How Republicans can grow the party's base after Donald Trump is gone

James A. Morone, Opinion contributor
·4 min read

Every news cycle brings us another agonized Republican repeating the plea. “Elect Joe Biden and save the Republican Party,” as former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman recently put it.

Republican operatives at the Lincoln Project spin wicked videos designed to get under President Donald Trump’s skin. Veterans from the Bush Administration sign up with 43 Alumni for Biden. Retired security officers leap on the blue bandwagon.

The list runs on but, unfortunately, they’re not likely to get what they want.

Electing Joe Biden is not going to change the Republican Party any more than electing Barack Obama did. The Republican faithful are fervent about Trumpism. Losing an election — even losing big — won’t change that. What Republican moderates really need are new party members with fresh attitudes.

How do they find them? By joining Democrats for something more meaningful. Republicans could transform their party by securing the right to vote. For everyone. Automatically. Register all Americans when they turn 18. No caveats. No paperwork. No convoluted residency tests.

Today, technology makes it possible to identify voters without ID cards — much less taking two different days to register and cast a ballot.

In fact, Republicans who really want to shake up their party should go even bolder and require people to vote — like Australia and Belgium already do. Failing to vote harms the republic a lot more than, say, smoking marijuana or parking illegally and it ought to be treated the same way.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on  Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I know, this sounds crazy. After all, it’s the Democrats who piously preach voting rights. Republicans respond by purging voter lists, creating convoluted ID requirements, banning former felons, cutting voting times and more. President Trump has been refreshingly candid about how big turnouts hurt his party.

But think about it for minute. The many barriers to voting tilt elections toward the most intense partisans — candidates win by tossing them red meat. A larger electorate would force the true believers to reach out to lukewarm neighbors lingering on the sidelines. Rather than simply signing up for Biden or badmouthing the president, reform-minded Republicans should look for ways to draft new voters.

GOP turned away from its roots

Today’s Republican problem goes back to a fateful choice the party made in the 1960s. Back then, many Republicans were racial liberals. In fact, they saved the Civil Rights Act. Time magazine called it their bill, more than anyone else’s.

Then the party discovered the power of white anxiety and that changed everything.

During the 1964 Republican convention, when Barry Goldwater captured the party, racial furies crawled into his coalition alongside honest conservatives. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line, was there as an alternate delegate from New York. “That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life,” he testified on the front pages of the Black press. I learned “how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

Belva Davis, a Black reporter, had to flee the hall as delegates, screaming racial epithets, pelted her with mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars and a glass soda bottle that whizzed inches from her head and shattered against the concrete wall. That marked the end of most African Americans in the Republican Party.

White people replaced them. For the next 50 years, Democrats averaged only 39% of the white vote in presidential elections. As a result, Republicans won big victories, one after another, averaging a whopping 450 Electoral College votes (out of 538) between 1968 and 1988.

The racial strategy did not require much effort until the demographics began to turn.

Over time, immigrants entered (or were pushed) into the Democratic coalition. Young people joined them. And women. The politics of whiteness required more and harsher. More unabashed voter suppression. Harsher tribal roars.

Imagine how things would change if everyone could easily vote. In many places, that would push Republicans to reach out for their former friends — African Americans, women (the gender gap rose up in the 1980s) or Asian-Americans (who stuck with the Republican all the way through Bob Dole’s run against Bill Clinton in 1996).

Larger electorate will add diversity

A larger electorate would encourage more diverse messages. In the long run, Republicans will flourish when they finally bust the link between conservatism and whiteness.

Voting for Biden is not enough to transform the party. In the real world, people need incentives. Republicans could help create them. Induce more people to vote and watch a fresh generation of young Republicans rise up and reach beyond the angry base.

The alternative — a party clinging to power by fiercely suppressing voters and accommodating racial wrath — will sink us deeper into our current mess. And, quite possibly, sink our democracy altogether.

James Morone is a professor at Brown University and the author of "Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal from George Washington to Donald Trump."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Republicans can grow their base and save the party after Trump