A weekend before the NJGOP held its Leadership Summit in Atlantic City, New Jersey, two contributors to this website attended a gathering of conservative academics and writers and journalists, hosted by an organization founded by the late William F. Buckley Jr. The 500 present where in Philadelphia to enjoy a nice dinner and listen to a lecture by a writer named Rod Dreher.
Rod Dreher is the senior editor of the national magazine and website, The American Conservative. This is the publication that predicted the fall of the Bush dynasty and the rise of Donald Trump. They wrote about the populist shift in GOP politics when most Washington-based journalists were confidently predicting that Paul Ryan was the next big thing.
Dreher wrote a book last year that set the academic world talking. It was debated in all those places that thoughtful Republicans go to figure out what the world is, and how they – and what they believe – fit into it. Conservative journalists and think tanks debated the vision Dreher presented – and the book was a popular success, a “New York Times Bestseller”, in fact.
The book is called The Benedict Option (A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation). It calls for Christian conservatives to reassess their relationships with the outside world – with institutions like the Republican Party and corporate America.
Once upon a time, conservatives gave their votes to “pro-business” corporatists and in exchange received their “protection” on policies impacting traditional values. The battle over same-sex marriage ended all that, exposing the business community as cheerleaders for the materialistic “sex and shopping” culture that sustains their short-term profits.
In response to this and other betrayals, Dreher suggests that believers prepare themselves for a hard time, for a period not unlike that suffered by eastern Christianity during the Communist occupation of their nations and cultures. The idea is to hold oneself apart, become stronger in belief and in practice, and build new institutions outside the hubbub and the madness.
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote that The Benedict Option was the most important and discussed book in a decade. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the book prophetic and something every Christian should read. Many have. And they are starting to look at things differently, and beginning to reassess.
It's not only conservative Christians who are recoiling from a betrayal by the Establishment of which they once thought themselves a part. Working class Americans of all ethnicities, creeds, and genders have given up on a Democratic Party obsessed with global capitalism and a Labor movement that threw them over for an immigration agenda that bloats the gray economy and threatens their jobs. In his book, The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America (2013), George Packer extended this loss of connection and idea of betrayal to the broader American middle class. Meanwhile, libertarians are aghast at the growing regulatory police state and endless “war” economy. While the election of Donald Trump has left many old-time, business-centric Republicans wondering who is who and what is what.
Since Rod Dreher's lecture, there have been two regional meetings to discuss the practical implications of The Benedict Option on a state by state, party by party basis. In each case, an individual reassessment is being made. One political party organization that appears disconnected to its natural electorate is the Republican Party in New Jersey. Indeed, it is such to the point of it being said not to possess an electorate at all, but rather a collection of voters who still notionally respond to the word “Republican”.
In arriving at this assessment, the discussion focused on what is a political party and how does it devolve the further it gets from its center. In other words, everyone knows what it means to be a Republican and this reflects the generalizations held about the party nationally or globally. But the further away you get from the center the greater the opportunity is for that message or "brand" to be corrupted, and its meaning lost.
So what is the Republican Party – once we get down to the state level or county level – in a place like New Jersey?
(1) Is it the sum of the beliefs and aspirations of its members, as expressed every four years in a party platform?
(2) Or is it the network of profitable business interests of those who occupy leadership positions within the party?
This isn't a gibe at the leadership of the New Jersey GOP but rather a basic philosophical question. Those engaged in this discussion are strongly influenced by Edmund Burke, who wrote: "The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged."
Burke considered politics to be a branch of ethics. This separated him from Machiavelli and the modern political tradition which holds that "power" is supreme.
In light of this, the question above is posed.
So, will the NJGOP be guided by morality and ethics – and a written set of principles – or will it merely be a vehicle for men seeking power and the financial opportunities that flow from it?
Once upon a time, a certain Assemblyman – as Chairman of the NJGOP – came in for some very rough criticism because he would not formally endorse (or allow the Republican State Committee to endorse) the platform of the Republican National Committee, which had been debated and democratically approved in the summer of 2008.
He was criticized for the part he played in leaving the New Jersey Republican Party without a set of written principles, but after he was removed as State Chairman by Governor Chris Christie, there was a new platform, adopted in the summer of 2012, debated and democratically approved as was the one before. Sure enough, the NJGOP didn't adopt it either. A new chairman, installed by Governor Christie, ignored the new set of party principles as had been the old.
And now there's been another platform, debated and voted on in the summer of 2016, by delegates from all across America. And it too, has suffered the same fate as the others. It has not been endorsed by the NJGOP – leaving the Republican Party in New Jersey without a set principles, a road map by which to judge its success or failure.
Why? Any poll will show you that most registered Republicans in New Jersey uniformly support the platform of the Republican Party. So what makes it so difficult for the members of the New Jersey Republican State Committee to simply say, yes, we are Republicans and we support the democratically approved principles of our party as set down in the Republican Party Platform of 2016?
Well, in most cases, those state committee members are selected by Republican County chairmen in counties that have what is called a "party line". This is s thumb on the scale at elections that enables a county machine to note who the "official" candidates of the party are.
It is a system not unlike that practiced in less democratic nations and is thoroughly disreputable. If New Jersey was a third world country organizing its first elections and it proposed such a thing, the United Nations would be bound to declare those elections rigged and undemocratic. But New Jersey is part of the West and was established before the founding of the U.N. So the political parties here are fortunate in that they do not fall under the scrutiny of international law.
Most New Jersey Republicans are unaware that their state and local party organizations do not operate under a set of principles – or indeed any moral or ethical guide at all. 99 percent have no idea that the national Republican Party platform isn't used as a guide when recruiting potential Republican nominees for public office.
You see, most registered Republicans in New Jersey assume that there is one long chain of command leading from the White House of Donald Trump all the way down to the county committee level. Republican voters believe that when the county party says that so and so is the "official" party candidate, they are hearing the word of the Republican National Committee.
Of course, this is not true. That’s why there is so much confusion when state and local Republican leaders in New Jersey fail to match the rhetoric coming out of Washington, DC. There is no direct line from the White House to the office of the local party boss. And without a set of principles – a written standard by which to judge good from bad, success from failure – local party organizations are left with nothing but the will and wishes of a controlling party boss or cadre.
The employment and economic interests of many state and local Republican leaders tends to complicate things further. Many county chairmen function as lobbyists or hold business connections and loyalties that are very much at variance with those principles of the Republican Party and the aspirations of ordinary Republicans. This leads some party organizations to operate as for-profit mutual benefit societies or in some cases, sole proprietorships. While some operate as entrepreneurs, others are more like placemen – granted patronage jobs or vendors contracts or some gift of status with which to do business.
This is a surprise to many ordinary Republican voters in New Jersey, who still believe that their local party stands for the Republican platform. In reality, when they vote Republican, they are not voting for who they think they are, but rather they are voting for the candidates put forward by what could be described as independent operators, with agendas often at odds with the Republican Party platform.
A review of the candidacies put forward by New Jersey Republicans in the last decade clearly shows that the Republican Party platform plays no role in the selection process. What that means for average Republican voters is that instead of being a members of a party of ideas, of values, of right and wrong -- they are merely facilitators of what are often independent operators, who at times conduct themselves in ways that are more along the lines of an entrepreneur than an ideologue.
A person’s vote is a very valuable thing. Voters generally don’t treat it so, but it is.
Recently, Princeton University concluded a study that confirmed what many already feared – America is not a democracy. How can we be? Our precious votes are artificially funneled into two silos: Democratic or Republican. If you want to look past those two, the media, academic, legal, and political powers of the Establishment won’t provide you with much. “Pick one,” they tell us.
We pledge our collective votes to one of two political parties with the understanding that we are going to get something in return. That even if they try and fail, at the very least, they are going to stay somewhat true to what they say they are. After all, we are voting for a national “brand” and we expect the candidates we vote for to reflect that. We do not want to buy a new Ford only to learn that in New Jersey, a “Ford” is an aging Datsun.
If average voters think they are voting for a national Ford but instead get a local Datsun, then there really isn’t anything in it for the average Republican voter. All they are doing is giving away their collective votes so that some local boss can harvest them to use to make money. They think they are voting for people who believe in the platform of the Republican Party – of that thing they read about every four years and that largely reflects their values. But it turns out to be just an illusion. Someone has captured the Republican "brand" and monetized it.
So voters turn-off, tune-out, and fail to turn-out to vote.
Voters are told how important it is to vote… by the guys who get jobs and contracts and status by monetizing other people’s collective votes. As for the average voter… maybe he or she loses a day’s wages by getting hauled up for jury duty (a delightful by-product of registering to vote).
And if you question how a new Ford is really an old Datsun… well then they call you names. The true-believer is told he or she is some kind of freak for believing in the party platform. What is wrong with you for thinking it was on-the-level? Why would you ever believe that we actually believed in what we said we believed in? Are you some kind of arsehole?
At the NJGOP Leadership Summit in Atlantic City, it was evident that very few could articulate what the Republican Party stood for. The talk was all about the new technology available to communicate a message, rather than what that message is. People who get paid to win campaigns in New Jersey were there to explain tactics and polling but not how to define and sell what we are burdened with… that word “Republican.”
The leadership of the NJGOP is now faced with the task of reconnecting a party with its voters. To convince the one percent who profit from politics – and who control the levers of power – to allow a space for the 99 percent who simply want to vote for people they believe represent the values and principles of the Republican Party.
This will require patience and understanding – and will be made more difficult by the attitudes of some who use polling to determine political positions, rather than as a means to test arguments with which to convince. The Democrats are in a position of hegemony because they invited in their true believers, gave them a seat at the table, and reaped financial benefits and grassroots activism by doing so. They refused to follow public opinion. Choosing instead to make it.
The career of Garden State Equality’s Steven Goldstein should be studied by every aspiring Republican activist. At the start of his long march, when confronted with disheartening and frankly abysmal polling data, he did not jettison his principles, he shifted the conversation. He used polling – not as a revelation to tell him what to believe – but as a tool for convincing others.
Remember that no more than 1 percent of those who vote are there to make money off the system. 99 percent show up to vote because they believe Republican means Republican principles and ideas and policies and the platform. They are not in on the deal. They get no cut. So let's build institutions that these people can trust and that – more importantly – earn their trust.
So... which will it be? A party based on ethics and morality – with a set of principles by which to judge its success or failure? Or every man for himself, the pursuit of power, the worship of greed? It is a time for choosing.
The Republican Party in New Jersey can choose to open itself up to ideas and nail its colors to the mast and say "this is who we are and this is what we stand for!" Ideas have brought the national Republican Party far – so why are they resisted in New Jersey? Instead of avoiding issues, embrace them, use them, figure out ways in which to explain them and do so artfully to win the debate.
For New Jersey Republicans, it is time to remember who you are.