Elections, Oregon Politics, Politics

Sticks and stones

I am a RINO. That’s one of the names they call me, along with clever gems like “libtard.” I’ve been called much worse, some of it, no doubt, deserved. For the most part, I don’t take it personally, recognizing that name-calling is a tool of those who have limited thinking and vocabulary skills. But I am becoming enamored of this little RINO label.

A RINO is a Republican In Name Only. The term has been around for decades, gaining increasing popularity in the 1990s. It’s usually used by conservative Republicans when they’re displeased with a moderate caucus member. People like John McCain and Mitt Romney were called RINO fairly regularly. As you might imagine, with the G.O.P. tacking right and sharply tightening its ideological rigidity, the term RINO is being used rather a lot these days — at least with those RINOs like me who are too stubborn to desert the party that long ago deserted us. With the bold insistence on ideological purity the party boasts today, enough of us have departed that the numbers of moderates remaining is fast dwindling. This is the natural outcome when a once-welcoming party tightens the requirements of membership to the point of strangulation.

I’m not sure what the endgame is, but I find it difficult to believe current party leaders are unaware their insistence on ideological lockstep is, by its very definition, the narrowest possible interpretation of the party’s breadth. In other words, when you hone your doctrine to a razor point, you exclude all the people you once embraced — people who were once solid allies, even if they didn’t see eye-to-eye with you on an issue or two. When your ideology is narrow and rigid — when you demand adherence to that dogma — you have reduced your party to its purest form. While this might be satisfying from a purely dogmatic perspective, it makes no sense if you care about growth and sustainability. The only way I could see this strategy working is if the membership of the New Republican Party got busy having babies to raise in the umbra of the party ideology.

When Craig Berkman’s party was in place, Republicans actually had a chance at winning statewide offices in Oregon. Back then, Republicans usually played well with others, eschewed conspiracy theories and had little trouble using the resources of academia, media and government to research and fact-check, even if some of those institutions did seem to tilt a little left. We were bright, reasonable and reasonably dignified. Best of all, we were respected — we didn’t do a whole lot to earn scorn and mockery.

How times have changed.

Today’s G.O.P. would be laugh-out-loud funny if it wasn’t both destructive and dangerous. What was once the big-tent party has become the my-way-or-the-highway party. What was once the party of optimism has become a cesspool of cynicism, inflexibility and conspiracy. What was once the party of light, is increasingly a pit of dark brooding and suspicion. This is not the party I joined and it’s not a party that gives me a lot of hope for the future.

For thousands of years, each successive generation has positioned itself slightly left of the one that preceded it. Think about it — it’s a sure thing that the people of my kids’ generation will collectively be slightly further left than the people of my own generation. Likewise, my generation tacked left from that of my parents. These inexorable shifts have redefined aspects of conservatism and liberalism before and they will do so again. Thus, a political party must from time to time reexamine its precepts, adjusting things when necessary. Where conservatives once stood vehemently opposed to women’s suffrage, for example, today most conservatives would fiercely defend a woman’s right to vote.

Back during the Reagan years, we loved the guy. Reagan’s optimism was contagious — his speeches made us proud to be Republicans, proud to be Americans. Even if hindsight has shown many of Reagan’s core policies to be deeply flawed, most of us remember the Reagan years fondly. For us, it seemed a happy and stable era. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Moderates like me can look back and acknowledge that trickle-down economics was a failure — supply-side policies make dangerous assumptions. Deregulation did more harm than good in the long run. Scrapping the Fairness Doctrine was probably a bad idea. We can recognize plans that sounded good at the time were, in fact, bad plans. We can remain true to our core values while sculpting our party’s future based on learned knowledge — including our mistakes.

A moment ago, I said the 80s seemed good to us. The current iteration of the G.O.P. pines for that milquetoast stability of the 1980s, that halcyon period when law-abiding, middle-class white people had it good, Black people weren’t clamoring for change, new pronouns weren’t on the agenda, a Latino majority was over half a century away and Portland didn’t reek of pee.

I hate to break it to them but those days are long gone and there’s no way to get them back.

Aside from the Taliban-style hijacking of a once-great party, what bothers me most is that the not-so-G.O.P. effectively ignores our mistakes, claiming many weren’t errors at all even in the face of very obvious evidence. As a grand example, consider the litany of policies and practices that effectively hobbled Black Americans from achieving the so-called American Dream — a college education, home ownership, business ownership, savings, et.al. Why shouldn’t the party of Lincoln be perfectly positioned —indeed, even eager — to help right the intentional wrongs inflicted on Black Americans over the last hundred-or-so years?

That question was rhetorical — I know there’s not a chance in hell of today’s G.O.P. correcting a moral evil when most of its members blithely deny wrongdoing was committed in the first place. Yep, Black people had a totally level playing field, same as whitefolk. The whites-only G.I. Bill, redlining, employment and income disparities, sentencing and incarceration rates, none of these had any effect on anyone — well, no effect on white people, anyway.

Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want me because I want to fix mistakes they don’t believe exist. Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want me because I believe some aspects of conservatism might need updating. Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want me because I think for myself and I don’t march lockstep with the party’s non-negotiable ideology. Viewed this way, calling me a RINO is an affirmation far more than a pejorative.

So go ahead, call me a RINO, I’m cool with that.

But while we’re on the topic of names, let me offer you a small tip. When you call me a libtard, you make yourself look like a dullard.

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