Earlier this week the Republican National Committee published a report from its “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which outlines the current weaknesses of the party and offers detailed recommendations for addressing those weaknesses. Although I agree with many of the observations and recommendations, the report spent about 100 pages to finally admit to the reality that some of us have been trying to get the party to face for some time. However, one observation contained in the report was so poignant (and so obvious) that it caught my attention:
The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
That statement took my mind back to another time—more than a generation ago—when I still had more hair on top of my head than on my chin; and to a Republican leader who challenged young people like me by reminding us that we had a “rendezvous with destiny” … “to make the world over again.” In doing so, he told us to stop talking to ourselves and to start persuading others to join us:
I want the record to show that I do not view the new revitalized Republican Party as one based on a principle of exclusion. After all, you do not get to be a majority party by searching for groups you won’t associate or work with. If we truly believe in our principles, we should sit down and talk. Talk with anyone, anywhere, at any time if it means talking about the principles of the Republican Party. Conservatism is not a narrow ideology nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists. …Our task now is not to sell a philosophy, but to make the majority of Americans, who already share that philosophy, see that modern conservatism offers them a political home. We are not a cult, we are members of a majority. Let’s act and talk like it. …
Much of what ails the American Conservative Movement and the Republican Party is self-inflicted because we stopped talking to others. It seems as though we foolishly concluded that, when Bill Clinton said that the era of big government was over, we had won the argument with the left. So, we simply turned on each other and fought among ourselves over ideological purity. As we did that, we and our ideas seemed to be less and less relevant to our neighbor’s lives. In fact, I think it is safe to say that had the attacks on 9/11 not occurred, or had George W. Bush not responded to the 9/11 attacks as he did, the trajectory of history would have caused him to be an accidental one-term President because we already had turned inward on ourselves.
And the people we stopped talking to, and who stopped listening to us, primarily inhabit the urban zip codes that we lost so decisively in the last election. People will not listen to someone they don’t trust, they won’t trust someone they don’t feel they know, and they won’t get to know someone who ignores them. Most Republicans have ignored most urban neighborhoods since at least 1960, with the predictable consequences for our party as the vast majority of Americans now live inside metropolitan areas.
But our inaction has created unintended consequences for cities, too. Remember the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, and the segment of the story in which the Angel (Clarence) shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would have been like without him and the Bailey Savings and Loan? It became Potterville, with all of its loneliness, indifference, anger, decadence and despair for so many of the people George had known. Now look at present-day Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and even neighborhoods in Houston, and what you’ll find are a lot of Pottervilles because we haven’t been there for generations. We Republicans need to have a cold, hard look in the mirror and realize that many of the pathologies that have caused so much under-education, under-employment, and over-incarceration in urban neighborhoods sprouted and grew because our party abandoned most cities to the Democrats (and their failed theories of government command and control) more than a generation ago.
Now, if you find what I just wrote a little hard to swallow, compare the cities I just mentioned to today’s New York City, a Democratic stronghold that hasn’t been willing to elect a Democratic Mayor in over two decades (though Bloomberg is no Republican, he’s not really a Democrat either—he’s just an independent narcissist) but has enjoyed a prolonged civic renaissance throughout so many of its neighborhoods since the mid-1990s.
If you think clearly about the challenges America faces, one conclusion should be clear: the country needs a revitalized Republican Party that is engaged in every neighborhood—not just along Main Street, but along the hard streets and alleys of our cities where too many lives are constantly being lost at too early of an age. To do that, though, Republicans have to actually engage in the life of those neighborhoods—their families, civic and religious organizations, their schools, and their local governments—and use Republican principles to address real needs in those neighborhoods.
We are not a debating society, so we need to stop talking to each other about our principles. Instead, we need to mentor the members of a new generation, through our actions and policies, to be part of a movement larger than themselves; to be part of a movement that will enlarge and enrich liberty, while transforming the opportunities for all our neighbors to live fuller and richer lives consistent with best of their dreams. In so doing, we actually can “make the world over again”—not just talk about what should be, or what could have been.