Jeff Flake, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate.
I must admit that Tuesday’s election was a bit odd for me. For the first time in nearly two decades, I spent it as a spectator rather than a participant. In ordinary times, I would have missed the push and pull, the spirited debates about the size and scope of government. I was content to sit this one out.
After all the machinations, the conventional wisdom held. The House will now be under Democratic control while Republicans will maintain the majority in the Senate. We are under divided government again, the type of government that, in my opinion, usually delivers the best results, because it forces the parties to work together.
The big question for Republicans is whether we believe in anything that is in any way coherent, beyond the current cult of the president’s personality. What is the Republican Party today, and what kind of party do we want to be in the future?
When I think of the generation that is coming of age, I think of my own coming of age, and of the leaders who awakened my civic imagination and inspired me to want to be an active part of the American experiment. Those leaders did that by calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, by projecting a principled and idealistic version of America to the next generation, and, most practically, by believing in something coherent. The transformational conservative politician of the mid-20th century, Barry Goldwater, was a constitutionalist who had a very clear idea of what government is for and what it isn’t for — where government ended and freedom began.
The inspiring conservative politician of my young adulthood, Ronald Reagan, became the global leader he was by standing against the spread of communism just as it was making its last stand. He represented the free world at a critical moment, and his words penetrated into the darkness of totalitarianism. To the unfree world, the United States was the beacon of hope on Earth. The clarion call of conservatism was powerful and purposeful to me as a young man. To be a conservative — to be a Republican — was to sign on to a movement rich in ideas to build the United States for a new century.
What does it mean to be a conservative today? I can’t imagine how an 18-year-old first-time voter is supposed to answer that question. It’s not fiscal responsibility — not with a projected trillion-dollar deficit. Nor is it pursuing a principled constitutionalist’s idea of the proper role of government — not when we condone or participate in “lock her up” chants at political rallies. It’s hard to claim to be the beacon of freedom when we follow a man who is in the thrall of authoritarians and shrug when he calls the press “enemy of the people,” a phrase borrowed from some of the worst despots on Earth.
If I were 18 today and had to say what conservatives now believe in, and my only evidence was the campaign now concluded, I would have to say that the conservative party in the United States seems to be the party that scares you into supporting it. I would have to say that it is the party fueled by anger, by racial and cultural resentments, by outlandish conspiracy theories and by what can only be described as an irrational fear of immigrants.
I loved Reagan, but never for a moment was I confused about my loyalties, because never for a moment was the conservative movement that he inspired about him. It was about pursuing a cause, as John McCain so effectively articulated, greater than one’s self-interest.
So, what now for the movement that compelled me into public service? Will we embrace the dystopian view of the country that the president has adopted — and double down on the fearmongering — or will we salvage our principles, assume a more sane and humane view of our ideological opponents, and assert a more optimistic vision?
There is only one real way forward, of course. But it has to start with Republicans believing in something greater than President Trump again.
Now is a good time to start.