Do We Need to Become Republicans To Avert Climate Catastrophe?

….I can’t believe it’s come to this.

If you’re anything like me, you were anticipating November 3, 2020 with both hope and dread. As I sat there watching preliminary results come in, flashbacks to the unbelievable and unfathomable realization that Donald Trump would be our president loomed heavy. If you believe in and understand Democracy, you probably asked yourself “What has happened to our country”. How could so many people, knowing what we know about Trump, vote for him again?

That’s a comfortable position that doesn’t require us to look in the mirror at all. It doesn’t require us to change anything about what we’re doing. It simply paints a world of black and white, right and wrong, and we’re comfortable in the “correct” category. I believe it is a bit more complicated than that. I also believe the way forward is to take a pragmatic look at our political parties and how they tie to political identity.

What drives political decision making? One thought is that it is primarily around policy issues. When one of these issues is broadly adopted by one party or the other, it becomes a polarizing issue. These “wedge” issues have been used for a long time to help to polarize voting populations. They work to not only pull independent voters into a party that either promotes or opposes the issue, but they also work to deepen views on the issue to the point where it is hard to be neutral.

Unless it personally affected you, you likely didn’t think too much about trans rights as they pertain to using public restrooms until that became a wedge issue. Most voters didn’t experience the discrimination or supposed violence caused by an individual’s choice of which public bathroom was most appropriate, safe, and comfortable for them. Voters retrofitted their policy position to match their party’s position.

Benghazi and private email servers is a perfect example. Next time your uncle is going off about Hillary’s emails and how she should be locked up for Benghazi, ask him to explain what a server is or to point to Benghazi is on a map. Odds are, they can’t. It’s not a real issue they care about. The reason Trump people talk about these things is because it reaffirms their political identity.

Identity Politics

The true driver of American politics is identity. No one person can possibly understand the nuanced details for every issue ranging from foreign policy in China to domestic infrastructure, to the appropriate level of regulation for tech companies collecting and selling user data. There is just too much information for any one person to understand and make decisions about. Political parties are a proxy for these issues.

Political parties do the work to engage with think tanks and experts on a range of subjects in order to create a party platform. The party platform is a list of positions that the party takes on pressing governance issues. In theory, voters would look at the platform that they most agree with, and then become a part of the party. Voters trust that if the party represents their views on key issues, then they can be trusted on the issues that the voter is less informed about. If you read those last few sentences and thought it seems a little aspirational, that’s kinda the point. If party leadership is identifying big governance issues and working with experts to form policy that addresses the issues, then choosing a party would simply be a matter of opinion on the best approach to important issues to large numbers of American voters, but that isn’t what we’re seeing in 2020.

Instead, in 2020 you can almost predict somebody’s party affiliation based on a few key observations. Do they live in a rural area or an urban area? Do they drive a Prius? Do they live in a neighborhood with local restaurants and coffee shops or do they live somewhere where they drive to the nearest Walmart. Do they have a college degree? What type of music do they listen to? How much meat do they eat?

All of these questions are about a person’s identity. With a few exceptions, who you vote for is more a matter of your education level, where you were born, where you live, and who you associate with. In fact, there is strong evidence that political identity is overtaking both race and religion as the main identity that drives individual decision making. This can be a particularly dangerous cycle when parties begin forming policy to further entrench identity.

Simply put, it shouldn’t be surprising when somebody who is born into a rural Christian family who is surrounded by Republicans, feels that Republican is the party that represents rural people, and believes the Republican party to be the party of Christian values, decides to adopt a Republican identity. As the party increasingly represents one identity, it drives away conflicting identities; which in turn, strengthens the party’s brand as that of white Christians from rural areas.

We’ve tried calling out the hypocrisy of the Republican party to live up to its values of caring about human life. We’ve pointed out the corruption in the Trump administration and all the times he has lied. We have tried to use facts to support policy positions that would objectively help poor and rural communities. None of it has seemed to move the metrics on who is Republican vs. Democrat. We keep hoping that the 24th rape allegation against Trump will be the last straw even when the 1–23rd didn’t make a difference. When we finally recognize that facts and character don’t matter, and recognize identity as the driver of politics, this starts to make more sense.

So what doesn’t this mean for making progress in rural areas?

Pragmatic Progressives

There are pressing issues upon our society. Technology is changing the landscape of labor and threatening to displace millions of workers. The wealth gap is widening to the point where even a decent job and education are no longer a sure path to a secure middle-class lifestyle. Racial tensions are unsurprisingly escalating as our country moves toward a majority composed of diverse ethnic and racial groups. We’re seeing the reality of a changing climate.

Our country is changing but how long can we wait? The internet has allowed more people to be more connected and young people are scared to find that not only are we behind much of the developed world, we’re actually going backwards on key global issues. We are upset that our political systems don’t ever seem to represent our needs and fail to make strides toward solving the problems that will majorly impact our lives.

The problems are especially visible in “red” states. Where so much of our day to day experience is dictated at the local level, it is disheartening to see Republican leadership so apathetic about it’s constituency. The way states handled the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example. Rural states had the advantage early on. Smaller and less dense populations meant that spread could be handled easier than in big cities but instead of leadership and working to address the problem preemptively, it was mainly ignored. Utah finally had a mask mandate after 9 months of unchecked spread and nearly 500 people dead.

Progressives in “red” states don’t have a voice. We knew our next Governor would be Spencer Cox not on election night, but back in March when he beat John Huntsman in the Republican primary. As a registered Democrat at the time, I didn’t have a say in which of the Republican candidates would be my governor. I literally didn’t even get the ballot.

The same is true when our US Senators come up for reelection. Whoever gets the nomination from the Republican party will win the state even if I reaffirm my identity and vote for a Democrat. If Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, his general ineptitude in leadership, and his highly dubious moral dealings had virtually no impact on Utah’s vote in the general election, it is hard to imagine anything that could happen by 2022 to flip the state blue.

For this reason, the Republican party is the best avenue for change in red states. By not having a say on the ballot that chooses leadership in our state, it doesn’t matter how progressive I am or how informed about pressing issues. By registering Republican, I get to vote in the primary. I get to choose the lesser of bad choices. Still not great if we’re going to beat climate change, but it’s a start.

Organizing and Doing the Damn Work

Going farther, I can run for an office. I can be a progressive voice in the Republican party. Now, I give people the choice in the primary to vote for me (a clearly benevolent good representative). The problem is that I would still have to win the Republican primary against a party that would have the resources to crush me. Again, not entirely ideal but there is a better chance to win here.

Finally, if I can register as a Republican AND organize my district, then I can work to have enough delegates at a party convention to avoid a primary runoff. Showing up to the convention with enough delegates is also a way to influence the party platform. Now we’re getting to a viable solution for change in a conservative state.

This is where identity comes back into play. Most voters will vote straight ticket in a general election so in our conservative state, that becomes a tactical strength if you’re running as a Republican. Additionally, with Republicans having an outsized influence in both the electoral college and the Senate, it makes sense to build on the party’s existing brand recognition.

If it’s hard for you to swallow the thought of registering Republican and coming out on facebook as proudly Republican, recognize this as reaffirmation of political identity as your main identity. It’s hard to think of myself as a Republican. It’s hard to imagine what my friends would think about me being a proud Republican. It’s harder to imagine what happens if we don’t make any changes; If we allow conservatism to remain synonymous with obstructionism.

This is the basis of the organization Red State Progress that I helped to found. RSP’s mission is to redefine local Republican leadership by building the infrastructure to elect progressive Republicans in conservative states. We work to recruit candidates, build progressive policy that is attractive to conservative voters, and to organize precinct delegates to attend state nominating conventions.

If a candidate wins the Republican nomination, they are the Republican Party’s representation. If this happens in enough districts, it changes what it means to be a Republican. This isn’t corrupting or taking over a party, it’s politics 101. What we’ve done at RSP is to assess how power is wielded in conservative states and develop a strategy to gain power so that we can pass progressive policy.

The beauty of this strategy is that most people actually agree with progressive policy once the labels are removed. According to a study conducted by the group RuralOrganizing.org that sampled 1,274 in rural areas, 65% of people strongly agreed with the statement that “Employers should be required to pay women and men the same wages for the same work” with another 21% stating that they somewhat agree. Of those surveyed, 36% strongly agreed with the statement “Our government has the responsibility to combat climate change”

Progressive policy is popular. Don’t forget that Utah voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in 2020 where he received nearly twice as many votes as Joe Biden. In 2016 he picked up 80% of the primary votes against Hillary Clinton.

The key is to determine which policy proposals are popular in the individual areas and organize voters around those issues. This is what it means to DO politics. It is the act of finding out what issues are important and then working to lead on the solutions. There is room to pass progressive policy around healthcare, corporate regulation, environmental protections, and clean energy in rural areas. It just needs to be packaged with the right messaging and presented by the party that doesn’t require a person to vote in a way that fails to reaffirm their political identity.

Check Your Shame at The Door and Join Me in the GOP

To summarize, identity drives decision making more than policy or character. Instead of working to change people’s identity, progressives in Republican run states have a path to power by becoming Republicans and messaging popular policy in a way that reaffirms rural and conservative identities. By organizing this effort strategically and at scale, progressives have an opportunity to an outsized voice in the political discussion in their state.

Rather than holding on to our own identity as Democrats and watching as promising candidates lose the general election, become a republican. Do the work to organize in your neighborhood with other progressives. Get involved in your local precincts. Recruit and put progressive Republicans on the party ticket. Win elections. Make change.

Reader, thinking, creator, and father interested in the intersections of technology, democracy, and humanity. Check out my work at www.redstateprogress.org

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