“Of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by playing an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
– Alexander Hamilton, Federal No. 1
At the end of the current election cycle, the Republican Party will be forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Unbridled demagoguery has driven the GOP to an inflection point from which there is no turning back. If a populist prevails in the primary, as appears increasingly likely, the party faces either devastating defeat in the general election or a new, unrecognizable identity. In either scenario, a large swath of the GOP electorate will be forced to eat crow and reevaluate its affiliation. Call it, if you will, a moral debt restructuring, one caused by the reckless behavior of a man who knows a thing or two about bankruptcy.
We are in the midst of an ideological Civil War, one pitting American values of hope, empowerment and self-reliance against defeatist attitudes of fear, entitlement and victimization. Ronald Reagan lifted people up by prioritizing limited government, states’ rights, low taxes and free markets, but today’s GOP voters have responded most enthusiastically to candidates driving people apart with hate speech and alarmism. After winning only 27% of the Hispanic vote in 2012, Republican leadership set out an agenda to make the party more inclusive. Populist candidates have instead chosen to pander to disaffected voters by doubling down on nationalist rhetoric – and so far poll numbers appear to positively reinforce such a position.
Politics, like investing, isn’t a game of right and wrong. It’s a results-oriented business, both in terms of winning elections and governing effectively. But as Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson will tell you, national poll numbers at this stage of the process mean very little. Barry Goldwater delivered on his promise to bring out the silent majority with his populist rhetoric in 1964, the only problem is it voted against him in a landslide. The ultimate proof in the pudding will be who gets the nomination, and how he performs in the general election.
Given how much Americans have been misled over the last decade, it’s no wonder they’re having a hard time separating straight-talk from misinformation. That robust economic recovery? They don’t feel it. The Affordable Care Act? It made their health insurance more expensive. Daesh, another word for ISIS, is contained? They don’t live under a rock. You can’t blame Americans for gravitating toward politicians who look and sound different than the ones who have repeatedly failed to deliver on promises of hope and change. When faced with a threat, whether economic or terrorist, it’s easy to resort to cynicism. It’s cathartic to get angry. But more than ever, we must resist the urge to betray the values on which our great nation was founded. More than ever, we need courageous, aspirational leadership to reestablish the purpose of America.
You must understand the motivation for people to offer a rebuke of the status quo, both in the United States and globally. It’s much more economic than it is social. We need leaders with a strong command of fiscal issues who can empower Americans to lift themselves out of poverty. The long-term security plan in the Middle East must also be based on economic solutions to give citizens a viable alternative to extremism. In a recent Business Executives for National Security (BENS) trip to Afghanistan, I attended a military briefing where the General disclosed that 80% of those who join the Taliban do so in order to feed their families, not to fulfill a religious fantasy.
The sad irony in the rising tide of nationalism is that America is a democracy founded by immigrants on the premise of religious freedom. The hard work of immigrants throughout our history has created the economic power from which we derive our global sphere of influence. America has never been a closed society; each of us has a powerful, aspirational story about our parents or grandparents coming to build a new life in this great land. There is no doubt we need to secure our southern border and ensure the vetting process for all immigrants is air-tight, but betraying common decency out of primeval fear reeks of World War II-era attitudes that led to the internment of Japanese-American citizens and rejection of European-Jewish refugees – events that are a stain on our history. America has always accomplished far more acting as courageous frontiersmen than weak reactionaries.
After a bombastic debate season, everyone is looking forward to seeing real decisions made in primaries and caucuses. Substance matters more as we get closer to actual votes being cast. New Hampshire will be especially important because the state has many moderates, and independents can vote on either primary ballot. To win Iowa or New Hampshire, it might actually be better to poll worse nationally. Seeing the deep GOP field whittled down will be a welcome sight that allows for more direct confrontation of the styles in this race.
Democracy is a device that ensures the people shall be governed no better than they deserve. I know America deserves better. Our great nation was founded as a land of opportunity where huddled masses could emigrate to make better lives for their families. Lately, though, it has too closely resembled the ancient lands with storied pomp from which our ancestors fled.