Benjamin Disraeli, Richard Nixon, and the modern Republican Party

In his newsletter yesterday, Jonathan Last detailed the destruction of the Republican Party in Virginia:

Republicans lost control of the state Senate and the state House for the first time in a generation. The GOP went from holding majorities in both to being in a deep hole. This morning Democrats control the state Senate 21-18 and the House of Delegates 53-42. Three years ago Republicans held 21 seats in the Senate and 66 seats in the House.

This loss occurred while the sitting Democratic governor was clinging to power following his blackface scandal and the economy in the state was thriving. None of the Republican incumbents who lost were scandal-plagued. 

Last goes on to note that Virginia is not a blue state; it is a swing state, one Republicans seem bent on losing indefinitely by embracing a man and program Virginia’s voters view with disdain. They need a viable alternative. Robert Blake’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli may provide a road map.

Like the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 changed politics irrevocably. “After 1832,” Blake writes, “there had been three possible policies for the Conservative party to adopt.”

  1. They might have become a party of old-fashioned Protestant squirearchical reaction, resisting all change, internal emigres outside the main stream of English political life.
  2. They might, on the other hand, have endeavored to compromise with the new forces in politics, ally themselves with the industrial professional world, with the men of property in general, in order to resist quasi-revolutionary forces such as Chartism which the spirit of reform had conjured up.
  3. Or they might as the party of land have sought to exploit the differences between capital and labour, between the millocracy and the mill hands, by a programme of factory legislation and social reform, a sort of benevolent aristocratic paternalism.

The Conservatives, led by Sir Robert Peel, favored the second approach, which worked until internal divisions over the Corn Laws ousted Peel from power permanently in 1846. The Conservatives then endured 28 years before winning another clear majority in the House of Commons.

What can this episode of history teach small-c conservatives today? Perhaps that fusionism can work, but only for so long. Like American Republicans from Dwight D. Eisenhower to the George W. Bush, Peel united a coalition of business professionals and cultural conservatives that, for a time at least, brought the Tories to power. But eventually the coalition’s internal contradictions undermined the partnership. The Conservatives floundered until Disraeli, favoring the third of the three options Blake outlined, ascended to the post of Prime Minister.

Virginia shows what happens when Republicans lose the support of the business class. Perhaps once Trump leaves the scene the GOP can win them back. But 2012 demonstrated the diminishing returns of the “business class plus social conservative” electoral strategy. A post-Trump Republican Party might successfully woo back the suburban women and business elites he alienated in 2016, but such a strategy could also lose the working class votes Trump brought into the Republican fold in the process.

A riskier but likely more fruitful strategy would see the Republicans follow Disraeli’s example and finally become the “Grand New Party” reform conservatives began advocating a decade ago. Disreali’s own career provides one successful precedent, but there is even an example of this working in America. From Adrian Woolridge in The Economist:

Nixon’s great aim was to fuse conservative and liberal themes, to produce a new governing philosophy. Combine the Democrats’ commitment to big government with the Republicans’ belief in traditional values—and throw in a bit of demagoguery—and he would be invincible. A seminal moment in his intellectual evolution came when Moynihan encouraged him to read Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli and he came to the conclusion that “Tory men with liberal policies” held the key to progress.

Watergate obscures his success, but at least as an electoral strategy, Nixon’s conclusion was right.