What are the various types of “republican,” and how are they defined?
I have learned to despise the term “Republican In Name Only” (a.k.a., RINO). My hatred for it is, likely, because the term is almost always lobbed around thoughtlessly with no regard for meaning or context, but simply as a foul insult meant to disparage a political opponent, and often by someone who’s lacking for constructive rhetoric. (By that standard, “RINO” is no better than “Nazi,” “communist,” or “faggot,” in that the value of the term is cheapened when it’s reduced to a common insult.) Quite frankly, there are better ways to address the intra-party philosophical divide than to randomly sling profanity around; and this is coming from a career Sailor. However, in order to constructively address the problem, because other terms also get abused so badly, I think that perhaps some effort ought to be expended in pursuit of some basic definitions that concisely and completely identify the various types of “republicans” present in today’s party apparatus (both establishment and grassroots).
Though it seems a bit off-track, I’m going to start with a favorite definition, which I coined about five months ago in the context of a strategy piece:
Constitutionalist Insurgency: referring collectively to a loosely-networked quasi-alliance of grassroots organizations who have a common advocacy for constitutionally-restrained government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free-market capitalism. These organizations specifically include the Campaign for Liberty, the Republican Liberty Caucus, the Conservative Political Action Conference, iCaucus, the American Conservative Union, and the tea party network (among others). Synonyms include: the “liberty minded network,” the “tea party movement,” and the “grassroots conservatives.” Antonyms include: the “old guard bluebloods,” the “establishment bluebloods,” the “establishment elites,” and the “establishment progressives.”
Notice that I specifically did not include “party establishment” or “establishment republicans” as antonyms. There’s a reason for that. To become someone within the party establishment simply means to become established within the party apparatus, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem isn’t one of having a seat at the table so much as it is what happens when one is seated at the table. To borrow a concept from Jesus, the problem isn’t one of being “in the system,” as much as it is becoming “of the system.” As I’ll get to presently, as long as one stays on the party platform, being a member of the establishment can be a good thing.
To be clear, a “republican” is someone who: (a) regularly contributes to the Republican Party efforts, at least at the county level; (b) has recently run as a candidate for office in the Republican Primary, including as a precinct delegate; or (c) is so identified on their voter registration, in states where that’s an option . . . and has done none of the foregoing for the Democrat Party, at least not recently. Thus, honestly claiming to be a republican requires active maintenance of that status; one cannot simply point to something done for the party during the Bush Administration or the Engler Administration as support for a claim to being a faithful member of the party of Adams, Lincoln, Grant, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Reagan. “What have you done for us lately?” is a perfectly valid question when someone claims to be a republican while shooting their mouth off over a live microphone. The drive-by media won’t ask that question, so we ought to.
However, we also ought to understand that simply because someone can honestly claim to be flying the republican banner doesn’t mean that we’re always going to see eye-to-eye. In fact, using Reagan’s 4/5 benchmark, about 20% of the time we aren’t going to agree. However, because of the “intense fellowship” currently characterizing intra-party differences of opinion, two particular terms are starting to get considerable usage, and I think that we ought to define them, though these two ought to be self-evident:
- A “Platform Republican” views the party platform as the defining guide for both policy and political decision-making (second only to the constitution, if the two conflict at all).
- A “Progressive Republican” views the constitution as obsolete, the party platform as irrelevant, and robust debate over philosophical principles as unnecessarily divisive.
. . . and while there may be room for variance of degree within those definitions, there is no middle ground between them, so far as I can tell (and I have looked). One is either a platform republican or one is a progressive republican . . . period . . . or one is not an honest republican. However, as much as we are tempted to do so, this philosophical dichotomy should never be used as a litmus test. We’re not discussing Heaven vs. Hell here, and none of us have the authority to deny someone access to the party, provided they’ve met one of the requirements that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Rather, platformists ought to make a point of stressing the platform in everything they do, and the progressives will eventually get the hint and respond accordingly.
Yet “platform vs. progressive” isn’t the only philosophical division within the Republican Party. The terms, “conservative,” “liberal,” “moderate,” and “tea partier” also get used and abused on a regular basis. Sometimes candidates will claim to be conservatives and/or tea party friendly, so as to appeal to the party’s grassroots base, yet an honest examination of their record reveals otherwise. Sometimes, any or all of the terms get used as invectives, in a pointless attempt to insult a fellow republican (and thus in direct violation of Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment). Often, the terms are used with either the speaker or the listener, or both, having no clue what they actually mean, and thus sounding very foolish to those who do know. So perhaps we ought to clear these terms up, because years of misuse have rendered them anything but self-evident:
- A “Conservative Republican” is a platform republican who operates within the system as a matter of personal preference, and who embraces the two-party paradigm as a necessary reality (unless we’re prepared to fundamentally change how elections are conducted in America). Conservative republicans are sometimes subdivided into “Evangelical Conservatives” and “Grassroots Conservatives,” depending upon the degree to which their political philosophy is faith-based vs. neighborhood-based.
- A “Liberal Republican” is a progressive republican (no matter how much they want us to believe otherwise) for whom progressive policy will trump platform policy nearly every time, except in those instances where a platform approach is politically profitable (which generally requires the media to be in attendance).
- A “Libertarian Republican” is generally a platform republican, except that abstract liberty will almost always trump moral order (which will be a given on social issues). What distinguishes a “libertarian republican” is the degree to which they’ll incorporate the Libertarian Party platform into their political and policy decision-making.
- A “Moderate Republican” is hard to pin down philosophically, as they are pragmatic centrists, and don’t consider themselves bound by either the party platform or progressive ideology. The trick is to identify what their philosophical starting point is (on-platform or off-platform) and how often, how far, and for what reason they’ll shift to the other side of the philosophical fence. Moderate republicans are often subdivided into “Conservative Moderate” and “Liberal Moderate,” depending upon whether their philosophical starting point is platform-based or progressive-based.
- A “Tea Party Republican” is a platform republican who operates within the system as a matter of strict necessity (because that’s the only way to get important things done), and who despises the two-party paradigm as a necessary evil (and thus will happily jump ship if a truly viable third party arrives on the scene). Tea party republicans are often subdivided into “mainstream tea partiers” and “purist tea partiers,” depending upon their willingness to operate within the system, as well as their willingness to accept a flawed republican nominee who’s at least an improvement over the incumbent.
. . . and we should resist the temptation to assign moral values to these definitions, because at best, all they are is philosophical dispositions. Nor should we use them as pigeonholes in order to stereotype people one way or the other, because a person’s worldview will shift as they mature and gain real-life experience, and so will their political philosophy. Sometimes that’s in one direction, sometimes it’s in another. Only rarely does a single act identify a person’s political philosophy, but a trend observed over time will always speak volumes.
Also, this is why I said that being an “establishment republican” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are several conservative republicans (and a few well-known tea party republicans) who have properly embedded themselves within the establishment, who are allies of the insurgency because of their adherence to the party platform. Yet the grassroots will often treat these people as pariahs, because they dare to operate within the system. How does that make any sense? Can you show me how you’re going to accomplish anything of consequence without at least allies inside the system?
Given all of this, the term “Republican In Name Only” clearly implies that said individual is, in fact, a republican of convenience (if not flying a false flag outright), and that this has been duly and diligently verified. I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but as a general rule I have better things to do with my time than to track down whether or not someone genuinely is a RINO. But the next time you see or hear someone throwing that term around, ask the question: How do you know this? What proof do you have of this?
Because I gotta tell you, if we’re going to return the party to its founding principles, then slinging empty insults like mud against a wall isn’t the way to do it. We need to be smarter than that.