The Republican Party has a problem: It has too much anger and not enough votes.
To illustrate, we might consider the storming of the Capitol on January 6. If every one of the protestors who showed up in Washington, D.C., that day — either at the peaceful rally near the White House, and/or at the violent invasion of the Capitol — instead had spent his or her time recruiting 10 new voters, then the GOP, including Donald Trump, would have had a much better year. After all, just 44,000 more votes, distributed across three states and a single congressional district, would have given Trump a victory.
Indeed, just the day before the riotous events, Republicans lost two Senate seats in Georgia. So wouldn’t it have been better for the GOP if the protestors, a few days earlier, had gathered in the Peach State to help with getting out the vote? If so, the GOP might still have its Senate majority.
Some will say, of course, that the protesters, angry as they were, would have been ill-suited for the slower-paced process of politicking; as the German sociologist Max Weber put it a century ago, politics is the “slow boring of hard boards.” That is, it takes craft, coupled with patience, to win elections. If only the guy in the viking headdress had decided to make himself famous by persuading people, as opposed to outraging them; he might now be headed toward elective office — as opposed to being immersed in deep legal doo-doo.
Too much of the Republican Party has replaced voting with venting. Anger can be a motivator, but such motivation is useful only if it is harnessed to an effective mechanism, such as an election. Otherwise, such passion is just wasted energy — and often, in fact, it’s counterproductive.
Indeed, as we think about the issue of excess energy, we might compare the political situation to a scientific situation — that is, the process by which nuclear reactors make steam to turn a turbine. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and yet a nuclear reactor core can easily be five times hotter — and much hotter than that, of course, if something goes awry. In other words, the reactor’s fuel produces vastly more energy than needed, and this is why they are prone to melting down. It’s because of this fearsome energy excess that nuclear power has never achieved its full potential. It would be, well, cool, if someone could figure out how to get a uranium reaction to just 212 degrees — and no hotter.
So now, in this combustible world of politics, we need to think about how to chill and focus on what ought to be the mission: winning elections. We need enough energy to get people to the polls, and not much more. Of course, excess energy beyond that is best recycled into more GOTV. Victory is a dish best served cold.
Yes, it’s understood that for some, hell-raising is more fun than electioneering. And so that’s where wise leadership is needed to instruct the ornery; if the goal is to achieve positive reform, there’s a way to do it — and a way not to do it.
Indeed, we might draw inspiration from a proven winner, Ronald Reagan. The Gipper got into Republican politics in the early 1960s, amidst the anger-filled presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Reagan loyally supported Goldwater, and yet his own style was far different: the Californian was a calming figure. And after Goldwater’s disastrous defeat in 1964, Reagan could see that we needed a better way; we needed persuasion, not agitation.
Reagan was willing to commit to that Weberian axiom: the slow boring of hard boards. And so, many years later, after having served two successful terms as governor of California, Reagan spoke to many Conservative Political Action Conferences, counseling the patient strategy of . . . getting more votes. As he said to the 1977 CPAC, “Conservatism is the antithesis of the kind of ideological fanaticism that has brought so much horror and destruction to the world.” Continuing in that vein, he added, “Let us lay to rest, once and for all, the myth of a small group of ideological purists trying to capture a majority.”
But at the same time, even as he spoke of patient majoritarian politics, Reagan was not giving an inch on policy; he wanted to win, and yet he wanted an actual majority, and with it a mandate to make change. (By contrast, Trump lost the popular balloting in both 2016 and 2020, by a cumulative total of ten million votes.)
Moreover, Reagan’s critique of the incumbent Democratic president of his day, Jimmy Carter, offers strong and helpful echoes of the critique any Republican could make of President Joe Biden today; back then, Reagan said he wanted to build “a majority [asserting] its rights against the tyranny of powerful academics, fashionable left-revolutionaries, some economic illiterates who happen to hold elective office, and the social engineers who dominate the dialogue and set the format in political and social affairs.”
Three years later, in 1980, Reagan won the Republican presidential nomination, then then defeated Carter in a landslide.
So Republicans would do well to study the Reagan model. The Gipper combined a gentleness of manner with a steely focus on the main prize: winning the White House.
Yes, Reagan possessed a tight self-discipline that’s the opposite of the let-it-all-hang-out expressiveness — laced, sadly, with outright criminality — of the Jan. 6 protestors. Reagan proved that an effective opposition makes plans to win, while an angry opposition simply flails and loses.
Today, Republicans, having played the futile anger card, find themselves out of power in Washington; the GOP has won the popular vote for the presidency just once in the last three decades. Obviously, it’s hard for a party to claim the mantle of populism if it can’t win a majority of the populace. Moreover, the repercussions of 1/6, as well as the revelations about such cultish MAGA figures as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have put Republicans in an even deeper hole.
However, as Reagan proved, it’s possible for a party to pull itself out of a pit, and to truly — as his 1980 campaign pledged — make America great again.
That tantalizing prospect of winning, for a change, is something to think about as we commemorate the Gipper’s 110th birthday, this February 6.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.