On May 18, mega-billionaire Elon Musk caused a political earthquake when he announced his move from moderate Democrat to moderate Republican. “In the past I voted Democrat because they were (mostly) the kindness party. But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.”
In two sentences, Musk challenged longstanding identity stereotypes that gave Democrats a false identity as loving and caring and Republicans an equally false identity as mean-spirited and uncaring. With Musk challenging the Democrats’ false identity as the kindness party, conservatives have an extraordinary strategic opening: Republicans can expand their reach, especially to suburban women, Black-, Hispanic-, and Asian-American voters, and, ultimately, become an affirmative, majority party.
What Musk didn’t say is that the GOP has already become the “kindness” party. Conservatives actually have a solid — but largely uncredited — kindness record. Many people base their votes on perceptions about the candidates’ identities. Being perceived as the caring party still counts politically.
Musk’s acknowledgement signals that conservatives can turn the tables: as Democrats pursue inexorably woke political extremes after trillions spent on anti-poverty programs that haven’t worked, Republicans can establish a moral high ground that demonstrates their deep commitment to principles, policies and practices that improve the lives of poor, persecuted and vulnerable people around the world.
The GOP can advance a transformative agenda that, along with its traditional conservative, limited-government principles, prioritizes human rights and Internet freedom for millions of people here and abroad.
Musk’s recognition that Democrats no longer have a “kindness” monopoly was anticipated in a remarkable 2016 essay, “Challenging the Caricature: A Record-Based Strategy for Long-Term Conservative Majorities,” written principally by former Reagan-era Office of Management and Budget General Counsel Michael Horowitz, plus eleven prominent conservatives, including the late theologian Michael Novak, and former Margaret Thatcher policy adviser and speechwriter John O’Sullivan.
Horowitz, a former Democrat and Yale Law School graduate, eschewed Wall Street to teach the first integrated classes at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He has operated below Washington’s radar screen with considerable drive, integrity and success for decades as he pursued strange-bedfellow, left-right coalitions supporting civil-rights and human-rights initiatives domestically and internationally.
“Challenging the Caricature” seeks to expand individual freedom and human rights. Given his experience building effective bipartisan coalitions, Horowitz believes deeply that conservatives have already established a remarkable but, given the prevailing caricature, unrecognized record that shatters traditional political stereotypes when it comes to promoting solid moral, caring values.
Conservatives have embraced domestic policy issues such as criminal justice reform, ending prison rape, stopping sex trafficking of women and supporting inner-city charter schools and English-language immersion that often benefit less affluent people.
Internationally, conservatives – especially evangelical Christians partnering with Horowitz – have been instrumental in passing the International Religious Freedom Act, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Sudan Peace Act and the North Korea Freedom Act.
These laws address what Horowitz calls “the slavery issues of our time”: sex-trafficking, female genital mutilation, obstetric fistula, honor-killings and child marriages. These contemporary evils are comparable to the 19th century evils of African slavery that British parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) so forcefully challenged during his career.
For conservatives, however, these policies are too often considered marginal rather than defining. Horowitz believes these human-rights issues must receive the same legislative priority as routine tax, budget and housing legislation.
If sex trafficking represents “the slavery issue of our time,” Internet firewalls in totalitarian countries like China, Cuba, Iran and Russia constitute “the Berlin Walls of our time.” Tearing down these Internet firewalls means freedom for individuals to receive and exchange information. Imagine how many lives might have been saved if Russians knew the truth about Ukraine and if Wuhan residents reported coronavirus outbreaks sooner?
Are the Democrats’ caricatures of conservatives real?
Consider Barack Obama campaigning for the presidency in 2008 and describing Midwest working class voters who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama’s primary opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, lambasted Obama’s elitism, but eight years later, there she was describing half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a basket of “deplorables.” Clinton labelled them “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.”
Today, there’s a wide-open, unparalleled opportunity for conservatives to pursue a game-changing agenda that transforms American politics by shattering the caricature which pits a “caring left” against a “mean-spirited right.” Strategically, they can make our elections turn on the quality of competing ideas rather than on the caricature-based, identity-driven perceptions of the candidates’ moral qualities.
Conservatives can attract voters not just because of liberal failures but by embracing a positive, caring agenda that earns them credibility as the true “kindness” party. Conservatives can prioritize a positive human-rights agenda that embraces persecuted, vulnerable, and victimized individuals. Such priorities represent good policy and good politics; they also occupy the moral high ground.
No more LBJ-Obama-type, trickle-down, income redistribution plans that often divert resources from the deserving poor to indirect service providers and other middlemen in the name of “caring.” Conservatives can embrace FDR- and Reagan-type value-oriented social welfare policies that actually deliver without creating dependency.
These policies will attract many independent voters and suburban women. Many Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics – the liberal Democratic coalition’s traditional base – are already embracing these values and shifting towards the GOP. There’s also substantial voting by faith-based voters who have demonstrated a national and international commitment to human-rights issues. Relatively small voter shifts within these groups can establish conservative legislative majorities.
Policies promoting economic growth, traditional values, reduced dependency, basic human rights and limited government are important sources of hope for the vulnerable here and abroad. Tearing down Internet firewalls and maximizing information flows mean freedom for hundreds of millions of people in closed societies.
If embraced, these conservative policies will establish voter trust for who we are and what we stand for. We can then expect more Americans to follow Elon Musk’s decision.
Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He is writing a biography of Michael Horowitz