Several weeks before the Class of 2016 embarks upon the introductory jamboree that is O-Week, the nation’s two major political parties will be hosting their own “orientations” of sorts—namely, their national party conventions.
Held every presidential election cycle, these conventions are important for three reasons: They seal the nomination of a party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, allow a party to develop and adopt a new platform, and determine the nominating process for the next convention.
With the Obama-Biden ticket sealed since last winter, it makes sense for us to focus on the convention that will matter—namely, the Republicans’.
The first Republican convention took place in 1856, and centered on a controversial and complex, but ultimately clear and concrete issue: slavery. But slavery wasn’t just the issue that was addressed in their platform; it was the issue that they actively campaigned on.
Though the party’s composition ranged from staunch slavery supporters like Bates to avid abolitionists like Frémont, the cause the nascent Republican Party ultimately backed—making slavery illegal in all new and to-be-added states and territories—represented a reasonable, moderate compromise that bridged the gaps among its members. In stark contrast to the North-South factionalized Democrats (who went so far as to run two separate candidates—a “Democrat” and a “Southern Democrat”), the Republican Party united, ran, and won.
In the first century or so of its existence, Republicans continued to triumph on a kind of communal compromise—a unified backing of a mean position that lay between its two extremes.
Unfortunately for the GOP, this is no longer the case.
Despite keeping to its distinct rallying cry of patriotic values, the party’s priorities have moved further and further away from the position of a Republican mean. Rather than take cues from its middle, the party has increasingly turned toward farther right-wing positions.
Consider the party’s stance on college education: One of the first (and most notable) pieces of federal legislation concerning college education was 1944’s G.I. Bill, which provided a wide range of benefits to returning World War II veterans, chief among them a comprehensive financial aid package for higher education. Thanks in large part to this bill, veterans made up half of college admissions in 1947; by 1956, nearly half of the war’s 16 million veterans had utilized the legislation to pursue more education. Through these and other provisions, the bill boosted college graduation rates, economic productivity, household income, and home ownership. Importantly, the prime advocates of the G.I. Bill were mostly Republicans; author of the first draft Harry Colmery, for example, was the National Committee’s Chairman.
Unfortunately, this is all a far cry from the Republican Party of 2012. By allowing itself to be guided by the extremism of an ever-richer elite, the party has been left no choice but to put its faith in Mitt Romney, a candidate who hopelessly encourages students to “shop around” for an inexpensive college that offers “a good education.” In the ’40s, the party understood just how unreasonable and useless such ‘advice’ is, and felt duty-bound to aid its most dedicated citizens pay for college, but this no longer seems to be the case.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the party’s growing extremism has been its approach to politics in general. Though attack ads and cross-party criticism have been a mainstay of two-party politics since the system first took root, painting an opponent like Carter as “weak” is very different from persistently—and against all evidence—waging misinformation-based campaigns against nonexistent problems like polling booth voter fraud, the “you-can-marry-a-squirrel” threat of legal same-sex marriage, or drawing a false parallel between a family’s credit card debt and the US national debt.
Much of this rhetoric has come from fringe movements like the Tea Party Patriots. But more and more, that’s the only kind of rhetoric that the party has been promoting. By allowing itself to be defined by its extremists rather than its generally more moderate membership, the party is sending its supporters the message that they will not be heard unless they’re intense, radical, and loud. Though it’s true that extremists are much more likely to splinter off in the event that their ideas aren’t backed, the departure of a fringe movement is unlikely to matter much in the long run. The alienation of the moderate base, however, is.
Moreover, the party needs to remember that advocating an increasingly radical right-wing platform is very different from preserving a platform that leaned right to begin with. If the Republican Party intends to stick around for the long haul, it needs to reorient its political compass and go toward positions that are popular among most of its members.
From this follows a telling, important question: Should the GOP even care about long-term implications? After all, electoral politics are all about the importance of the short-term win, the next campaign, the next big election. If super PAC shouting matches and sensationalized non-issues are this year’s voter magnets (not to mention magnate magnets), then why not use them?
It’s a great question, and it all boils down to the most important choice that the Republican Party will make this year: Stay true to its commitment to “preserving our nation’s values,” or redefine itself as the party that confuses radical with right.
Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year in the College majoring in economics.