Note: This is part of the “Promise of Republicanism” series, which can be found here in its entirety.

The 1960s are remembered as a decade of political turmoil — student demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, political assassinations, and urban unrest — but the decade also gave rise to a moderate Republican movement that attracted many politically interested young people.  In 1962, I was one of the co-founders of the Ripon Society, which quickly became an influential and important voice of moderate Republicanism.  We had members in chapters throughout the country, our statements and white papers attracted major media attention, and we ultimately played an important role in developing many of the domestic policies of President Nixon’s administration.  

In the end, we lost the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. But our experience has some lessons for moderates today.  

I was first drawn to the Republican Party, as a teenager in my native state of Connecticut, because of President Dwight Eisenhower.  The Party’s ethic and style in the 1960s were very much those of Eisenhower himself: civility, tolerance, and the ability to build strong coalitions across partisan, ideological, and social lines through negotiation and compromise.  As I grew older, I became interested in the Republican Party’s role in American history.  I viewed “Republicanism” as a uniquely American approach to public issues and a set of experiences and values demonstrated by Republican leaders though a century or more of political activity.   Most strongly, of course, I was inspired by the party’s foremost leader, Abraham Lincoln, and his legacy of freedom and equal opportunity for all Americans. 

I wrote my senior honors thesis at Wesleyan University on the traditions of moderate, reform-oriented Republicanism, including the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt at another moment of political, social, and economic transformation for the nation.  As a Fulbright Scholar in the United Kingdom in the year after my college graduation, I studied the British Conservative Party and its relevance to American politics.  I became particularly interested in the Bow Group, an organization of young Conservative professional and academic reformers who had substantially influenced Tory policies.  When I returned to the United States to begin law school, I joined with a number of other graduate and professional students in and around Cambridge and Boston to form the Ripon Society, which we quite consciously modeled after the British Conservative Party Bow Group.

One of our principal motivations was the sense that many American thought leaders viewed the Republican Party, in the words of John Stuart Mill, as the “stupid party,” and that we needed a moderate Republican group to counteract that image. In the urban and university environments where the Ripon Society was born and grew in the early 1960s, there was a strong sense that Republicans could not be bold and innovative or even relevant to the national policy dialogue.  Most of us in the Ripon Society were natural contrarians, and we set out to overcome this view of the Republican Party.  In so doing, we hoped to attract to the party a younger and more diverse constituency.

Our other motivation was our strong and outspoken commitment to civil rights, to greater opportunities for all Americans, and to dismantling the segregation of the American South. At that time, virtually all of the members of Congress from the South, who defended this pattern of “Jim Crow” laws and segregation, were Democrats.  We saw support of civil rights as a Republican tradition, and we sought to bring Lincoln’s values of freedom and national unity to bear on the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s.   

There was always a debate within the Ripon Society about whether our role was to focus on analysis and policy development or to become political activists.  To some extent, Ripon Society members did both, and several Ripon “alumni” went on to political careers.  But the Ripon Society never established a substantial grassroots network of moderate Republican activists.  Instead, our main collective effort was to apply hard research and analysis to public issues, based on the founding principles of the Republican Party and the Lincoln tradition.  

At the core of Lincoln’s belief system, as I came to understand it, was the Declaration of Independence and its revolutionary ideals of liberty and equal opportunity. Lincoln saw emancipation and the end of slavery as a “new birth of freedom” for America and the completion of the unfinished mission of the Founders. Lincoln’s nationalism, while profound, was not the nativist, “blood and soil,” anti-immigrant variety of Donald Trump. Liberty and union were inseparable, Lincoln said in 1856.  He believed that the purpose of the terrible civil war through which he led the nation was to preserve the values of a liberal and democratic society.  

The Ripon Society demonstrated its commitment to the Republican heritage by taking its name from the Wisconsin town where the party had been born.  Establishing new chapters in other urban centers, particularly in the Northeast, the Ripon Society focused its research and policy development on a range of domestic issues, but the most important of these was civil rights. Nothing seemed more true to Lincoln’s values and to the historic origins of the Republican Party than completing the journey toward equality before the law on which the party had been founded. The Ripon Society was able to support in significant ways the critical efforts of Republican House and Senate members in the passage of the landmark civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s.  Indeed, proportionally more Republicans than Democrats voted for those bills, and without Republican support, they never would have been enacted. 

When the Ripon Society was founded in the early 1960s, the Republican Party was still strongly influenced by the centrist and bipartisan pragmatism of the Eisenhower years.  It was a “big tent” coalition of diverse philosophical elements.  There was a strong strand of political moderation within the Republican Party, and there were pragmatic leaders at top levels of the party who were welcoming to the Ripon Society’s work.

However, the 1960s also marked the beginnings of the conservative ideological transformation of the Republican Party, a shift that ultimately tested Ripon’s mission. During these years the influence of self-described and consciously identified conservatives, such as William Buckley Jr. and other writers and intellectuals, was growing, and the party was beginning to experience a shift in its grassroots base as well.  

These trends first became evident when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater gained the party’s presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Ripon’s members disagreed with Goldwater’s conservative positions on Social Security, national security, and other issues, but at the heart of our opposition to the Goldwater nomination was his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  That was a moment of truth and testing for Senator Goldwater on a matter where the Ripon Society believed that the party had to uphold its Republican and Lincolnian traditions and values.  

Goldwater’s landslide defeat dragged down many other Republican candidates in 1964.  In our book, From Disaster to Distinction, the Ripon Society argued that the Republican Party had to respond to this electoral defeat by becoming more of a “big tent” and by developing and articulating new ideas.  Our white papers and policy analyses during the 1960s attracted considerable and generally favorable media attention and advanced realistic alternatives to national problems that we believed avoided the bureaucratic overreach of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.  

The Ripon Society’s ideas and people made significant contributions to the often overlooked innovative and progressive proposals of the Nixon administration in such policy areas as health care, revenue sharing, welfare reform, an end to the military draft, and environmental protection.  Virtually all of these ideas became part of the Nixon program.  The Ripon Society had also supported a negative income tax for the working poor that was close to what became Nixon’s Family Assistance proposal. 

But, of course, the Nixon administration also marked the decline of moderates within the Republican Party, as well as the party’s demographic realignment away from its historic roots in the Northeast and Midwest.  That became evident with Nixon’s “silent majority” campaign in 1968 and his welcoming of the steady flight of conservative Southern Democrats to the Republican Party after the passage of the civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s. The geographic core of the party continued to move south and west. The party’s conservative direction became more obvious with the near-defeat of President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention and was solidified by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. 

The founding principles of the Republican Party, associated with Lincoln; the strands of progressive Republicanism represented by Theodore Roosevelt; and the engagement of many centrist Republican leaders through the 20thcentury — all of these continued to play a role in the policies and programs pursued by the party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and of both Bushes.  However, those who saw themselves as conservatives, more than as Republicans, dominated Republican thought and action during these years.  It amounted to a takeover of a political party by an ideological movement.  Conservatives constructed an organizational and intellectual infrastructure of influence and party control that was not matched by the party’s remaining moderates. 

The sweeping victory of the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans in the 1994 midterm congressional elections solidified these trends within the party.  The ’94 elections propelled Republicans more firmly toward establishing the party’s base in the South and in the rural areas and small cities and towns of the nation and toward adopting the social and cultural beliefs of evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians as party policies. 

Perhaps as significant, Gingrich’s scorched-earth, zero-sum style of leadership was destructive of the ethics and practices of big-tent, coalition-based politics.  His denunciations of negotiation and of legislative compromise were inconsistent with the pragmatic politics of centrist congressional Republicans and, arguably, at odds with many of the ideological principles of conservative Republicans. 

After 1994, the Republican Party was fundamentally changed. Ever since the “Gingrich revolution” there has seemed little place for the values associated with the moderate and progressive strands within the party’s ideology. Opportunities for the individuals who hold these views to serve as party leaders and candidates have diminished. 

It is surprising how little moderate resistance there was to the conservative takeover.  There was a flurry of activity around the presidential campaigns during the 1970s, but that essentially ended with the Reagan election. Moderates who continued to work for the Republican Party gradually accepted what seemed to be the inexorable wave of conservatism and adapted to that new reality.  And some prominent moderates ended up joining the conservative ranks.  

Donald Trump’s nomination and election in 2016 have been portrayed as the fruition of the ideological and demographic trends within the Republican Party over the last three or four decades.  In reality, though, Trump’s presidency represents a rejection of both conservative ideology and the pragmatic moderation, closely associated with Lincoln and rooted in the party’s historic values, with which the Ripon Society had identified.

In no sense can it be said that Donald Trump’s presidency is a Republican one, and there is little evidence that it will become so during his time in office.  Trump’s disdain for the rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and limits on executive power is a far cry from both historic Republican principles and classic conservative beliefs. Under Trump, appeals to division have replaced an instinct for unity, and the exercise of personal power has replaced respect for democratic norms and institutional integrity. 

Can “Republicanism,” the set of principles that brought me to the party a half-century ago, be reconciled with the personality cult that the Republican Party has become under Donald Trump? How applicable is the past to the present and the future of the party? Do the fundamental and historic principles and values of Lincoln and of the founders of the Republican Party have any meaning and application to its current circumstances? And do the history and experiences of the Ripon Society have any bearing on these questions? 

In the short run, there seems little incentive for those who hold elective or appointive public office as Republicans to assert positions and principles contrary to those identified with Trump. Most Republicans are too fearful of Trump’s power to assert positions inconsistent with his.

But in the long run, if the Republican Party is to sustain a competitive position in American politics, it will have to regain influence with younger generations of voters. The generational divide, augmented by the growing diversity of the electorate, is the greatest challenge to a post-Trump Republican Party.  

The Trump strategy — which is almost certainly instinctive rather than deliberate — has centered on building overwhelming support among older whites (particularly men) living in exurban and rural areas, in small cities and towns, in Southern and Mountain/Plains states, and the Rust Belt, who feel culturally and/or economically threatened. This strategy obviously has been successful for him and may well lead him to a second term. 

Demographically, however, the Trump approach does not seem sustainable. Time inevitably will take its toll on a shrinking Trump coalition. This will hold significant implications — if not for Trump in 2020, then certainly for his successors and for the Republican Party.  

The values of the majority of young Americans seem clear: They seek education, skills, and opportunities to rise and prosper.  They are attracted to the growing major metropolitan regions of the country that are centers of innovation and of the emerging (often information-related) sectors of the American economy.  They are open to international engagement, enthusiastic about diversity, tolerant of differences, and committed to justice.  

Freedom, opportunity, and equality comprised the core of Lincoln’s beliefs and were the principal motivations for the establishment of the Republican Party.  Lincoln held that the role of government was to assure opportunity for all Americans and guarantee equal protection before the law: Government was to be limited, but effective, and power, to be dispersed and restrained.  For Lincoln, as for the Founding Fathers, these core principles, inherent in the birth of the United States, made its survival essential to the future of liberal democracy everywhere.  Certainly these values have resonance with younger Americans, whose connection to the future Republican Party will be essential to its survival and influence. 

One of the surprises of the Trump era for me, personally, has been the discovery of common ground between moderates, such as myself, and principled “movement conservatives” with whom I have disputed for years.  We have found a shared commitment to the historic Republican and Lincolnian values of freedom, equality, and opportunity that motivated the Ripon Society and to the conservative principles of limited government and constrained executive power, the rule of law, the dispersion of authority to the levels of government closest to the people, and a belief in strong families and communities. 

These values are threatened by the Trump presidency, but seem essential to the long-term survival of the Republican Party.  The re-assertion of these shared and historic principles can allow a restored Republican Party to establish a position among new and emerging generations of Americans, rather than to rely upon those who are resistant to, and fearful of, change. However, the principles that motivate the Party must be given form and substance through realistic and relevant policies and programs that are responsive to the goals and interests of young people and to rapidly changing economic social, cultural, and environmental conditions. 

The experience of the Ripon Society – and particularly its insistence on giving contemporary life to core founding principles, its dedication to hard policy analysis and development, and its commitment to institutional reform — seem directly relevant to this task.  The Ripon Society provided “safe space” within the Republican Party for young and emerging professionals, managers, and academics to undertake fact- and evidence-based inquiries and analyses of public issues, which blended idealism with realism.  By replicating this model with new organizational activities, the Republican Party can perhaps establish a strong base among new generations of civic and political leaders.   

Elements of such a uniquely 21stCentury Republican program might include:

  • Pursuing the expansion, rather than the suppression, of voting rights; 
  • Committing to a civic nationalism and pride that is founded on the uniqueness and the exceptionalism of the American experience, that is, a nation based on laws and institutions, and on democratic rule;
  • Promoting equality of opportunity for all Americans through expanding education and training, nurturing a competitive and fair market, while curbing its excesses, and rooting out discrimination and corruption wherever they appear;
  • Exercising stewardship of the environment, including taking all appropriate steps to mitigate and adapt to the catastrophic risks of climate change; and
  • Limiting the role of government and executive authority, but supporting government’s power to protect its citizens through careful and balanced regulation.

But neither historic principles nor relevant policies and programs, alone, will assure a rebirth of this brand of Republicanism among America’s rising generations.  After all, this is a political as well as a philosophic task, and, while the tools and techniques are different today from the 1850s and 1860s, when the Republican Party was born and shaped around these values, the challenge to reach and persuade remains.  

New forms of media and communication must be developed and used by those who would rebuild the Republican Party after the faux populism of a Trump-dominated Party has ended.  We can learn from the quiet, methodical approach of the “movement conservatives,” who infiltrated and took over the Republican Party in the last third of the 20th Century. We can learn from the realistic but effective tactics that enabled the Democrats to win the House of Representatives in 2018. 

This is a message of hope, if not optimism. Creative policies and effective means of communication and mobilization, both adapted to the times in which we live, but grounded on enduring, historic principles, can revive a modern version of Lincoln Republicanism. The essential values that Lincoln espoused remain as relevant today, as they were during the agony of the Civil War and its aftermath.  They need to be restored as the core of the party that he helped to establish and sustain. 

Emil Frankel, co-founder of the Ripon Society, served as Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation, under President George W. Bush.