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IDEAS

A conservative’s case for optimism

Voices of decency and justice are being heard above the din of populism. Here’s what has to happen next.

Representatives Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, two Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump, exchanged a high five at the Capitol on Jan. 13.
Representatives Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, two Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump, exchanged a high five at the Capitol on Jan. 13.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

Optimism seems quaint these days, like a remnant from our past. At times it feels as though the era of hope that defeated fascism in Europe, ended official segregation in America, and put a man on the moon is gone for good. Especially after four years of chaos, discord, and demagoguery, coupled with a rampaging pandemic, culminated in a deadly insurrection intended to prevent this week’s transition of power.

But this division and destruction need not define us as a nation. Through all of our challenges, and to some extent because of them, I remain optimistic for America’s future.

Every generation or so, we must be reminded that liberty and justice can be realized only through democracy, a fragile human experiment. And when our complacency invites threats to it, we learn again its value and workings. We renew our commitment to the struggle to uphold its ideals and institutions.

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Today, at the end of one such struggle, our exhaustion may be at its peak. Still, we must look beyond the last four years to seize the opportunity for renewal: to imagine new answers to old problems, to forge new partnerships among longtime rivals, and to build a more just, thriving America.

This is not Pollyannaism or willful ignorance of the realities we face. There are tangible reasons for hope.

We defeated a dangerous authoritarian, not with violence but with political will and enough unity. We did so not by restricting the vote but with the highest voter turnout in history. In doing so, we reconfirmed the wisdom of democracy itself.

That was followed by the greatest domestic threat to American democracy since the Civil War, as militias stormed our Capitol this month. They bloodied the halls of Congress, but they could not overthrow our government or overturn our election. Once secure, Democrats and a handful of Republicans came together to certify the election results and then impeach our former president for his role.

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Now, if we are to build off of this moment and overcome the many crises and challenges we face, we must set aside the tired divides of politics and rote ideology.

Between recent polling, impeachment votes, and Republican voter defections that helped put Joe Biden in the White House, we know that there are principled and former Republicans who are ready to partner in the mission of restoring America.

In an evenly divided Congress, Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, Representative Adam Kinzinger, and others can play an outsized role in advancing unifying solutions for the country. In contrast, those who refuse to work in good faith for the national interest will relegate their party and themselves to disgrace and likely defeat.

The crisis of the last four years has built a greater shared understanding of what our democracy requires.

Reforming and reinforcing the institutions of our democracy that have fractured or underperformed is one such thing. Congressional oversight, the independence of law enforcement and inspectors general, and our election processes all need improvement. So does the Vacancies Act, a 1998 law with loopholes that allow presidents to bypass Senate approval and put federal departments under the control of unqualified loyalists.

Democrats have long been skeptical of decentralized governance, and Republicans have traditionally rejected centralized authority. But the last four years have highlighted the need for both federal civil rights protections and safeguards against an unaccountable and overpowered executive.

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We have seen enough executive abuse of power and should now reestablish Congress as a check on the presidency, limiting the powers that a future despot could again wield against America from within.

The growing fracture in the Republican Party, which has pushed millions of Americans like me away for the last four years, is also cause for hope. For too long a destructive ideology has held near-total sway over the GOP, allowing extremism to flourish and craven political calculations to override prudence and principle. But defeat is sobering, and now voices of decency are beginning to be heard just above the din of populism.

Now is the time for Republicans and conservatives to rebuild their political and intellectual home and to join Democrats and independents in the quest for a more free and just America. The coalescing of these voices of reason and conscience will either put the Republican Party on a better path or compete with it directly.

Finally, we must reform our electoral systems. The false notion that expanding access to voting benefits Democrats more than Republicans has been shattered by recent Republican gains in Congress. Moreover, we’ve seen how limiting electoral competition through gerrymandering, closed primaries, and first-past-the-post voting incentivizes divisive and ineffective leadership.

Preventing future demagogues means giving Americans more choices and more freedom to vote through independent redistricting, automatic voter registration, open primaries, and ranked-choice voting. Those who have looked at election law as a game of partisan leverage should now see the wisdom of increasing fair competition rather than insulating their party from it.

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There are plenty more opportunities for Americans to work together for a brighter future, and plenty more sources of hope. In the thick of our tribulations, darkness has felt all-encompassing. But if we dare to lift our heads again, we can plot a course to the end of our crises and a new beginning. There are still many mountains and valleys to traverse, but I am optimistic that together we will find our way there.

Evan McMullin, former chief policy director for House Republicans, was an independent candidate for president in 2016. He is executive director of Stand Up Republic, a nonprofit group pushing for electoral reform and government accountability. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMcMullin.