In the 1850s, the American Whig Party fractured over slavery and dissolved. The Republican Party arose out of the Whig ashes and nominated and got Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860. The GOP has since endured as a dominant party in our republic.
One hundred sixty years later, strong political currents converge that threaten the existence of the Republican Party.
The rise of the tea party brought dozens of sympathetic members of Congress to Washington committed to fight the burgeoning federal debt, erosion of personal and economic freedoms, illegal immigration and attacks on gun ownership. They have frozen Congress’s ability to pass legislation and even toppled John Boehner as speaker. The resulting gridlock, as evidenced by the Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings on Judge Garland’s nomination, has ultimately alienated mainstream Republicans. To this day, many rank-and-file Republicans express outright disgust over very right wing Republicans shutting down the government in 2013. That event seems to have begun mainstream Republicans’ disaffection with congressional Republicans.
No one could prevent Donald Trump’s emergence. But many of the rank and file are profoundly disappointed with their party leaders for accepting Trump, however reluctantly. These party faithful have reached the breaking point; they refuse to support a party whose leaders endorse Trump as their standard-bearer. I’ve watched it happen to people I know. Their ties to the party have frayed badly, perhaps beyond repair.
Utah is witnessing its own parallel version of this meltdown. For decades, Republican elected officials have worked to keep taxes low, grow the economy, limit government, fight federal intrusion and improve our education system. They and their Democrat counterparts have done a pretty good job in managing and building Utah up. But since the 1990s, more dogmatic and libertarian voices have complained that their Republican representatives have not pursued the true principles of conservatism.
For the most part their real irritants have been federal legislation and regulation and the rulings of federal courts in things like illegal immigration, federal control of public lands and unbalanced environmentalism. But these dissidents couldn't change the federal government, so they kept the fight in Utah. Although it’s really a family squabble between the theoretical purists and elected realists who have to make things work in the real world, these ultra-conservatives have only increased their pressure on the party and elected officials.
This insatiable demand for ever more libertarian purity even eclipsed the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which historically enjoyed significant political influence on relevant state issues. For example, the LDS Church's strong opposition to harsh and probably unconstitutional state-based immigration laws was unapologetically ignored by many Republican delegates and legislators. This has since been repeated with other issues.
In reaction to this trend, prominent community leaders proposed the Count My Vote initiative complaining that the caucus-convention system gives disproportionate influence to the right wing. This initiative would have abolished party conventions in favor of a direct primary. However, the Legislature forced a compromise codified as SB54, which allowed parties to maintain their caucuses and conventions so long as they permitted candidates to get on the ballot by gathering signatures.
The Republican Central Committee and current party officers vehemently oppose SB54. Although they’ve lost their case at every stage, they stubbornly continue to litigate it. These entrenched ideologues have largely forfeited the support of Utahns, who by all measures are a pretty conservative lot. Their deep yearning for judicial vindication will result either in a devastating legal loss or in a victory that will prove to be Pyrrhic because there will be no party left to celebrate with them.
With uncompromising ideologues on the right hobbling the party’s attempt to enlarge the tent both nationally and in Utah, and with the intemperate, narcissistic Trump carrying the Republican banner, the Republican Party not only courts electoral disaster but risks the very dissolution of the party. We can only watch with sadness and regret as the Grand Old Party stumbles, aged and weary, in what are apparently its death throes.
Greg Bell is the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association. He is the former Republican lieutenant governor of Utah.