The Election 2016 Election Chronicles Volume 11: Are We Witnessing the End of the Republican Party?

I’m aware that I’ve just written possibly the most provocative subject line of this blog, but it’s been percolating in my head for a while now. At least give it a read before forming an opinion.

Currently in United States most partisan offices are held by members of the Republican or Democrat parties. Nearly everyone knows that there are minor parties (even if we can’t name them) but the 2 major parties really call the shots. And since it’s been that way for all of our memories, we can easily think that it’s always been that way.

It hasn’t. The GOP was formed in 1854 in opposition to slavery. But it didn’t form out of nothing: it rose from (some of) the ashes of the Whig party which was itself formed in opposition to President Andrew Jackson who they referred to as “King Andrew.” It can be reasonably said that President Jackson was the first President who identified as Democrat.

It’s telling that from the beginning the Whigs had only one purpose: opposition to the Democrats. That said they had some success. Members included Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore. Influential non Presidents included Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Winfield Scott. Oh yes, and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln.

Slavery was the issue that ultimately doomed them. For 21st Century Democrats like me, it’s hard to imagine this but Democrats of the 1840s and 1850s were united in their support of slavery. Not only did they demand that slavery continue in the South, but that it expand westward as territories in the Midwest and West became states. After Andrew Jackson, Democrat Presidents before the Civil War were James K. Polk from North Carolina, Franklin Pierce from New Hampshire, and James Buchanan from Pennsylvania. And while Pierce and Buchanan were from Northern states, they were pretty feckless. One could make the argument that while they didn’t cause the Civil War, their passivity only delayed it.

As the expansion of slavery continued to divide the nation, the Whig party continued to try to remain the party that opposed the Democrats, regardless of any other issue. That inevitably led to a split between the Whigs who opposed slavery and those who didn’t. Northern Whigs opposed the westward expansion of slavery and southern Whigs didn’t. The divide couldn’t be resolved and eventually the southern Whigs joined the Democrats and the northern Whigs formed a new party that opposed both the Democrats and slavery. They called themselves Republicans.

Since then both parties have changed dramatically. President Lincoln successfully kept us together and paved the way to abolish slavery before being assassinated. And while (male) former slaves were eligible to vote, few were able because of deep-seated discrimination for a hundred years. But most of those who were able to register to vote identified as Republicans. This lasted until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt who they saw as more progressive on civil rights.

Enter today’s Republican Party. Like their Whig ancestors they unite against only this: the defeat of the Democrats. Nothing else matters.

So here’s their problem: there are factions that oppose each other in how they plan to govern and the only uniting factor (defeating the Democrats) won’t give them a path to victory. So let me give a few examples:

  • The Current Race for the Republican Nomination is a mess: For several election cycles the field of candidates has been full, but this time (and at this time) the front runners are Ben Carson and Donald Trump. They are united in this: neither has any political experience. Furthermore, both used to be Democrats. You can read about this here but Ben Carson was a Democrat until November 2014. Donald Trump, in a CNN interview three months ago, admitted he identified as a Democrat in 2004. His “party trail” is more complicated but you can read more about it here. In 1987 he registered as a Republican. In 1999 he changed to the Independence Party. In 2001 he changed to the Democrats. In 2009 he (again) registered as a Republican. Finally, in 2012 he declined to register as a member of any party. In other words, none of the other Republican candidates poll well against two guys who only professed their loyalty to the party in the last few years.
  • Their fights are getting more public and public and more ugly: Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed the Eleventh Commandment: Though Shalt Never Speak Ill of Another Republican. Republicans have famously fought in private while Democrats are often described as using a “circular firing squad” in their conflicts. But this is beginning to fall apart. My best, current example focuses on the Benghazi hearings. The Congressional investigation’s Republican leader, Trey Gowdy recently told fellow Republicans to “shut up” after some of them admitted that the Benghazi investigation was nothing more than a political ploy to hurt Hillary Clinton.
  • They can’t seem to agree on a new Speaker of the House. In January, 2011 John Boehner rose to a position he’d sought for years: Speaker of the House of Representatives. Once there he learned that his tenure would be far from easy. Conservative members of his party (often called the Freedom Caucus) signaled early on that they felt no loyalty to Boehner or the House of Representatives. They’ve been nothing short of an ongoing migraine and finally, last month he’d had enough. He announced he was resigning his seat in Congress and his role as Speaker. He endorsed the majority leader, Kevin McCarthy to succeed him and fully expected that to happen. It didn’t. Rep. McCarthy recognized that he didn’t have the support of the Freedom Caucus and he withdrew earlier this month. As I write this Paul Ryan has agreed to run with the hope that the Freedom Caucus will allow him to lead. I doubt they will.
  • Since 1992 the Republican candidate for President has won the popular vote only once. Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996. In 2000 George W. Bush won the electoral vote but not the popular vote. In 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama won the popular vote. Only in 2004 did George Bush win the popular vote. Clearly history is not on the Republican side.
  • All the Republican demographics are decreasing. In the 2012 election 88% of Mitt Romney’s voters were white. For much of the last century white voters comprised enough of the voting population that minorities didn’t matter. They do now. Our population from south of our border has exploded. Some of them vote because they have become naturalized citizens, but most vote because they were born here, children of immigrants. There’s an excellent Pew Research Center article entitled: A Deep Dive Into Party Affiliation that was published last April. It identified groups that tilt Republican: Mormons, White Evangelical Protestants, White Southerners, White Men (some college or less), White, and the Silent Generation (those born 1929-1946). Groups that tilt Democrat include Blacks, Asian, Religiously Unaffiliated, Post-Graduate Women, Jewish, Hispanic, and Millenial Generation (those born 1982-1997).

    So what happens from here? Clearly this doesn’t mean that everyone will become Democrat. While I choose to be Democrat I fully understand good and honest people disagree with me on many issues. Perhaps the Republicans will be able to reform themselves into a new party that better reflects the changing values of our nation. Perhaps they will split into different parties: some Republicans don’t care about gay marriage but feel government is too big. Others fear that we are losing our identity as Americans because so many people come from other places with different values and have no trouble with government protecting our food supply or air quality.

    When the Whig party split, some became Democrats and some formed the Republican party. This gave the immediate advantage to the Democrats but Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, six years after it was formed.

    My point in this blog entry is not to cheer the possible demise of the Republican Party, but just to point out that our nation is changing. Our demographics show that we are becoming a nation that embraces marriage equality, an openness to immigration, and wants health care to be available to all.

    There’s an opportunity to respond to this blog entry. If you do respond I will read it. But please don’t send me a response that claims President Obama is a Muslim terrorist or that Hillary Clinton has killed people. It only makes you look like an idiot.

  • The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 10: Can the American Voters Win a Debate?

    The next Presidential election is 13 months away and the campaigns are in full swing. The idea of watching the candidates debate in the public forum goes back to 1858 when Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) ran against Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) for the Senate seat from Illinois.

    In the 1960 Presidential election, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy gave us the first experience of a Presidential debate since the invention of the TV. Most people thought John Kennedy won the debate and this contributed to his victory.

    After 1960 there were no debates until 1976 when Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter and we’ve been saddled with these debates ever since.

    As someone who actually lettered for the debate team in high school it may seem like a betrayal to say this, but I think Presidential debates are a bad idea. Many years ago George F. Will famously described these debates as “parallel news conferences” and I think he’s right. But my concern goes much deeper.

    I don’t watch most of these debates because I don’t think the candidates use them to explain what they support and what they oppose. If I’m going to watch candidates on stage I want to learn which one best reflects my beliefs and values.

    Alas virtually all of the “analysis” of these debates devolve into reality TV: who won and who lost.

    In 1992 George H.W. Bush was famously seen looking at his watch against Bill Clinton. Regardless of his reason it was perceived as “why do I still have to be here?” and many believed it contributed to his defeat. Four years ago Rick Perry famously stumbled on how many cabinet positions he would eliminate and that essentially ended his candidacy.

    So far in the 2016 election cycle we’ve had 2 Republican and 1 Democratic debates. Virtually without exception the candidates don’t spend their time honing their views or explaining how they plan to govern. Instead they concentrate on “winning the debate.”

    I’m perfectly willing to vote for a candidate who doesn’t win the debate as long as he or she articulates a path to the America I think we’re called to.

    But I recognize that many of my fellow citizens want to “back the winner” and vote for the person who they think will win. And it makes me sad.

    I think that we are not well served by candidates who tell us (in different ways) that we should vote for them because they will be the next President. The fact that “everyone is voting for him or her” means nothing to me. I respect people who vote their values instead of their need to belong. I just wish there were more of us.

    Physician Assisted Suicide Comes to California: Why I'm Against It

    We received word today that California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows for physician assisted suicide.

    Not surprisingly feelings run high on both sides and I feel the need to add my input. I’m against it and fear this will lead to all sorts of problems.

    I should probably come clean and tell you that I have some skin in the game. For the past 17 years I’ve made my living as a hospice chaplain; I’ve spent these years walking with people (from 15 days to 102 years) through the last chapter of their lives. My wife Nancy is a physician, though as a pediatrician she won’t confront these issues.

    The idea of a person choosing to end his life is as old as King Saul in the Old Testament.

    Reasons for suicide are manifold. Saul killed himself to avoid capture in battle. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) killed himself as a result of depression. In 1978, 909 people killed themselves in Jonestown on instructions from Jim Jones.

    The concept of suicide to accelerate a terminal disease is fairly recent. For most of our history illness and death followed so closely that nobody who was sick even entered the idea of hastening the process.

    That’s changed in the last century. Terminal events like pneumonia or appendicitis are now easily curable even when they present in people with terminal cancer, heart disease, or dementia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with family members who have chosen aggressive treatment for things we can fix and then told me that they favor assisted suicide because their loved ones “wouldn’t want to live like this.”

    I believe decisions about quality of life need to happen much before anyone says: “There’s nothing more we can do.” Physician assisted suicide has become an issue only because we wait much too late to have hard discussions about how we want the last chapter of our life to go.

    Anyone who receives a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or Parkinson’s Disease or ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease) knows that death will eventually become much closer. But if the 20th Century gave us the false belief that we can control our lives through science, it appears that the 21st Century may well provide us with the false belief that we should be able to control our deaths.

    We can’t. For those of us who hold beliefs in a reality beyond our understanding, we need to embrace the humility to accept the possibility that we are here for reasons that elude even our wisdom. A chance encounter that leads us to a lifetime marriage. An abusive relationship, however brief, that provides us with a child that gives our life true meaning. A broken condom that gives birth to a Nobel award winner.

    I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in the last two decades who announce to me that all the purpose of their lives have already passed. They’ve used the words “useless” and “waste” to describe their last days. I tell them this: “How can you tell that your days are useless and your life is a waste? How can you decide that the home health aide who comes to give you a shower today won’t be inspired by you? How can you decide that this isn’t the moment when he or she will decide to start working to be a doctor?”

    I recognize that this scenario is far fetched, but can you tell me it’s impossible? This surprises most people I know, but when I was a child I hated to go to church with a white hot passion. Sunday mornings became a battlefield between me and my parents, me arguing that church was boring and them arguing that as long as I lived in their house I would go to church with them. Out of desperation more than faith, I finally threw down the gauntlet and told them that if I had to go to church I may as well be an altar boy and at least have something to do to fill the time.

    Honestly, I expected my parents to squash that too, but they called my bluff. They told me that it would be fine with them, and they told me I should talk with the priest in charge of the altar boys after mass the next Sunday. My heart in my mouth, I approached him after mass and asked him about being an altar boy, praying he would tell me I couldn’t. He didn’t: instead he told me that a new class was starting soon and I was welcome to join.

    I joined, became an altar boy, got more involved, found a home in the church, studied for the priesthood, became a priest, and transitioned to a hospice chaplain. In my years in ministry I’ve changed the lives of countless people and none of it would have happened if my parents didn’t call my bluff or if the priest didn’t encourage me to become an altar boy.

    In the final analysis I oppose physician assisted suicide because I believe with all my heart that the last chapter of our lives may well inspire and change the first chapters of someone else’s life even if we don’t recognize it. An early exit, based on our fears instead of our hope or faith, might cheat someone we don’t even know now.

    I recognize that my terminal illness is ahead of me. The seeds of my death already exist in my body: maybe it’s a cell in my pancreas or colon that will someday begin to replicate out of control. Maybe it’s a weak spot in an artery in my heart, brain, or abdomen. Maybe it’s my own bad judgement that tells me it’s ok to cross against the red light.

    I pray that, at the end of my life, I still hold to the beliefs I profess now. My prayer is for courage. I pray that my faith gives me enough strength to allow me to trust that my hospice nurse can manage my pain, my hospice social worker will acknowledge my strength, my hospice chaplain will respect my beliefs, and my home health aide will care for me with the dignity I need.

    Mostly I pray that the end of my life will not call me to choose to kill myself.