Why Progressives Need a Strong Republican Party—and What Republicans of Color Are Doing to Save It

A one-party democracy is no democracy at all. Meet the new generation of Republicans working to bring their party back to life and into the 21st century.
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YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

Amid jabs aimed at his former campaign opponents, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking at the recent Washington Press Club Foundation Dinner, voiced what many GOP stalwarts have been thinking for months: “My party has gone bat sh-t crazy.”

He may not have been joking.

“Unless you’re rich, male, or pale, the Republican Party is leaving you behind.”

Recent rallies for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have produced startling support for Graham’s assertion. The raucous events have been scenes of fistfights where protesters were punched, kicked, and even bitten while being targeted with racial epithets and death threats.

The percentage of Republicans in the House of Representatives who have abandoned any semblance of moderation and now align with the far right is almost 90 percent. The current party seems to have an aversion to people of color, the LGBT community, populist economic policies, and reality in general.

“Unless you’re rich, male, or pale, the Republican Party is leaving you behind,” says Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell under President George W. Bush, who frequently tours the country speaking out on the current plight of his party.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that 89 percent of self-identified Republicans are White. Hispanics make up the party’s largest non-White fraction at 6 percent. Blacks account for just 2 percent, and Asians hover at half that amount. The party’s sway among America’s working women has also steadily eroded: Nearly half supported President Bush in 2004, but only a third voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Since 1980, more women overall have voted for Democrats in presidential elections.

Wilkerson says the GOP dug its own grave by pandering to a Southern, White, conservative base that is furious over liberal advances on social issues including gay marriage and racial equity, while effectively excluding many non-White and non-gender-conforming Americans from its ranks.

All this has led some Republicans to consider the unthinkable: a vote for longtime Republican foil Hillary Clinton. At face value, that may seem like a victory for Democrats, but progressives shouldn’t uncork the champagne just yet.

After all, as Wilkerson points out, “If we’re going to have a two-party system, we need two good parties.”

“If we’re going to have a two-party system, we need two good parties.”

With no alternative to the Democratic Party, there is more room for some groups to be taken for granted. Their votes would matter, but their concerns and causes would not, because ultimately there would be no other place for them to go. It is unlikely that they would dare vote for a Republican Party they see as being at odds with them.

This causes a type of “emotional blackmail,” according to political scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Speaking on “All In With Chris Hayes,” she said the Democratic Party is able to hold captive groups of voters including Blacks and laborers, while providing nothing for them in the way of policy—only appearing to protect them from the “big, bad, racist Republicans.”

But relief may be on its way, as this predicament has also seeded a new crop of Republicans who are working toward a long-overdue reformation.

John Martin, a Republican reform activist based in New York City, runs The GOP Left Me, an online community with more than 37,000 disaffected Republicans. Its tagline: “The Republican Party ain’t what it used to be.”

The community frequently cites writings from reform-minded Republicans and calls out bigotry and hypocrisy in the party, such as Senate Republicans’ refusal to entertain the idea of filling the current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court during President Barack Obama’s final year in office, even though a Democratic senate appointed Republican President Ronald Reagan’s nominee during the last months of his presidency.

Martin first joined the GOP during the “Republican Revolution” of the early 1990s, when Republicans took both houses of Congress after more than four decades as the political minority.

Back then, he says, the Republican Party was filled with ideas. Today, that GOP is all but extinct, replaced by a party rigid in its stances on God, guns, and Gays, to quote political activist David Badash.

“I don’t feel like I’ve left the Republican Party; I think it’s left me,” he says, channeling Ronald Reagan’s stated reason for switching from Democrat to Republican in 1962.

Martin voted for Barack Obama in successive elections, and went so far as to head up the Republicans for Obama website in 2012.

“I think overall we haven’t been able to adapt to the times,” he says.

Martin came of age politically when Republican hatred of President Bill Clinton was at its zenith. Now he can barely believe his own words when he explains that, given the current choice between the two major parties, he would support Hillary Clinton. He plans to vote for whoever is on the Libertarian Party ticket this year.

This predicament has also seeded a new crop of Republicans who are working toward a long-overdue reformation.

Martin currently lives in New York state’s 15th Congressional District, where he is a member of the Bronx GOP. The 15th has the lowest percentage of registered Republicans of any district in the nation. Swimming in a sea of liberalism may account for the Bronx Republicans’ tolerance of groups that are not typically welcomed into the larger party circles.

“We don’t care if you’re a homosexual. We’re really focusing on growing the Republican Party in the Bronx,” he says, adding that he hopes the Bronx GOP, with its inclusionary mindset, can serve as a way forward for Republicans in other urban areas. Otherwise, Martin predicts the GOP will eventually just be a regional party.

To avoid that fate, a reasonable presidential candidate must emerge for long-time party members like Richard Fair, a Toledo, Ohio, native and father of three who supports the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations for slavery, and wide scale government investment in inner cities, and asserts that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has done irreparable harm to the Black community with many of his decisions from the bench.

“We need to start calling out racism in our own party. It’s like we’re scared to do it,” says Fair, who despite being a Republican, says he is Black first and that his party should genuinely engage with the concerns of his community.

This shift has been difficult, as the party’s intransigent and previously ancillary far-right faction has seized control, muscling its way to the top, in part by showing up in huge numbers to party meetings and outlasting everyone else through hours of deliberation.

As a result, the GOP has bled dry most of its moderates and centrists (those who are fiscally conservative, conscious of environmental issues, and ambiguous on social issues) including former Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and Representatives Patrick Murphy and Claudine Schneider, according to The Washington Post.

Any push for social reform will be an uphill battle as long the religious right is asserting its influence.

Since 2005, Gallup reports, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who describe themselves as both social and economic conservatives has dropped to 42 percent, the lowest level since 2005. Thomas Mann, of Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast in 2011 that. in terms of power within the party, moderates had “none, absolutely zero, zippo.”

Any push for social reform will be an uphill battle as long the religious right is asserting its influence—as seen recently in North Carolina with the passage of legislation that limits state protections for the LGBT community—even if a new generation is ready.

“[Millennials] were raised in a time when it’s normal to be Gay, or normal to have ethnic friends. That’s the only world they know,” Martin stresses.

Luke Phillips, a 22-year-old political science major at the University of Southern California and a Republican reform activist, is also fed up with his party’s current iteration.

“The economic policies put in place by conservative Republicans have come to fruition and eroded the populist faith that many different groups once had in the party,” he says.

Phillips grew up Republican and has been a reform activist for the past three years. He currently heads up the Progressive Republican League, a website for reform-minded Republican millennials. Its goal is to usher the “Republican Party, and the rest of the country with it, into the 21st Century.”

He joins many other young Republicans who are less conservative than the GOP as a whole, and who say the party is stuck in an old ideology that is preventing it from embracing the world as it actually is.

For Phillips, the party’s fixation on failed economic polices such as Reaganism—or trickle-down economics—offer little hope of an economic cushion or prosperity for the working class that turned out in droves to vote for Trump.

Conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough said as much on the March 8 installment of his “Morning Joe” broadcast:

“But herein lies the problem with the Republican Party: It never trickles down! Those people in Trump’s crowds, those are all the ones that lost the jobs when they got moved to Mexico and elsewhere. The Republican donor class are the ones that got rich off of it because their capital moved overseas and they made higher profits.”

“I have an infinite amount of hope, but it’s in this new generation of Republicans, not my own.”

Proof of the GOP’s abandonment of the typical American was offered in congressional Republicans’ 2016 budget battle with President Obama. The GOP budget called for reducing taxes on individuals making more than $250,000 a year, while allowing the Earned Income Tax and Child Tax Credits used almost exclusively by poor working-class families to expire in 2017. This effectively raised taxes on more than 30 million financially vulnerable Americans. Both credits are currently set to disappear unless action is taken by a Republican-dominated Congress.

Reformers like Phillips implore the party to move toward policies more favorable to run-of-the-mill working people in order to maintain relevancy. In that regard, the tenets outlined on the Progressive Republican website and Facebook page are a synthesis of Republican frameworks that meld a belief in free markets and fiscal prudence with strategic public investment and tolerance of a multipolar society, without taking extreme positions on social issues.

On the USC campus, Phillips is a political orphan. He aligns neither with the Young Republicans and their adherence to the GOP’s current orthodoxy, nor the Young Democrats who sometimes carry liberalism to its extremes. He does have kindred spirits across the country, however, who don’t buy the party’s current brand. But, at present, reform-minded Republicans lack an organizational framework within the party structure, he says.

While it is difficult to reconcile the beliefs of the more religiously fervent among them with the new normal, Phillips would not completely banish the old guard from the party, saying that it’s dangerous to exclude any group from the democratic process.

“Excommunication is what happened to my movement 50 years ago, and I don't want to fix that by taking revenge on conservatives,” he says.

The chances of radical reform may look bleak for a party headed by Trump, but there is cause for optimism. Some point to the fact that Trump has  been able to claim only 43 percent of the Republican vote, meaning a majority of the party is not buying the brand of Republicanism the notorious dealmaker is selling.

All this umbrage with the GOP raises the question: Why not flee to the Democratic Party? For many, the tenets of Republicanism maintain their allure, and time has not changed their rejection of most of the Democratic Party’s platform.

So then why not head for the greener pastures of the Libertarian or Constitutional parties? Or create a new party? Most cite the fact that third parties have very limited impact. In the last presidential election, the Libertarian Party—arguably closest to traditional Republicanism on the ideological spectrum—received just over one million of 126 million votes, a historical, but ultimately inconsequential, high for them.

Faced with few better options, reformers maintain faith that their party still has legs.

“I have an infinite amount of hope, but it’s in this new generation of Republicans, not my own,” says Wilkerson.

Phillips for one, intends to make good on Wilkerson’s assessment. He is using the Progressive Republican League to expand the network of like-minded GOP reformers in hopes of building the infrastructure necessary to support Republican progressives and moderates.

For reformers, a democracy governed exclusively by two parties means there is an imperative for both of them to be viewed as rational options by the average voter. They intend to continue to hold the Republican Party to its end of that bargain.