Over the long and fraught political history of the United States, the country has seen six party systems that have dominated national politics. The last realignment took place during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, with the GOP sweeping the Heartland and the South, while the Democrats made gains in the North and on the West Coast.
It is clear now, in 2021, the country is in another great political shift.
The Republican Party has never been rocked with such discord in its entire history. Its political positions have shifted throughout the years, from its inception as an originally progressive, anti-slavery party during the Civil War, to the protectionist party of the Gilded Age, forward to the capitalist and “conservatarian” beliefs under Barry Goldwater and finally to where we are now, right-wing populism with a panache of economic nationalism. But like all unrestrained populism, it burned like a quick fire — hot and fast.
The Capitol riot was the first day for the Republican Civil War, which at worst can destroy the party and set back conservatism in the U.S. for decades or, at best, push the GOP into a new direction that can place it as the dominant political party for years to come. For this latter path forward to prevail, it is imperative, during this battle for the soul of the party, that the neoconservatives, the Tea Party Republicans, and the Trump populists all lose in the brawl. All these positions had their political advantages, but their disadvantages left the GOP uncompromising and unprepared for the changes of the modern political world.
Instead, the party must follow a new path: the ideology of the One Nation.
One of the best contributions to conservative thought came from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who, although known for a myriad of controversial political decisions such as colonialism, developed the conception of One Nation Conservatism. The hallmarks of One Nation Conservatism are pragmatism and paternalism. The pragmatism of One Nation Conservatism permitted actions of necessity in contrast to the unmoving partisanship of the current U.S. party system. State economic intervention was at times recognized as needed, yet free markets are preferred.
The word “paternalism” often gets a bad rap, but in this sense, it advances the medieval concept of the noblesse oblige, the idea that the privileged and wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor and less fortunate. Government should be paternalistic for the sake of two things — social stability and class cooperation. Societies form organically and according to natural social development, and as such, differing classes have inherent natural obligations to each other. In return for the laborer’s good and honest work, the employer ought to pay him a good and honest wage. Government should act as the watchdog to ensure these obligations are met, but also that these classes don’t take advantage of each other through unfair business practices or unions forcing unwarranted reforms that would destroy the enterprise.
American conservatism has slowly lurched toward some of these positions over the decades. President George W. Bush’s direction to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to take necessary steps to ensure the integrity of vital U.S. financial institutions, like the Troubled Asset Relief Program, showed pragmatism. Furthermore, since the 2016 election, the growth of blue-collar voters voting Republican demonstrated a paternalistic turning point for the party. The inclusion of these blue-collar voters is often viewed through the populist lens, but it can also be seen as paternalistic — as the newly elected Republican government moved for protectionist policies to assist workers who have lost their jobs due to globalization (where previously the GOP was viewed as the party of big business, not caring about the everyday worker).
Because of these slow developments, the Republican Party is at the perfect launching point to embrace a new unifying ideology under One-nation Conservatism. It must become a more multiracial party for workers, small businesses, law and social order, and rededicate itself to the American values of freedom and industriousness. If the GOP previously held such convictions, it could have more easily and deftly navigated the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the ensuing political strife that followed. It could have championed reform while promoting the cause of law and social cohesion.
All elected Republican officials have done a great service to the GOP and the cause of conservatism, but it is up to the regular Republican and conservative men and women in all 50 states to push for the change the GOP needs in these trying times.
Garrett L. Zahner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Maryland Federation of College Republicans.