A Born Republican

Rod Searcey

Peter Robinson walked and talked like a Republican: he wrote speeches for presidents Reagan and Bush and worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission before coming to Stanford as a Hoover fellow. Yet certain GOP people and practices made him wince. So, on the eve of this year's election, he set out to take a closer look at the party he hated to love, inspired by "the amateur explorers of the 19th century . . . who tried to discover the source of the Nile or locate the tombs of the pharaohs." Out of Robinson's journals came It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP (Warner Books, 2000).

Spendthrifts such as Nelson Rockefeller, suspicious characters such as Richard Nixon, bumblers such as Gerald Ford, self-satisfied rich people such as the ones I encountered at fund-raisers, patricians such as George Bush, time-servers such as Bob Dole. There was always so much in the Republican Party of which I disapproved.

"Of course there was," my friend David Brady told me. A professor of political science [and associate dean of the Business School] at Stanford, David is a big man who speaks bluntly. "The GOP is a political party, for Pete's sake," David said. "Most people don't even approve of all the people in their own family. How is anybody ever going to approve of all the people in an organization that includes something like 30 percent of all Americans? A distance between yourself and the Republican Party, my backside. Let me ask you this. How many times have you ever voted for a Democrat?"

I swallowed hard. The answer was none.

David laughed. "That's good, Peter," he said. "That's a real distance you're keeping there."

[Later,] in a book entitled American Party Politics, I came across the following passage by the political scientist Judson L. James: A person usually begins to regard himself as a Democrat or Republican before reaching voting age. . . . The "good guys" and the "bad guys" are largely defined by early associations: only later does one acquire a rationale for this choice.

I found the passage infuriating.

"What are you so upset about?" David asked. His eyes are intensely blue. He fixed me with them.

"Tribal politics are the way America works," he continued. "I mean, look at you and me. I was born in an Irish neighborhood. My father worked in a factory. Everybody we knew sent their kids to parochial school, went to Mass on Sunday and had a picture of the pope in their kitchen. Membership in the Democratic Party might as well have been one more sacrament of the church.

"You?" he continued. "You grew up in a suburban town in upstate New York. I'm guessing here, but I'd bet all the fathers in your neighborhood had white-collar jobs, that everybody was of between 50 percent and 100 percent English extraction, and that on Sunday most of the families went to Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Methodist or Episcopal churches. Am I right?"

I suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"That's more or less what the neighborhood was like," I admitted. "But that's not why we were Republicans."

David's eyes shone with amusement. "Don't tell me. Everybody in your neighborhood just happened to come to the same position on the issues."

"Something like that," I replied.

David laughed.

"Look, everybody in the neighborhood had a decent education," I said. "They thought things through. They were Republicans by choice."

David laughed again. "Let me ask you a question," he said. "What's your earliest memory of being a Republican?"

I thought about it for a moment. As soon as the memory came to me, I knew it would play into David's hands. But he was eyeing me. I had no choice. At the entrance of the Clayton Avenue Elementary School, I told him, rose a staircase divided by a brass handrail running down the middle. After their school buses dropped them off each morning in the autumn of 1964, the children who supported Johnson for president would go up one side of the staircase, the children who supported Goldwater up the other. I trudged up the Goldwater side. I have no idea how, but by the time I was in second grade I knew I was a Republican.

David roared with laughter. He slapped his knee. "I love it," he said. "A Republican by choice at the age of 7."

Yet even after I got used to the idea that I myself was born into a tribe, the tribal nature of our political parties still troubled me. Now I saw that most Americans derived their predispositions to vote Republican or Democratic from their family background, their ethnicity, their religion -- factors that have nothing to do with a deliberative process.

"You're a political scientist," I said to [Stanford Professor Emeritus] Seymour Martin Lipset over lunch. "Doesn't that pose a problem for political theory?"

Marty, who divides his time between George Mason University and Stanford, is the author of Political Man (1959), one of the basic texts of American political science. A big man with dark hair and dark eyes who loves to talk about political theory, Marty swatted a beefy hand through the air to wave my objection aside. "Sure it poses a problem," Marty replied. "If you buy the idea that every American is supposed to follow debates on television and clip newspaper articles on the candidates as if they were all members of the League of Women Voters. Thank God it doesn't work that way."

The political parties, Marty argued, provide the American system with stability and continuity. To do so, each must be able to rely upon large numbers of supporters who will remain faithful to their party even when the party proves unpopular in the country at large.

"Look what happened when the Republicans got crushed by Franklin Roosevelt," Marty said. In 1932, the Republican Herbert Hoover lost the presidential election to the Democratic Roosevelt in a landslide. Four years later, the Republican Alf Landon lost to Roosevelt in an even bigger landslide. "Tribal loyalties were the only reason the Republican Party managed to hang on at all," Marty said. The wealthy, managerial class and the small-town and rural populations of the Midwest and North continued to vote Republican, giving the GOP a base from which to rebuild.

"Now imagine it hadn't happened that way," Marty concluded. "Imagine that even the bankers and the farmers forgot about their loyalties to the GOP and just asked themselves who seemed like the more attractive candidate." The GOP would have suffered such massive defections that it would effectively have ceased to exist.

"After that, the Democrats would have faced nothing more than token opposition from a lot of scattered little groups," Marty said. The system of checks and balances the founders devised would have been substantially overturned.

Political parties keep the American system stable -- and tribal loyalties keep the parties stable. I presented Marty Lipset's argument to David Brady. David subscribed to it himself. "As far as I'm concerned," David said, "every American should get down on his knees every night and thank God that people like the Irish are loyal to the Democratic Party while people like you WASPs can't stop being Republican even if you try."

Peter Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of the PBS TV program Uncommon Knowledge. Excerpt from It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP by Peter Robinson. Copyright © 2000 by Peter Robinson. Reprinted with permission of Warner Books, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.