During the Trump years, political commentator and strategist Linda Chavez held out hope that the more moderate elements of the Republican Party would make a resurgence. But the widespread denial of the 2021 election results was her breaking point, and she openly left the party. She could no longer associate with a group that embraced conspiracy theories denied the results of a free and fair election.
While Chavez has repudiated the GOP, she sees herself as too conservative for the Democratic Party. Today on the Vital Center podcast, she discusses the importance of moderate thought in a country with increasingly radical factions. She takes a look back over her illustrious career to document how the GOP slid to where it is today, remembering its embrace of populism over rationality and its clumsy attempts to reach out to minorities. While Chavez doesn’t feel optimistic about the GOP’s recovery, she envisions a party that would competently address the very real concerns of today’s working class.
Linda Chavez: I became politically active because of my belief in certain principles. And once those principles got breached in the Republican Party, it was no longer possible for me to stay.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: And I’m Kodiak Hill-Davis with the Niskanen Center.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the mighty, muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. We’re honored to have Linda Chavez with us today. Hello, Linda.
Linda Chavez: Hi, Geoff. How are you?
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I’m okay. Linda is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. She’s one of the participants in the Bulwark‘s “Beg to Differ” podcast with Mona Charon, and she’s one of the country’s premier political analysts and public policy advocates. We’re really glad you could join us today, Linda.
Linda Chavez: I am, too.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: How have you been faring during the pandemic?
Linda Chavez: Well, life did not change all that much for me. I have worked at home since 1987, and that was wonderful, particularly when I was raising a teenage boys, but it really just has meant that I go out even less than I used to. And my wardrobe does not have to be nearly as up-to-date as it did when I had in-person meetings, but I still comb my hair and put on makeup every morning. So some things haven’t changed.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I’m trying to keep that discipline as well, myself.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Well, I assume not makeup.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: No, no, none of that. Linda, as I was getting ready for this podcast, I found myself thinking that it’s difficult to sum up either your career or your political output and outlook, but let me attempt an incomplete sketch of your political career. Correct me if I get anything grossly wrong. You entered politics from the left, working for the Democratic National Committee here in Washington, and then you became a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee, just before Watergate made that a very interesting place to be. You became a lobbyist for the National Education Association, which is the largest teacher’s union, and then did the same at the American Federation of Teachers, which is the second largest. You briefly served at HEW during the Carter administration, then went back to AFT, essentially as the editor of its American Educator quarterly magazine and assistant to Al Shanker, who was the union president. I should add that I was a regular reader of Shanker’s weekly New York Times column, which I guess you had something to do with?
Linda Chavez: I actually had nothing to do with it. Al Shanker wrote that column himself.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Okay, well, terrific. But I did come across some of the other articles that you wrote for the magazine, as well as other people who would soon be called neoconservatives, people like Bill Bennett and Jeanne Kirkpatrick and so forth. Am I right in thinking that you cast your first vote for a Republican president for Ronald Reagan in 1980?
Linda Chavez: That’s exactly right. I was still a registered Democrat, I know, when I went into the booth to cast my first vote. And in those days, there was actually a lever you could pull that could do a straight Democratic ticket. I then didn’t use that lever in 1980. I had to do it individually, and I voted for Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket. And I was very concerned that God was going to strike me dead! My father looking down from heaven was going to be very disappointed.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And what was it that attracted you to Reagan after having spent most of your formative years on the left?
Linda Chavez: Well, I was on the left, but it was a sort of interesting niche of the left. I always call it the right wing of the left. I was involved as a young woman, with my husband more involved than I was, with a group called the Young People’s Socialist League.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: The YPSLs.
Linda Chavez: The YPSLs, yeah. And the YPSLs were the right wing of the left. They supported the war in Vietnam. They were against things like racial quotas. They really were, in many respects, what today we would call neoconservatives. They were very hard-line anti-communist. And I had grown up Catholic in the 1950s and 1960s, attended Catholic school, was imbued with anti-communism all of my growing-up period, both at home from my father but also in school. And even though I briefly served in the Carter administration during the ’70s, I noticed that the world was going in the wrong direction, that the Soviet Union was taking over larger and larger spheres of influence in Africa and Latin America and Asia. And I thought Jimmy Carter was totally ineffectual, and was not really equipped to deal with the Soviet Union.
He discovered in 1980, after the invasion by the Soviet Union into Afghanistan… Suddenly, he discovered they were a major threat. And his answer was to pull out of the 1980 Olympics, which to me didn’t seem exactly the most effective means of dealing with Soviet communism. So I really found Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and his defense policy appealing. I hadn’t yet signed on to his economic policies, but that was the reason I voted for Ronald Reagan.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And then just three years later in 1983, you actually joined the Reagan administration, and you held a number of appointed positions in that administration and the George H.W. Bush administration. These included staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, White House director of public liaison, and chair of the National Commission on Migrant Education. You became a political candidate, a well-known conservative commentator and columnist and author. In 2001, George W. Bush nominated you for secretary of labor, making you the first Hispanic woman nominated to a cabinet position, although you withdrew from consideration. And you were also the founder and chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank focused on affirmative action, immigration, and bilingual education. But not even a month ago, you tweeted that you were leaving the Republican Party, and you laid out your reasons why in a January 17th article in Real Clear Politics entitled “Leaving the GOP: Why I’m Now Politically Homeless.” So we’re talking to you at something of a historic turning point.
Linda Chavez: Well, that’s right. And a lot of Never Trumpers, particularly more moderate Republicans, have made an easy transition from being Republican to leaving the Republican Party and becoming Democrats. I’ve already made that switch. I went the other way. I went Democrat to Republican. And as a friend of mine said, “You already ran screaming from that room once. You’re not going to go back into it,” and that’s sort of the way I feel. I’m not a Democrat. I just have too many fundamental disagreements on policy issues. I like Democrats. I think I’m culturally more comfortable with Democrats. I feel more at home at their conventions. Some of my best friends are Democrats, as we would say, but I really am philosophically more conservative. I have a little bit of libertarian leanings in some direction, but I’m not on everything, certainly not on national defense and foreign policy issues. And so I am homeless.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Without necessarily going point by point through the article, could you tell us something about the process that led you to no longer feel that the Republican Party could be reformed from within?
Linda Chavez: Well, for five years in the Trump era, I kept waiting for a critical mass of critics within the Republican Party to emerge and to take on the xenophobia, the racism, the sheer incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration, and it never happened. I mean, there were a few voices here and there – Mitt Romney at some point, a handful of others, Ben Sasse, Adam Kinzinger, other individuals who would raise their voices – but it never became a movement within the Republican Party. And so I waited and waited and waited, and then the real break was over the election, and Donald Trump’s and the party’s and the party leadership’s unwillingness to accept the results of a free and fair election. That was it. And when Josh Hawley decided that he was going to join this insane conspiracy that suggested that there was a way for Congress to basically overturn the results of the election, that was it. I’d had enough. I said, “This party can’t be reformed from within. I’m leaving.” And even if it can be reformed from within, I just don’t see my playing a role in that.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Linda, that’s so interesting to hear you walk through what the breaking point ultimately was for you, especially after, as you mentioned, five years kind of toiling in the wilderness of being Never Trump. It’s interesting to me that of all the erosions of norms, precedents, and our democratic institutions, that really, it sounds to me like what put you over the edge was the undermining of the faith and credibility of our election process, which is absolutely critical to our healthy and functioning democracy.
Linda Chavez: Right. I did not believe, in the wake of the election, that the Republican Party stood any more for republican (small-r) or democratic (small-d) ideals. The idea of representative government chosen by the people, in which all sides agree that they will give up power when their side loses – that seemed to be being violated in the most outrageous way. It was run out of the White House, but there were so many people complicit in the Congress, in the states, that it just seemed to me that the Republican Party had become a threat to democracy.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And that’s something which is so much deeper and more significant than a policy difference.
Linda Chavez: That’s right, that’s right.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: What kinds of reactions have you received to your renunciation of the GOP?
Linda Chavez: Well, not unexpectedly, some people said, “Good riddance. You were never a conservative anyway.” Of course, I got the sort of usual racist attacks that I often get when writing on these subjects, basically telling me to go back where I came from, that sort of thing. It was really basically hostility from people either who do not know me, or who thought they knew me but apparently did not understand that when it comes to principle I’ve never been a party person in any party. That’s not who I am. I became politically active because of my belief in certain principles. And once those principles got breached in the Republican Party, it was no longer possible for me to stay.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Have any Democrats implored you to join their ranks?
Linda Chavez: Yes, a lot of reaching out of Democrats saying, “Oh, come on. You’re welcome here.” And I think part of the problem is that because I have a kind of moderate tone, I’m not a red-meat type person, I don’t engage in overheated rhetoric even when I’m debating… I try to keep things at an intellectual level. Doesn’t mean I don’t go for the jugular – I do – but never in a kind of personal attack. Never, basically, “You’re on my side or you’re an enemy.” And so I think because of that, a lot of people think of me as a moderate. But when I go through and list what I believe in on a lot of issues, it’s pretty apparent I’m really pretty conservative. And so I don’t think the Democrats would be all that comfortable with me trying to work within the Democratic Party to try to pull it back towards the center.
I think that was something that I was actively involved in in the 1960s, early 1970s. I was friends with the person who founded the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Penn Kemble. I was very involved with some of the people involved in that effort, people like Ben Wattenberg of AEI and others, but they don’t exist anymore, and many of them became neoconservatives. And even if they didn’t change their party registration, they found themselves much more at home, certainly, in the party of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, and certainly not in the party of Trump.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: So Linda, this is actually an interesting point, and I think I’d like to expand on it a little bit more. And I’m sure Geoff has some thoughts here too. But what I’ve really heard you articulate is that there is kind of a spectrum of political beliefs, and they don’t fall neatly into these binary categories, Republican and Democrat. And that without the nuance and the ability to kind of explore those variances, a discussion around why you’re a Republican or why you’re a Democrat becomes a lot more challenging. But it also becomes a lot more challenging to create a big-tent party, so to speak, because everything comes down to these kind of arbitrary purity tests. Have you found that to be the case, that because you have a more nuanced approach to your political affiliation, that you don’t fit tightly into any category?
Linda Chavez: Well, I felt perfectly comfortable in the Republican Party prior to Trump, even when I didn’t agree down the line on each and every issue. And with respect to the Democratic Party, there are just too many policies on which I disagreed where I think I’d feel comfortable there. But the reason that I left was not about policy. It wasn’t really fundamentally even about personality. It was about this belief in democracy, and my real fear that the party had become a personality cult of someone who very admiringly pointed to people like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin as people he respected. And the anti-democratic tendencies are the ones that worried me. Parties are not social clubs for me. It’s not like I would hang around the RNC, or hang around the Republican Club, or go to every Lincoln Dinner. That was never the point of my being involved in the Republican Party. It was to fight for things I believed in. And so being homeless, it’s not great, but it’s not all that uncomfortable either.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Linda, what are the issues on which you are the most conservative these days, in your opinion?
Linda Chavez: Well, I believe very much in an aggressive American foreign policy. And I don’t mean aggressive in terms of taking over other countries, I mean putting a foreign policy very much at the top of the chain of what is important and what a president needs to be involved in. I believe that the United States is part of the world, and that we’ve been a leader in the world, and that we’ve been a force for good. I believe in a strong national defense. I believe that the one thing that we must do is to keep ourselves with a large enough defense budget that we never have to fear that we will be the object of another country’s attempts to undo our way of life. On some of the issues, social issues, I believe very much in equal opportunity. I am a firm believer, and was active even as a young teenager, in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and have been very interested in civil rights issues ever since then.
I’m very active in them, but I’m very opposed to the idea that you can end discrimination against one group of individuals by deciding that you’re going to give preferences to those who’ve been discriminated in the past in order to undo that discrimination. I don’t think that’s the way to do it. I think you have to have colorblind equal opportunity available. I think that there are going to be disparities and inequities in any society, but I think jumping to the conclusion that race is always the single factor that’s responsible for those inequities is wrong. I do not believe that we are a country that is deeply racist, and I think there is not the kind of systemic racism that Democrats talk about all the time. I don’t believe that. I don’t see it. In fact, I think what I see is a country that’s come a very long way in undoing the wrongs of the past. It doesn’t mean we are a perfect society yet, but that we’re not going to get to be that perfect society by deciding, for example, to discriminate against Asian students when they want to be admitted to a prestigious university in order to make room for more Black or Latino students. So those are areas that would make it uncomfortable, probably, for me to be in the Democratic Party.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And are there particular issues that you’ve changed your mind on in recent years? It’s often said that one of the reasons that Trump gained the Republican nomination in 2016 was that the party’s base had been moving in the direction of the working class and the Republican Party didn’t have much of a populist component to its political outlook.
Linda Chavez: Well, I haven’t changed my mind about populism. I’ve always been very worried about populism. I don’t think populism any place in the world has turned out to be a force for good. So I’ve not changed there. I have changed my mind about healthcare.
I was opposed to Obamacare when it was initiated. I thought it was not a great plan. I really disliked the fact that it was passed by straight party-line vote. And I thought that was a really bad idea for such a sweeping change. I think you have to have buy-in from both sides when you’re going to have major, sweeping change. And I wasn’t sure that it was absolutely necessary. I have changed my mind about that. And I think as I wrote in my piece for Real Clear Politics, there’s nothing like a pandemic to have you change your views about universal health care. It turns out that it’s for the good of all of us when each of us has access to a certain level of healthcare, that we can’t protect ourselves from something like a pandemic when there are huge swaths of people who don’t have access to healthcare.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: You said you don’t really identify with the political label of moderate. But moderation is a kind of temperament, as you have said. And it seems to me that one of the things that unites people in whatever “moderate” might mean as a political species would be, again, a lot of the things that come up in your writings. Commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, a belief in objectivity and evidence, a refusal to tolerate violence, a willingness to change one’s mind, and a willingness to make deals with the other side – which implies an ability to compromise and, I guess, an interest in governing as well. Does that sound more or less like you?
Linda Chavez: That sounds exactly right. Yeah. And I absolutely plead guilty to having a moderate temperament. I’ve actually been rather proud of having a moderate temperament. I don’t swing the pendulum. I look at some who come to prominence on the right who used to be on the left. People like David Horowitz, for example, who was perfectly comfortable at one time with the Black Panthers, who was involved in the SDS, the Students for Democratic Society and other very left wing groups. And then suddenly he switched right. And he sort of passed that center right line and kept on going. And you know, now he’s all in for Trump and all in with conspiracy theories about stolen elections and everything else. I think that that kind of mercurial temperament is not healthy in politics. It’s not healthy for individuals. It’s certainly not healthy for politics itself.
Linda Chavez: And one of the great things about American politics, in my mind, is that it has always been a pendulum that shifted, but shifted around a center point. It might shift a little bit left and it might shift a little bit right, but it never goes to either extreme, at least not until the Trump era. And that I think has been part of the story of our success as a nation.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: I would agree, Linda. And I think it’s interesting that as the rise of the kind of Trump era and Trumpism, we saw more and more registered voters switching from the Republican Party into the kind of independent registration. I think it’s something like 44%, which is a pretty remarkable uptick from where it had been prior to Trump. And I wonder, what do you think the Republican Party could do to start winning back the confidence of some of those voters, voters like yourself?
Linda Chavez: Well, it has to start behaving more like the party that it once was with respect to disavowing extremism. When you have members of Congress who are QAnon supporters, who have called for the execution of Democratic officials, who insist on bringing their guns into the House Chamber, you’re not going to find a whole lot of people who’ve left the Republican Party and become independent who are going to be rushing back to be embraced in that party with those involved. So I think the party itself has got to begin to really disavow the extremism that we’ve seen over the last five years.
And unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be happening. I was very happy when former majority leader, now minority leader, McConnell was willing to denounce the Trump insurrection and to lay the blame on the president’s doorstep. Kevin McCarthy seemed, for a very brief time, willing to do that as well. And then he pulled back and very soon after three weeks or so after the insurrection on January 6th, he was down in Mar-a-Lago kissing Trump’s ring. So I think, again, I think it’s going to be very difficult. Until you can disavow some of the extremists, and particularly have the leadership stand up to that kind of extremism, you’re certainly not going to bring people like me back.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: But you wrote in your Real Clear Politics op-ed that “I remain a conservative, but I am no longer a Republican, nor do I want anything to do with the conservative institutions and intellectuals that have enabled Donald Trump’s nativist driven populism.” And you’ve linked to the “Statement of Unity” by Scholars and Writers for Trump. It occurs to me that you would once have considered many of the signers of that document to have been friends and intellectual comrades-in-arms. So how does it feel to have them on the other side at what feels like a politically and even morally defining moment?
Linda Chavez: Well, for a time during the Trump era I did in fact reach out, particularly to folks at the Claremont Institute, to try to change some minds. Some of the people who are on that list, I won’t name them, but I reached out as late as after the election to say, “What is going on here? Do you not see that what you’re doing is aiding and abetting an attempt to move away from the peaceful transfer of power? This is undemocratic.” And, basically, most of the people just sort of blew me off.
So there were early signs, and it’s interesting… Some of the earliest signs of this growing populism and anti-democratic faction began, during the early days of Trump’s candidacy and his term in office, around the issue of immigration. This was an issue that really divided people. And I have found that most of the people who became Never Trumpers were very uncomfortable with the nativist tone of the pro-Trump faction, and that became a real dividing line. And I know I wrote a few times for the Claremont Review of Books and for American Mind – I think I wrote in one of their very initial newsletters on the subject of birthright citizenship. I had battles with John Eastman on that subject that went on at great length. John Eastman is somebody that I hired as a young man, I think barely out of law school, when I worked at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And he’s become the real voice of the anti-birthright citizenship movement.
Linda Chavez: So I don’t know that I can understand or that I’ve come up with a clear understanding of why it is that immigration was the breaking point in the issue that’s divided so many people. But it does seem very fundamental to who ended up on which side of the divide in terms of pro-Trump and anti-Trump.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: But I’ve expressed my belief that the Republican Party really can ill afford to lose you right now, because… how do I put this? It seems to me that your background and experiences would make you an ideal guide to the likeliest potential positive path forward for the Republican Party. And by that, I mean the 2020 election showed that despite Trump, significant number of minorities in this country are in fact attracted to the conservative ideals you’ve always articulated and also repelled by some of the ideas coming from the left, for similar reasons to those that repelled you in the sixties and seventies. And there’s a positive sense in which the Republican Party could emerge as a one-nation party focused on the needs of the multiracial, multiethnic working class. Or it could continue down the rabbit hole of, I guess I’d call it Trumpian nihilism and QAnon insanity. And what I found really interesting about rereading your political autobiography, An Unlikely Conservative, is how much that has to say about our present political moment.
Linda Chavez: Well, thank you. And yes, I do think that there was the famous or infamous “Autopsy Report” that was issued – I think it was, that was 2012 election, I think…
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Yes.
Linda Chavez: …that said the Republican Party had to do better outreach, and particularly to racial and ethnic minorities. They didn’t do a very good job there. But I think that even that autopsy misunderstood how to reach out. And it wasn’t to reach out and say, “Oh, gee, we have a Hispanic Republican Club for you to join.” It was to rather to appeal to them on issues. And one of the interesting (and in some ways surprising and disheartening) things about the 2020 election is that Donald Trump did reasonably well among Hispanic voters. He did especially well in the border areas of Texas. And I think part of the reason for that was that the emphasis was on promoting his pro-business, pro-small business efforts, getting rid of regulations and helping really push the economy into overdrive. And a lot of the young (and not-so-young) Mexican Americans in that part of the country were small business owners – or even if they weren’t small business owners at the present, hope to be one someday. And so there was still an appeal from Trump on that basis.
It wasn’t an ethnic appeal. It wasn’t reaching out. And in fact, I think many of them just simply disregarded his xenophobic, nativist, often racist comments and just decided not to pay attention to them. But it is interesting to me that the party, often when it tries to reach out to Blacks and Hispanics in particular, they do it in a very clumsy way and they make it all about race and ethnicity. Or they do it trying to beat the Democrats at their own game, and they can never beat the Democrats at that game.
Linda Chavez: So I think you’re right. I would hope that there were more people who understood that community. I wrote a whole book about Hispanics in the United States in 1991 called Out of the Barrio, in which I previewed that Hispanics were moving more and more toward the Republican Party. And this was a natural progression. They followed in the footsteps of other groups like Italian-Americans who went that path. But, unfortunately, the people who try to do this seem to do it clumsily at best.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Something that really struck me in your memoir is that your experience as a Hispanic emphasized the diversity of the Hispanic story in America. And yet so much of that debate about identity on the left really narrows and flattens the depth and breadth of that experience.
Linda Chavez: That’s exactly right. I mean, the whole term “Hispanic” was a creation of government, really. The Hispanic ethnicity box that you check on the census form was created to try to figure out how to lump a whole bunch of people who have not a whole lot in common (in terms of their national origin stories) together. And it was done quite consciously with a push, within particularly the Mexican-American communities, to try to vibe with the African-American community, the Black community, to get a place at the table. And it was clear that if you split up Hispanics into their various subgroups, that it wouldn’t be as effective to go to ask for more help, more programs, et cetera, as if you all banded together, and therefore had a bigger group. And that’s why Hispanics, for example, today are the single largest of the various ethnic minority groups. They surpassed Blacks sometime back.
So yeah, my background is very different. I’m from New Mexico. When people say, “Go back where you came from” – my family’s lived in New Mexico since 1601. They came there as part of the expedition by Juan de Oñate that conquered New Mexico for the crown of Spain. And they’ve been there ever since. It’s very different than somebody who’s a recent immigrant from wherever: from Mexico, from Argentina, from Honduras, from Cuba, from any number of places. It’s a very diverse community.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And speaking Spanish is not necessarily what defines a Hispanic either.
Linda Chavez: No. In fact, during the Nixon administration, there was something called a Cabinet Committee for Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People. And one of the reasons that was quickly abandoned was that it turned out that a lot of people like myself didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. Depending on how long ago your family came here and what the circumstances were, they had transitioned to English. In New Mexico, which has the largest Hispanic population of any state in terms of the percentage of the population, when I was growing up it was actually a majority. It’s now very close again to being a majority: it’s about 44%. But most Hispanics who are from New Mexico don’t speak Spanish. And if they do speak Spanish, the Spanish of their grandparents or great grandparents is a kind of strange 17th-century version that people from Mexico won’t understand.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Hmm, fascinating. And you said that you didn’t experience discrimination in New Mexico when you were growing up there, but when you moved to Colorado you did.
Linda Chavez: Yes, it was very interesting… As I say, in New Mexico where we were a majority of the population, I knew bankers that had names like Chavez or Sanchez or Martinez, and also very poor people with those names. When I got to Colorado, Mexican Americans in Colorado were in primarily the Southern part of the state. They were people who, like my ancestors, had come early in the 17th century. But those who lived farther north were often people whose ancestors had come as immigrants after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. And so there were big differences, and there was a lot of discrimination in Colorado when I was growing up. I mean, there were people, a neighbor of mine, a young kid who I was friends with, who couldn’t take me into his house because his mother didn’t allow Mexicans. It was not uncommon to be called names and made fun of and other things growing up in Colorado. It was interesting that even within the Hispanic community, and when I was in school, I was viewed differently because I was from New Mexico. I didn’t quite look the same as many of them did. My skin was lighter. I had a different cultural experience. I ate different foods. It wasn’t all one big happy family.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Something else that impressed me about rereading your book is that you wrote it about 20 years ago, and in the time since the Republican Party has really moved much more in the direction of being a working-class party. You were one of the relatively few commentators, I guess, on either the right or the left who came from a working-class background. And your early experiences were often difficult, even at times Dickensian, shocking, harrowing…
Linda Chavez: Yes, that’s true. Again, people look at me now and see what I’ve done and assume I came from a very middle-class, maybe even upper-middle-class background, and it’s simply not true. My dad had a ninth-grade education. He was out of work a lot of the times. He had a problem with alcohol. Because he did not have a whole lot of education, he didn’t have a whole lot of opportunity.
My mother, by the way, is not Hispanic. My mother is English and Irish, which also made a difference in the way in which I was viewed. My father spent time in prison. My grandfather spent 11.5 years in Fort Leavenworth prison for bootlegging during prohibition. I don’t have a kind of normal working… even normal working-class background. I come from a pretty rough background. When people call me an elitist today, I always say, “I’m happy to be part of the elite. I worked very hard to get here.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice: What is it that you wish more political figures understood about the working class?
Linda Chavez: Well, I think I wish they understood better the struggles of what it means and they were more sensitive to the fact that opportunities… I had lots of opportunities because… I don’t mean to sound conceited here, but I was smart and so I was able to do well in school. I worked hard and was able to get out of the circumstances in which I’d grown up. But not everybody has that opportunity. And so I think being more sensitive, not assuming that because people talk differently or don’t have the same cultural tastes that you look down on them. I think the whole idea of looking down on people is very, very harmful.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Linda, something interesting, again, about trying to place you politically is that you are between certain kinds of extremes. You yourself experienced discrimination as a woman, so you’re obviously no fan of sexism, but neither do you really identify with much of what goes under the name of feminism. You’ve always been very forthright against discrimination, but you’ve also to some extent made your name by going up against affirmative action and the civil rights establishment and a lot of the most aggressive forms of identity politics. You’re also very pro-immigration and pro-people from Hispanic backgrounds, and yet your book is subtitled, at the bottom, “How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America.”
Linda Chavez: I was dubbed that, by the way. Hispanic magazine gave me that title, so that wasn’t my self-designation.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I guess a problem is that you’ve spent your career, up until now, in the Republican Party, much of it… I can understand how the Republican Party would oppose some of the progressive attitudes towards these issues, and yet the Republican Party often seems to have nothing really positive to offer in place of what it opposes. You mentioned healthcare… I certainly lived through the debacle of the Republican Party calling to repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing.
Linda Chavez: Right. Absolutely. That’s exactly right. Yeah, that was just so cynical. It was kind of beyond belief. But you mentioned my opposition to affirmative action… Let me correct you there. I’m not opposed to the original idea for affirmative action. In fact, I’m very much in favor of it. I was involved in programs that behaved according to the original principles of affirmative action, namely that there’d be more outreach, and that when you couldn’t find enough qualified candidates, either to enter an education program or to get a job, that you provide them opportunities to be able to get the skills that would enable them to compete on an equal footing. And I thought…
Geoffrey Kabaservice: You were one of the first people to teach in the affirmative action program at the University of Colorado…
Linda Chavez: That’s exactly right. In fact, I went to the English Department, I went to the chairman of the English Department… It happened to be that I was a very good student, a top student in the English Department, and even though I was still a senior I had been admitted to graduate school. I went and said, “Look, you’ve got a bunch of Hispanic students coming in. I’ve been part of recruiting these kids. They’re not going to be able to make it at the University of Colorado if they’re not given some help. And so would you let me create a program to, basically, teach grammar, writing, and other skills to this group of students coming in?” They were given an extra year… Instead of a four-year program, it was a five-year program. The first year you would spend giving them the skills to be able to compete in the university setting. I was part of helping create that.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: You’re talking about something which is not quite the blunt instrument that affirmative action often is, but also is just not ignoring people who…
Linda Chavez: That’s right, yeah.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: … are in need.
Linda Chavez: Look, there are disparities. There are inequities. I mean, if you’re born in certain zip codes, your life chances are not the same as being born in other zip codes. It’s just a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean that you decide that you’re going to set quotas based on people’s skin color and ignoring, for example, which zip code they were born into. I mean, one of the things that… When my sons graduated from high school, my oldest son in particular, he started being recruited for affirmative action programs in various schools despite the fact that at the time we lived in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America. He was being recruited because he was part Hispanic.
He turned all those down. He did not participate in those programs. But it was ridiculous to have those programs reaching out to someone like my son. Those were meant for… Actually, they would have been more appropriate for someone like myself who grew up poor. As it turned out, I didn’t need it, but there are a lot of kids who might have needed it. Looking at social and economic disadvantage to me is a much better way than simply looking at race or ethnicity.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: To some extent what Kodiak and I spend a lot of our times talking about is a somewhat imaginary Republican Party that does care about these issues in the way that you’re describing. Can you imagine, then, what a Republican Party that really wanted to offer positive policies to benefit Hispanics, working-class people, people down at the bottom of the socioeconomic income class, what kind of policies would those look like?
Linda Chavez: Well, I mean, the first and most important thing is to make education more available and make the content of education better than it is now. Interestingly, that was part of the effort during the Reagan years. Bill Bennett, who was then Secretary of Education, was very involved in the education reform movement, as was later Diane Ravitch, who became an assistant secretary for education under George Herbert Walker Bush.
The whole emphasis was on improving all of the basic skills, getting kids the knowledge that would prepare them to be able to compete on an equal footing. Unfortunately, that really dissipated. Today, the kind of education that kids are getting at elementary and secondary schools is very deficient. When I look back on my own education, I often say one of the reasons I am where I am today – not one of, I think it was a primary reason – was my Catholic school education.
Linda Chavez: The nuns were taskmasters. They were hard. It didn’t always make me happy, but I learned things in school about math and my introduction to literature, and reading was much more sophisticated than you see today. I read the Great Books at a young age. Part of that was my father, but part of it was the school. There was just a much greater emphasis on learning things like history – American history, European history. We had a good foundation. I think that is probably first and foremost what many young children who are from poor socioeconomic backgrounds lack today.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Well, and today it also seems that even if there are some pathways to advanced education, the financial burden, if you’re coming from an economically distressed area without more economic stability, even the opportunities to advance your education beyond primary school are pretty onerous. It’s pretty hard to get there, and to deal with the student loan debt on the other side. I think you’re absolutely right that those economic barriers to entry are pretty significant, even when coupled with better educational opportunities.
Linda Chavez: Absolutely. I mean, in today’s environment, if I were born into exactly the same circumstances as I was in 1947, but born in perhaps 1997 or 2007, it would be very different today, the access to education. When I went to college my first semester, I paid for the tuition myself. I worked. Later on, I was able to get work-study grants and get some scholarship help, but mostly I had to pay for it myself. But that was possible to do at a time when my quarterly or semester tuition was $250.
It’s very different. Even with inflation… I’ve never done the figures to see what in inflation-adjusted dollars that would be today, but I would suspect it’s far below what you would see at a state school. That is part of the problem. I must say, when you talk about some of the Democrats and some of their plans… The idea of being able to provide at least an AA degree, a community college degree, to students from lower-middle and lower economic strata I believe would be very important to enhancing people’s ability to be able to make it on their own later in life. I do think that high school degrees now mean what a two-year community college degree would have meant a generation ago. And so I think we do need to expand access, universal access, particularly to those who can’t afford it.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: I suppose what I have trouble with is not the Democratic plan to offer open access. It’s more the reality of knowing that even now in places where community college is affordable, a lot of people still don’t get through. I suppose in thinking about where I would situate myself on this issue between extreme small government conservatism versus the Democrat idea of providing a program for everyone, I would look at something like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs at CUNY, which seems to me is built on the recognition that people who are, generally speaking, in poor and somewhat difficult situations in life need help getting through. But it’s not just economic help. It can be help for things like books, for subways, but they also need a lot of counseling and someone one-on-one to encourage them and give them help when they’re needed, and especially to intervene when it looks like they’re dropping out. I guess I see a more personalized form of government as the kind of thing that could be more at play in education than it is now.
Linda Chavez: It doesn’t have to be government, by the way. You can have other institutions intervene as well, and voluntary institutions that can provide that kind of mentorship and help. By the way, it’s not just in education. I see it in the small business community: young Black and Hispanic people who want to start their own business, but they don’t begin to know how to set up their books or to do some of the more difficult tasks. What they need is mentors. What they need is to be able to couple with somebody who’s done this successfully and is able to help them through that process, give them – again, give them the skills to be able to succeed.
What they don’t need is a set-aside program that says, “You’re going to get an advantage. You can put in a bid higher than everybody else, and you’re going to get it simply on the basis of your ethnicity or your race. And oh, by the way, we’re going to support you in this program for a certain number of years, and then when you’re out of the program, you’re on your own.”
Linda Chavez: Well, what you’ve just taught them is they could be the high bid instead of the low bid, and in American business that’s not a very good business plan. Capitalism is built on the idea that you offer better service for less. Again, teaching those skills… But it doesn’t have to be always government. This is probably where I’m more conservative. I think we’ve lost that sense of civic responsibility to try to work to help each other, not always being paid for it or having a pot of money set aside to make it happen, but based on our own sense of ourselves as part of a community.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Linda, I think that’s such an interesting point. Over the holidays I watched for the very first time with my family It’s a Wonderful Life, and at the end of that classic movie the community really rallies around a community member to help him because he’s helped all of his fellow community members throughout this film. It really struck me that in all of the conversations we’re having in the last five years about politics and political party and political identity and where we see our nation, there’s really been a loss of community, a sense that we’re all in it together and that we all succeed together or we fail together. It’s so interesting to me that you came to a point on that not just for educational opportunity or economic opportunity, but that outside of government that we need an enhanced sense of community.
Linda Chavez: Well, and talking about the rise of QAnon and some of these other crazy groups, what they provide to the people who join them is community. I think there is almost an innate hunger for community within human beings, that we are social beings and that we look for a place where we can feel safe and where we can find people who are like us who believe the same way we do. The kind of communities that have built up in recent years have not always been healthy communities. Quite the contrary, some of them have been very destructive communities. It’s sort of like nature abhors a vacuum, and if we don’t provide good positive communities that can attract people, particularly working-class people, they’re going to fall into bad communities.
It’s very similar to what happens in Hispanic neighborhoods with gangs. If you don’t have a good, positive community that can bring in these kids, often children of immigrant parents who work double jobs and who never seem to have time for them… if you’re not providing other places for them to find a sense of community, they can end up in a very bad community, the gang community. I think this kind of civic renewal is something that’s very important and that we’re missing in our culture. It’s something that if we lose it altogether, we’re going to be in big trouble.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: How would we move toward that kind of civic renewal?
Linda Chavez: Well, I don’t know that we have enough time. And I’m not an organizer, so I’m not necessarily the person who could give you the steps to how to go about organizing that kind of community. But certainly churches are a place to start. The Republican Party, as you talked about… Parties can be a place to start where they set up structures that give people a sense of community – one that’s not just purely political, but one that is more based on providing services and help to the entire community. All of these, I think, are places. But there are also non-profit groups that can help in this. There are a variety of sources. It’s kind of the “little platoons” that Edmund Burke talked about.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: So something that troubled me about your autobiography was that you were describing the changes of the 1960s, particularly at the university level, and it seemed that so many of these changes were destructive of this kind of community. I was struck by a statement you made about why you voted for Ronald Reagan and you said, “On most issues, I was still the Catholic schoolgirl, respectful of authority, more comfortable with a fixed moral code, and with the reverence for tradition and decorum.” And that seemed very much the kind of view that radicals in the ‘60s were striking against, and are kind of repeating the same errors now.
Linda Chavez: I think that’s right. And that’s absolutely true. I mean, one of the reviewers of my book noted that it was silly to think of me as a newly minted conservative, that it really was clear from the book that I’d always been conservative. In that sense I was, but there was a comfortable place for conservatives, even within the democratic and liberal structure of our parties at that time. And that became less so as a result of the huge cultural shifts that took place in the ‘60s. Interestingly, again, even in the Republican Party, family breakdown among lower middle-class and lower-class whites is today at the level that it was during the era in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about the breakdown of the black family. This is a phenomenon that has spread. And the breakdown in traditions and morality, I think it’s important to understand that it’s not just a Constitution and laws that undergird our society. There’s a certain kind of moral framework that’s handed down from generation to generation that we’re missing today, when it’s really broken down.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And again, when you’re talking about the kind of feminism that was on the rise and the 1960s, this is a feminism that actually was quite antagonistic toward marriage and childbirth.
Linda Chavez: And family. Yeah. Right. Marriage in particular. But the whole sort of liberal ethos today is that you don’t need to be married to have a child, that there’s nothing better about growing up in a two-parent household than there is in growing up with a single mom. I mean, children don’t get to choose whether they’re born into a family with two parents. That’s a choice that’s made by the parents for them. So it isn’t that we should ever look down or blame or cast aspersions in some way on those family structures.
But it is important to recognize that human society, as it has been built, has been built not just on the nuclear family but also on the extended family. Again, that was very important in my growing up. I lived for much of my earliest years with my grandparents near at hand – sometimes in their house, sometimes in a little house on their property. The extended family was extremely important to me. And I think we’re going to start seeing more of that now. Older folks have been sort of cast out and sent to nursing homes in recent years, and during the pandemic we saw that that didn’t work very well. So I think you’re going to start seeing, again, more intergenerational households among even the middle class than you have in the very recent past.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Well, certainly Geoff and I have both spent large portions of 2020, and I think even maybe portions of 2021, visiting family and co-existing, as you just described, in a multi-generational household. And I can tell you, it was a great comfort to me, especially during the tumultuousness of 2020, to be close to family and to be living in more of a community-based environment instead of just on my own.
Linda Chavez: Yep. I think that’s true. I mean, again, growing up in Albuquerque, my friends were my cousins. That’s very traditional, by the way, in a lot of immigrant families. It isn’t just Hispanic or Spanish families. It’s certainly true among Italian and true among the Irish as well, that your first circle of friends are people whom you’re related to. But certainly during the pandemic, my granddaughter has an apartment here in my house and it’s been wonderful to have her. That multi-generational unit has been terrific, particularly during these times when it’s good to have somebody young around who can go to the drug store and go to the store with less fear of getting coronavirus. And it’s been very, very helpful to my husband and to me.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: So, Linda, it seems to me that you’re articulating a positive vision of the kind I was talking about earlier. Do you think that this eventually will find its way into either of the parties, or do you place any kind of hope in a third party?
Linda Chavez: Well, third parties have never done very well in the United States. I mean, having three parties, I don’t think, for a long term is viable. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that what was the Republican Party might not transition, that you might have a third party arise that would draw off the saner, more moderate (in terms of temperament) Republicans who are still within Donald Trump’s party and leave Donald Trump’s party as kind of a rump. That would be the way I would imagine you might see it developing over the next few years.
Some of it will depend. I mean, it’s really a little early to tell what’s going to happen to Trump and his influence. He has been largely silenced, and how long that will last I don’t know, but he doesn’t have his normal outlets of Twitter and Facebook and going to huge rallies. He did raise a whole lot of money, so he might at some point decide to start those rallies up again. I’m not sure. But I think over time that his draw will be less and less. And I frankly do not see Don Jr. or Ivanka or anybody else in his family stepping in to take his place. For whatever negative things I could say about Donald Trump, one thing was clear: he was really a showman in a way that I don’t think any of his other family members have shown a particular talent for.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Do you feel optimistic about the future of women in the Republican Party? I’m sure Kodiak can speak to this issue better than I can, but some people would say that the 2020 elections proved that the Republican Party has turned a corner on getting women into politics. And others would argue that in many ways it’s the same old story.
Linda Chavez: Well, it certainly did get more women in and more elected, but not all of them were people I would want to be associated with – Congresswoman Greene coming to mind first and foremost. I don’t know that women or anybody else is much helped by having a QAnon supporter in their ranks. Again, I’ve sort of never really liked the way of looking at it in terms of do we have more women or do we have more Hispanics or do we have more Blacks. While I’d like to see more of everybody in, I’d like to see them there based more on what it is that they’re espousing and what they have to offer and what they’re going to do than simply on their racial or sexual characteristics.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Linda, that’s such a good point. And as I mentioned before we started recording, my non-day job, other day job, is as co-founder and political director of Republican Women for Progress, which helps equip and empower Republican women to seek elected office at the state, local, and federal levels. And I think your assessment is absolutely spot on in that we don’t want to check a box with our female candidates. We want them to run because their experiences are unique and their perspective is really good and that they feel that they have something to offer their community. And perhaps most important, that they want to be in the business of governing, not necessarily just getting in the spotlight by espousing crazy ideas or even deeply problematic ideas, like in the instance of Congresswoman Greene.
One of the things we’ve found most challenging about getting more Republican women elected is that there wasn’t really a party infrastructure that spoke specifically to them as candidates. Now, maybe it spoke to them as voters, but to run as a Republican woman, there are different considerations. And we found that when we did more outreach, we found all these great women coming out of the woodwork, with these great skillsets and really ready to run. They just were needing a different kind of approach and different kinds of infrastructure.
Linda Chavez: And there’s still barriers that are difficult to overcome. One is raising money. Women have a harder time raising money as candidates, to make a generalization, than men do. I certainly, I raised what at the time was a lot of money when I ran for the U.S. Senate for Maryland in 1986. But it was not necessarily my skill that got me to be able to raise that money. At the time, my husband had been in the political arena and worked in Republican circles, and he was very helpful to me in raising money for my campaign. So raising money is one thing.
Also, depending on age, family responsibilities… I had young children when I ran and that was hard. My oldest son was in college, and so he was a volunteer in my campaign and spent a lot of time with me during the campaign. My younger two boys were still in elementary school and I would take one or the other of them – usually not both of them because they would be fighting together if I did – on the campaign trail with me. But that’s a hurdle.
And the way in which mothers are perceived on the trail is also different. When I was running, what I found is that Republican voters thought I ought to stay home and be taking care of my kids, and a lot of Democratic voters that I should be a feminist and shouldn’t necessarily be having kids in the first place if I wanted to be in politics. So it was sort of a harsh environment. I think it’s probably less so today, but it’s still a challenge. I mean, it’s a challenge to balance any kind of work and family life. I’ve managed to do it, but I’ve been very fortunate in being able to do it. And not everyone is able to. And again, that comes back to this idea of multi-generational families. It helps to have grandma and grandpa around.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Absolutely.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: What would you say to a young woman who shares a lot of your beliefs, Linda, but is looking at you heading into the political wilderness and maybe is discouraged by that fact?
Linda Chavez: I would say don’t be discouraged by it. It’s hard to run as an independent. I wouldn’t advise you to do that. So you sort of have to cast your lot with where you feel most comfortable in either the Democratic or the Republican camp. I wouldn’t be discouraged by it. I’ve had a lot of years being involved in the fight to earn my spurs as a discouraged former Republican. If you’re young and just getting started, give it a try.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: That’s probably the closest we get to optimism on a show like this. So let’s end there. Linda Chavez, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure and an honor to talk to you.
Linda Chavez: Thank you very much, Kodiak and Geoff.
Kodiak Hill-Davis: Thank you, Linda.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: And thank you again, to everyone listening, for joining the Vital Center Podcast. All the best.