the state attorney general. He was a thoughtful intellectual and, like the core of the Minnesota Republican Party, a moderate conservative, far more center than right. His emphasis on public service made a lasting impression, helping me understand that I could share a common commitment with people who disagreed with me on policy.

I came to Washington in 1969 on a congressional fellowship. Although I was working for Don Fraser, William Steiger, a young Republican representative from Wisconsin, soon became another mentor. Steiger loved the House and the congressional-fellowship program, and opened his door to me regularly to come and talk about politics, governance, and careers. He seemed destined for a major leadership role, before he died of a heart ailment at 40.

When I moved to the Senate for the second half of my fellowship in 1970, I was assigned to George McGovern. He had put together an informal committee to push for a vote to end the Vietnam War. I worked closely with Republicans, including Mark Hatfield, Charles Goodell, and Jacob Javits. The task was not easy for them—after all, they were directly challenging President Nixon. The work was sometimes intense. I saw, up close, a bitter confrontation over Vietnam between McGovern and Bob Dole. But later, I would watch them develop a working relationship to combat hunger, and then forge a close friendship that lasted four decades, until McGovern’s death.

Plenty of the Republicans I dealt with in the past were fierce partisans, including Dole and John Rhodes. But when pushed, they put country first—that was the basis on which they could forge bonds across the aisle. I had strong relationships in years past with a number of Republicans currently in the Senate. But none of them have, in recent years, behaved in a fashion that would meet the values of the party of Domenici, Steiger, or Dole.

The country obviously needs a major change in its politics, a purging of the status quo. It faces challenges both societal and structural that go beyond Trump and the two parties. The United States must recover from the pandemic and rebuild its economy, while confronting head-on the issue of racism. But we cannot long operate as a democracy without two problem-solving parties that aim to compete for genuine majorities in the country.

The Democratic Party is far from a paragon of virtue here; in politics, there are no angels. It faces its own deep challenges ahead. But America’s crisis of governance has been driven by a party that my colleague Tom Mann and I, long before Trump, described as an insurgent outlier in American politics. “It is ideologically extreme,” we wrote in 2012; “scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

I was reminded of that description recently by the comments of the Republican pollster Alex Castellanos. “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol,” Castellanos told The Washington Post. “Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

A reshaped GOP would be very conservative, but not radical. It would believe in limited government, but a government run by professionals, respecting data and science, and operating efficiently and fairly. It would believe in genuine fiscal discipline. It would try to apply free-market approaches to solving difficult problems, such as climate change. It would believe in the integrity of institutions and insist that those in office adhere to high ethical standards. It would respect the sanctity of alliances and the fundamental values of decency and equal treatment. It would work to broaden its base across racial and ethnic lines, not use division and voter suppression to cling to power.

Sadly, even if Donald Trump is defeated in November, there is no sign that such a party will return anytime soon. But restoring the Republican Party to its traditional values is absolutely essential to preserve the core of our system of governance.