Why I am no longer a Republican

First published April 9, 2016

When Ronald Reagan became a Republican in 1962, he explained his decision like this: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

I felt something similar when, several days ago, I went to the Nelson County Clerk’s Office and changed my voter registration from Republican to independent.

The party I joined when I turned 50 is not the same Republican Party we have today — although the transformation was already beginning with the birth of the tea party movement.

The Grand Old Party that attracted me as I became more conservative in my prime was one that balanced a belief in personal responsibility with a commitment to opportunity. It respected individual liberties, but also cherished community and traditional virtues. It practiced fiscal sobriety, but offered a hand to the disabled and disadvantaged. It had a rich heritage of racial equality going back to the time of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, when the Democrats were the party that elevated states’ rights above human rights.

The party’s compassionate conservatism was rooted in Judeo-Christian principles of justice. It can be summed up in these words from President George W. Bush’s first inaugural address: “Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities, and all of us are diminished when they are hopeless. … I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

That perspective has been evident in policies such as charter schools in inner cities to give poor children a chance at a better life, federal funding for faith-based initiatives that work because they address the root causes of poverty and addiction rather than money for big bureaucratic programs that don’t, enterprise zones that give businesses incentives to locate in depressed areas, and humanitarian and military aid to victims of brutality in other countries. It is based on the biblical belief that were are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

In the past seven years, this compassionate conservatism has been supplanted by radical libertarianism, which holds that our brothers and sisters are on their own and that selfishness is a virtue not a vice. It is rooted in the nihilistic philosophy of Ayn Rand rather than the traditional philosophy of her contemporary, Russell Kirk, the father of modern conservatism.

In the current election, though, we have seen something uglier than libertarianism at work. It is a populism that hearkens back to the Know-Nothing movement of the mid-19th century and the John Birch movement of the mid-20th. It stokes the fires of bigotry against anyone whose religion, skin color or country of origin is different than the majority’s, and it has an authoritarian attitude.

What other way is there to describe the faction of the party that wants a caudillo (strong man) like Donald Trump? He is someone who quotes the founding father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, who initially refused to reject the endorsement of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, who incites his followers to acts of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and has said that if he becomes president, he will undermine the First Amendment freedom of the press.

The likeliest alternative to Trump in this year’s presidential race is Ted Cruz, a tea party ideologue whose idea of governing is to repudiate efforts at bipartisan compromise — even compromise with the mainstream of his own party — and shut down the government if he doesn’t get his way. He wants to eliminate the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education and Commerce, as well as the IRS, and he favors a flat tax that would reduce the responsibility of the rich and increase the burden of the poor. He would deport Hispanic immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. He would dismantle the law that prohibits insurance companies from refusing to sell policies to people with cancer and has added tens of millions of people to the rolls of the insured for the first time.

Health insurance has long been one of my concerns, and six years after the Affordable Care Act, I’m still waiting to see what “repeal and replace” means. The only specifics congressional Republicans offer would allow companies to sell policies across state lines — which sounds like a good idea, but means the policies won’t be regulated because the regulating is done by the states — and would replace guaranteed insurance with tax-free health savings accounts.

Really? That’s all they’ve got after six years?

The great irony is that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is a warmed-over Republican idea from the early 1990s that Republicans rejected en masse as soon as President Barack Obama accepted it.

I’m also embarrassed by Republicans’ embrace of absurd conspiracy theories, such as the notion that President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen or that he “hates America,” or that his wife ridiculed Old Glory — based on lip (mis)reading, or that fossil-fueled global warming is a hoax cooked up by the world’s climate scientists to keep government research money rolling in to pay their salaries. As one of my curmudgeonly college professors sometimes asked her students: How can you be so damned dumb?

I cannot return to the Democratic Party of my youth, because it now insists on a “right” to abort babies up until the moment of birth. It equates religious liberty with bigotry, and believes Christianity is something best practiced in private by consenting adults. It supports public sector unions that make it almost impossible to get rid of inept teachers. It seeks to confiscate the wealth of the nation’s wealth creators. But I can’t go back to the Republican Party — until it comes to its senses.

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