When I was a Republican, working first on Capitol Hill and then for the Republican National Convention in 2000 and then for a senatorial re-election campaign, I experienced a constant sense of having to find ways of coming to terms with and supporting views I didn’t immediately find legitimate or actions of politicians in leadership that I did not find defensible. I am from Philadelphia and was really a social family-values conservative and a fiscal welfare-supporting liberal. I thought abortion was wrong, but we had a responsibility for the poor. I experienced my fairly short-lived existence as a Republican staffer feeling like I had to swallow some things I found pretty awful like a general disdain for poor people in order to achieve the agenda I supported. But it wasn’t just policy, it was like, every time the Speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich and then Dennis Hastert) or Majority Leader (Trent Lott) said something absurd, or when the House impeached Bill Clinton, every GOP staffer had to do various acrobatics to come to terms with supporting this party. Maybe other staffers felt more freedom to distinguish between what they supported and what they didn’t, but we were working for the Party as much as for the Member of Congress so it was hard to do that. Everything had to be defended. The Party could do no wrong.
Today, I experience a similar sense of pressure on the other side. But now I am more willing to resist it. I wish then I hadn’t felt so profoundly like the Party was the only possibility. I think for far too long the GOP has taken advantage of the fact that people will put aside all their misgivings for the sake of some possibility that their agenda will be recognized. Thus both parties benefit from there being people who are single issues voters, who say, I only vote on the basis of abortion politics, because this allows you to look away on all the other things–the isolationism and racism, the violence for us and law and order for them mentality, the outright misogyny, the disdain for others, the unabashed power seeking — both individual and for the country as a whole. This thinking allowed politicians to use issues like abortion that they didn’t really care about to push through supply-side economics. What this eventually meant was that the politicians were willing to flip on the wedge issues that helped get them elected because they weren’t really invested in them in the first place. Thus, when George H.W. Bush nominated David Souter to SCOTUS in 1990, evangelicals felt betrayed. I was 14. I felt betrayed. Bush had never really been a firebrand social conservative (just like the current nominee), but people voted for him because the Supreme Court! Let that be a lesson.
I’m not a Republican anymore, but I know what it feels like to be a Republican who feels like you have no choice. This feeling is part of what drives the two-party system in the US. I don’t like hearing from the Democratic Party today that I have no choice, as if the Party has no choice but to support the neoliberal policies it supports, as if I should get on board just because of those wedge issues, which politicians seem to find ways to cave on pretty easily.
This election cycle reminds me of that feeling as I see one evangelical after another find a way to support the Republican nominee. Some people think they are doing it because they only ever were power hungry – evidence for this can be found in people like Falwell all of a sudden thinking the Bible has nothing to say about how government should be run. Some argue that evangelicals are drawn to messianic figures – strong leaders. Others argue that evangelicals support Trump because they are largely white middle-class men who feel a loss of power. An article last fall in The Atlantic Monthly argues that people vote on the basis of religion. It seems to me that this Republican campaign thinks the last one is true and has made religion its own kind of wedge issue. Aside from the historical danger of making religion a political wedge issue, it is worth considering that as with other kinds of wedge issues, it is easily forgotten once the votes roll in.
One thing I learned as a social conservative Republican growing up was that electoral politics will not save us. This is one thing with which I agree with my former self. So if it won’t save us, why do we put ourselves through the gymnastics of defending what ordinarily, if we were just asked by someone over coffee whether we thought it was right or not we would say no? I think both the evangelical right and the progressive left are being appealed to through arguments that ask us to accept things we find unacceptable for things we want to see happen in the world. As someone who doesn’t like that on the left, who used to experience it on the right, I want to say, I don’t think we should buy it.