Zack Beauchamp, Vox, July 25, 2016
Avik Roy is a Republican’s Republican. A health care wonk and editor at Forbes, he has worked for three Republican presidential hopefuls–Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio. Much of his adult life has been dedicated to advancing the Republican Party and conservative ideals.
But when I caught up with Roy at a bar just outside the Republican convention, he said something I’ve never heard from an establishment conservative before: The Grand Old Party is going to die.
“I don’t think the Republican Party and the conservative movement are capable of reforming themselves in an incremental and gradual way,” he said. “There’s going to be a disruption.”
Roy isn’t happy about this: He believes it means the Democrats will dominate national American politics for some time. But he also believes the Republican Party has lost its right to govern, because it is driven by white nationalism rather than a true commitment to equality for all Americans.
“Until the conservative movement can stand up and live by that principle, it will not have the moral authority to lead the country,” he told me.
“I think the conservative movement is fundamentally broken,” Roy tells me. “Trump is not a random act. This election is not a random act.”
“Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 was a historical disaster for the conservative movement,” Roy tells me, “because for the ensuing decades, it identified Democrats as the party of civil rights and Republicans as the party opposed to civil rights.”
Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He himself was not especially racist–he believed it was wrong, on free market grounds, for the federal government to force private businesses to desegregate. But this “principled” stance identified the GOP with the pro-segregation camp in everyone’s eyes, while the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson became the champions of anti-racism.
“The fact is, today, the Republican coalition has inherited the people who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964–the Southern Democrats who are now Republicans,” Roy says. “Conservatives and Republicans have not come to terms with that problem.”
“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Roy says. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism–philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”
Conservative intellectuals, for the most part, are horrified by racism. When they talk about believing in individual rights and equality, they really mean it. Because the Republican Party is the vehicle through which their ideas can be implemented, they need to believe that the party isn’t racist.
“It’s the power of wishful thinking. None of us want to accept that opposition to civil rights is the legacy that we’ve inherited,” Roy says.
He expands on this idea: “It’s a common observation on the left, but it’s an observation that a lot of us on the right genuinely believed wasn’t true–which is that conservatism has become, and has been for some time, much more about white identity politics than it has been about conservative political philosophy. I think today, even now, a lot of conservatives have not come to terms with that problem.”
This, Roy believes, is where the conservative intellectual class went astray. By refusing to admit the truth about their own party, they were powerless to stop the forces that led to Donald Trump’s rise. They told themselves, over and over again, that Goldwater’s victory was a triumph.
But in reality, it created the conditions under which Trump could thrive. Trump’s politics of aggrieved white nationalism–labeling black people criminals, Latinos rapists, and Muslims terrorists–succeeded because the party’s voting base was made up of the people who once opposed civil rights.
“[Trump] tapped into something that was latent in the Republican Party and conservative movement–but a lot of people in the conservative movement didn’t notice,” Roy concludes, glumly.
This soul-searching led Roy to an uncomfortable conclusion: The Republican Party, and the conservative movement that propped it up, is doomed.
Both are too wedded to the politics of white nationalism to change how they act, but that just isn’t a winning formula in a nation that’s increasingly black and brown. Either the Republican Party will eat itself or a new party will rise and overtake its voting share.
“Either the disruption will come from the Republican Party representing cranky old white people and a new right-of-center party emerging in its place, or a third party will emerge, à la the Republicans emerging from the Whigs in the [1850s],” Roy says.
The work of conservative intellectuals today, he argues, is to devise a new conservatism–a political vision that adheres to limited government principles but genuinely appeals to a more diverse America.
“I think it’s incredibly important to take stock,” he says, “and build a new conservative movement that is genuinely about individual liberty.”
I’ve read dozens of conservative intellectuals writing compellingly about non-racist conservative ideals. Writers like Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and too many others to count have put forward visions of a conservative party quite different from the one we have.
But not one of these writers, smart as they are, has been able to explain what actual political constituency could bring about this pure conservatism in practice. The fact is that limited government conservatism is not especially appealing to nonwhite Americans, whereas liberalism and social democracy are. The only ones for whom conservatism is a natural fit are Roy’s “cranky old white people”–and they’re dying off.