In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, famously noting, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.” The same hollow feeling of abandonment is now felt within the Gipper’s party as many conservative Americans no longer see themselves in the contemporary Republican Party. Republican leadership has slowly ceded authority to media personalities and fringe political upstarts, leading a growing number of people to realize they are conservative, but not Republican.   

Michael Mazenko

As conservative stalwarts like George Will and Joe Scarborough literally left the party, and leaders like Liz Cheney are attacked for questioning the January 6 insurrection, it’s become clear conservatism is no longer a guiding principle in the Grand Old Party.

The censure of Liz Cheney and Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger signified a new low in party politics, the tolling of the bell for a political organization that has been moving away from conservatism and toward extremist partisanship since the late ‘90s. That partisanship focused primarily on securing power and winning elections culminated in 2016 when Republican voters rejected a lifelong conservative of impeccable character, Mitt Romney, and instead nominated a media personality who’d never been actively Republican nor remotely conservative. 

Conservatism is a belief system and set of values, not a political platform and voting record. Prudence, decorum, tradition, and stability are hallmarks of conservatism, harkening back to the Ten Conservative Principles of scholar Russell Kirk and the moral conviction of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative.

That word, conscience, is pivotal in the struggle of many conservatives to see themselves in today’s GOP. With so many unconscionable words and actions by noisemakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Lauren Boebert, the party brand has been tarnished, and a conservative would never support or condone such crass, disrespectful opportunists. People don’t usually capitulate on values or compromise on ethics, which means excusing or justifying these disruptive political voices is simply a rejection of the conservative tradition.

And still, the anti-conservative actions among prominent Republicans keep piling up, often in disturbing displays of extremism.

The most recent example is found in the texts and emails of Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, regarding the 2020 election and January 6 debacle. As Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski noted, “You can’t write these text messages and believe in the Constitution.” A conservative and a believer in law and order can’t excuse or dismiss them, either.

Conservative writers Jay Nordlinger of the National Review and David French with The Atlantic have spent two years diligently attempting to expose the lies about the 2020 election and turn the GOP back toward conservative values. Yet millions of Republicans ignore these voices of reason, instead tuning in as talk television loudmouth Tucker Carlson proudly aligns himself with Vladimir Putin over the autonomous people of Ukraine. It’s truly baffling. 

Hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide have left the Republican rolls, and Colorado’s situation is equally concerning. As weak central leadership cedes moral authority, what’s a conservative to do?

In the past 20 years, as the number of unaffiliated voters has risen, many people feel conservative-but-not-Republican, and they vote that way, too. Colorado GOP Chair Kristi Burton Brown pledged to not simply be a party of complaints and criticisms but instead one of ideas and solutions. Yet anyone who follows her social media accounts knows her posts read more like snarky insults and whining, than they do a thoughtful political platform with insight and ideas.

Writer Will Durant summarized Aristotelian philosophy by noting “We are what we repeatedly do,” and Burton Brown will not restore the party to the “big tent” of Ronald Reagan while also speaking derisively of Democrats.

While many independents share beliefs with Republicans, they don’t see Democrats as the enemy. Declaring fellow Americans enemies is simply unacceptable in the party of Lincoln, the man who united a nation following a tragic Civil War by urging “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

While many unaffiliated voters support Republican candidates, they don’t see Democrats destroying the Constitution. While fiscally conservative Coloradans seek prudence in government spending, they don’t believe Democrats want to tax Coloradans into poverty. Such comments make nice soundbites, but they don’t ensure trust.

Thus, the party of Bush, Reagan, Goldwater, Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln is ceasing to be a conservative party or a welcoming place for conservative values. It’s simply a political action committee of “Republicanism,” focused on winning seats, holding offices, and acquiring power rather than leading and legislating a community, a state, a society, and a nation.

Believers in this new “–ism” will remain members of the Republican Party, but many conservatives can’t and won’t.

Michael Mazenko lives in Greenwood Village.

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