A former Republican officeholder — who was highly effective at his job — recently asked me whether returning to politics in the current atmosphere was worth the effort. Would being a GOP legislator in the Trump era involve too many sacrifices of principle? Does federal office even matter as much as it used to? Wouldn’t writing books or running a charity be a better use of time and talent?
I understand the reluctance. Being a public official in 2019 not only requires constant fundraising and family sacrifice, it also involves the possibility of being captured by smartphone camera at nearly every public moment and being subjected to constant Internet calumny. And it is not possible in much of the country for a Republican to run and win as an anti-Trump candidate. Even Mitt Romney had to pull back from his criticisms of President Trump to win a Senate seat.
These concerns are a concentrated version of a dilemma faced by many citizens. Is politics too damaged to justify our continued engagement as donors, activists and voters? Wouldn’t it be more effective and satisfying to improve the community in nonpolitical ways — giving to a soup kitchen instead of a politician, volunteering at a senior center instead of knocking on doors in a precinct?
These questions have a personal relevance. In a variety of public and private posts over the past 30 years, I have done my part to give the center-right party in the United States an agenda and message of social justice, rooted in ideals of solidarity with the poor and suffering and a concern for the common good. That project is in ruins. The constituency for compassionate conservatism (as a friend put it) is less of a political party than a dinner party. The main messages of today’s GOP are demographic panic, ethnonationalist pride and a nihilistic destruction of norms, institutions and elites.
So why should a Republican run for office, donate to a candidate or even stay in a party that has gone off the moral rails?
My best answers:
Because the moment is perilous. The next two years may see a crisis of democratic legitimacy. It is quite possible that the pressures of investigation could further destabilize the president’s personality, causing him to lash out in unpredictable and unconstitutional ways. It is quite possible that Trump will question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election if he loses. In either scenario, responsible Republican figures would be required to defend the integrity of federal law enforcement or the electoral process. And this may determine a great deal about the country’s future.
Because the moment is not permanent. Having left behind a trail of ruin, Trump will one day face his own reckoning — from federal law enforcement, from the impeachment process or from a disgusted electorate. The essential work beyond that point will be institutional repair. Someone will be charged with restoring honor, integrity and dignity to the office of president of the United States, to the leadership of the House and Senate, and to the Republican Party (if its reputation is not broken beyond repair). Someone will be charged with reaching across jagged divisions and restoring a sense of shared national purpose. Someone will need to reknit the shredded democratic norms of civility, moderation and compromise.
Because the demands of conscience and justice remain pressing. Bluntly: The argument that citizens should take a break from politics because it is so corrupted and corrupting is often made by relatively comfortable white people. If you lived in a neighborhood where the schools were dysfunctional and the foster system were dangerously broken, there would be no vacation from governmental failure. If you lived in a country where young women were routinely infected with HIV or where children died of malaria, the United States’ global role would matter greatly to you. Those who play down the importance of politics are generally insulated from the consequences when governing goes wrong. The demands of justice do not go away when citizens are disillusioned with the practice of politics. To the contrary, the scale of injustice tends to increase as responsible citizens abandon the political enterprise.
To my Republican friend thinking about running for office: We are headed into a time of political testing, when the right words from a responsible conservative might turn some crucial tide. It is also a time when some form of a center-right party (whatever it is called) will be reconstituted at the national level. And it is always a time when the suffering and vulnerable need allies.
Our nation was fortunate in the quality of its founders. Soon our political culture may require a re-founding. And this is a high calling.