How did the GOP get here?
This most recent undermining of our democracy begins with Grover Nordquist. After tangential involvement in the Iran-Contra arms deal, and participating in attempts to undermine the anti-apartheid movement, in 1985-86 Nordquist founded Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an organization ostensibly dedicated to tax reform.
Like many conservative organizations, ATR focuses on eliminating social programs, which are a relatively small portion of the national budget, while leaving big-ticket items like military spending intact. They appeal to low-income people by insisting the government is taking food from children’s mouths by overtaxing their parents. They built a mythology that white people were paying taxes so people of color, especially Black people, could live happily on the government dole despite the facts. Like much else politicians have done since time immemorial, they gaslighted poor, ignorant and newly-middle-income white people by misdirecting their insecurity and fears. Fact-checking website Politifact even keeps a running list of their lies.
In the 1985-86 election season, Nordquist and his team came up with a new tactic. They demanded any Republican running for public office sign a pledge saying they would never raise taxes. They were also required not to remove existing tax deductions without also lowering taxes. Any candidate refusing to take the pledge would not receive funding or support from conservatives.
George H.W. Bush used the phrase, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” in his GOP presidential nomination acceptance speech, but refused to sign the pledge. After a ballooning budget deficit during this term forced him to raise taxes, he lost his bid for a second presidential term. Nordquist was quick to take credit for the defeat and tie it back to Bush’s disdain for the pledge. Ever since, the pledge has been seen as one true measure of a candidate’s conservatism.
To my knowledge, this was the first time a candidate for federal office was asked to put a party principle above the needs of the country; to pledge allegiance to party first and put the priorities of the country second; to calculate the tactics for winning above the ethics of governing. Since then, the GOP has developed a series of conservative purity tests eating away at any promise of serving our entire nation, or our constitution, above all else.
From Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, the anti-science agenda, evangelical Christians’ attacks on women’s bodily choices, lies about President Obama’s birth, on to the 2020 rebellion against mask wearing, the once courageous party of Lincoln has devolved to the muddle of manipulated, misinformed rabble seen on the Capitol steps. Bit by bit, they forgot that government is for all the people, not just their constituents. Subsequent actions within the party have been built on that errant foundation until here we are four decades later; Republicans continue to elevate their party above the country. Wednesday’s Republican riots were the natural, inevitable culmination.
Were there opportunities to stop this downslide? Of course. There always are. Turn first to those conservative media pundits whose silence, or carefully worded evasions, paved a smooth path for the party radicals’ ascension to power. They have repeatedly used pundit double-speak to evade important objections to the purity tests. They could have asked the difficult questions, challenged the orthodoxy being required of those aspiring to leadership within the party. Instead, they silently watched as the party became more constricted.
Some of those same writers and speakers, regularly seen on PBS and other news networks, now decry the horrible state of our democracy, as if they had no part in getting us here. If ever there is to be truth and reconciliation, they must go beyond handwringing to name their own complicity.
Next, we must address the raging egos. No one seems to want to tell the whole truth about how the current president came to be the Republican candidate in 2016. Had the other candidates put their egos aside and stepped off stage when their poll numbers were low, votes could have consolidated around a single competent individual. I can’t speak to who that would have been since I’m not a Republican (or Democrat), but it likely wouldn’t have been the current resident of the White House. Instead, each candidate held on month after month, primary after primary, splitting the votes into such tiny factions that it took a small percentage of votes in each state to win.
Finally, our society’s culture of “win at any cost” must be challenged. It has become the way law at every level is practiced in our country and must be replaced with “justice at any cost.” Lawyers are taught to win. They are paid on billable hours and their ability to attain decisive victory for their clients. Our own mayor in Seattle, who used to be a federal prosecutor, is a perfect example. Her need to win so blinded her to the need to create justice she made a mess of last summer’s protests and their aftermath. But that’s for another op-ed. The GOP leadership is so focused on winning even Ted Cruz, an accomplished legal expert in his own right, is knowingly spouting lies about the election process in order to court the sloppy seconds left by the current president.
If Republicans and their conservative allies want to restore any measure of their connection to democracy, they need to admit where their purity tests took them and give them up. By impeaching the existing president, immediately seating the two new senators from Georgia, publicly unmasking the lies they and their colleagues have told, and censuring and expelling those members of their party who participated in the attempted coup, they can begin to put aright their ship and work to heal this nation.
Short of that, there is no hope for their future, and no quarter should be given them.
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Welcome! I am an essayist, poet, and facilitator, passionate about social justice and integrity, who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. These observations are based on a lifetime working in the private and non-profit sectors, in a variety of organizational development capacities.