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Opinion Reagan would tell today’s CPAC to build a GOP coalition, not a church

Technicians work on the stage before the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, on Feb. 25. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is taking place against the backdrop of a divided Republican Party. How to unify that party and attract new adherents to become a majority is the topic on just about every participant’s mind. Speakers and attendees should follow the advice Ronald Reagan gave at the 1977 CPAC: Build a coalition, not a church.

Reagan took the stage at a time when the party was far more divided than today’s GOP. Republicans then held only 144 House and 38 Senate seats. Half of Americans said they were Democrats, while only 21 percent called themselves Republicans. Reagan himself lost his bid for his party’s nomination to be president in 1976, narrowly failing to dislodge incumbent Gerald Ford from his perch in an epic primary battle. The common wisdom held that conservatism was a spent force, with the GOP hanging on by a thread.

One would never have known this from listening to Reagan’s speech. Ever the optimist, Reagan painted a picture in which conservatism was not only alive, but the wave of the future. He cited poll data that demonstrated a plurality, and in some instances a majority, of Americans placing themselves to the right on the political spectrum. The challenge, according to Reagan, was bringing these people together into a new Republican Party.

The key to doing this, he said, was understanding that conservatives did not march in lockstep. “[Conservatism] can and does mean different things to those who call themselves conservatives,” Reagan told the assembled crowd. He noted that conservatives tended to fall into two camps, traditional Democrats whose priority was “social issues” such as law and order and abortion and traditional Republicans whose priority was “economic issues” such as big government and deficit spending. These groups could come together not just in a “temporary uneasy alliance” but instead form a “new, lasting majority.”

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Doing this required two things: compromise and rejecting ideology. Both sides would have to address the other’s major concerns and put aside differences in the name of the common good. And they would have to do so while following their principles and avoiding the temptation to submit each other to ideological litmus tests.

This latter point is key to understanding Reagan’s vision and politics. Ideology, he said, was a “rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality.” But disregarding facts is “the complete opposite to principled conservatism,” he told the crowd. “Those who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life … are not conservatives.”

The analogy to today is clear. Republicans who seek to drive others out from their midst for being insufficiently pure aren’t building a majority; they are worshiping abstractions and ignoring reality. Modern conservatism includes people who want small government and those who want larger, more active government. It includes people who mourn the decline of Christianity in public life and those who practice no religion at all. It includes those who love former president Donald Trump and those who despise him. At that level, the Republican Party appears to be a house divided against itself. And as we know from Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

But just as in 1977, there is a clear conservative majority if one looks at the level of principle. The same data that shows divisions on policies and priorities shows overwhelming unity on questions regarding devotion to American ideals of liberty, freedom and security. This emphasis attracted millions to Trump’s cause who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and who call themselves moderates rather than conservatives. Trump’s 47 percent of the vote in 2020 can be augmented by the millions of conservatives who could not bring themselves to vote for him and millions of former Republican moderates who share many but not all conservative goals. Bring these groups together under a Reagan-esque tent of compromise and coalition, and a clear, cohesive majority is apparent.

Doing this will complete Reagan’s vision of a New Republican Party. He saw that such a party would “have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before.” This would be done not by simply “making room” for them, but by making certain they have a say in "what goes on in the party.” Forty-five years later, this is still a work in progress.

For all his faults, Trump brought millions of working-class voters of all races into the GOP. Modern conservatism must finish the job and give those voters real power within its halls.

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