Our national conversation lost a constructive conservative voice recently with the death of 56-year-old Michael Gerson. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and later a syndicated columnist and a leading never-Trumper.
Gerson, whose wisdom often brightened the Star Tribune's opinion pages over the years, died of cancer Nov. 17. His liberal colleagues at the Washington Post praised him for brilliant writing and humanitarian service, including many years helping fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Stories about Gerson focused on how his deep Christian convictions translated into an uplifting attitude and acceptance of other faiths, including a moment when Gerson publicly rebuked a Pentagon general who had just delivered an Islamophobic speech.
One of Gerson's most recent columns scolded fundamentalist Christians who "deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry."
Gerson's entire body of work, especially his book "Heroic Conservatism," should be required reading for those Republicans and conservatives who sincerely want to reassess not just their disappointing midterms, but also the GOP's loss of the popular vote in seven of the eight presidential elections since 1988.
The imperative to rethink and to create a more positive conservative vision is particularly urgent for Minnesota Republicans, who have failed to elect a single statewide candidate since 2006 (that's zero-for-26 in contests for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor).
The ever-rightward-ratcheting Minnesota Republican Party also has failed to win a majority of voters in any gubernatorial election since 1994, when a downright liberal Republican, Arne Carlson, enjoyed the largest landslide (63% of the vote) by any Minnesota governor in the last century.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last GOP gubernatorial candidate to win statewide races (but with less than 50%, in three-way contests involving a once-strong centrist Independence Party) may have said it best when he told reporters after the election: "If you haven't closed a sale with your product in more than 15 years, it's long past the time to get a better product, better marketing, or both."
Headed into the 2024 cycle, the party of historic unifiers and human-rights champions like Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower faces a monumental identity crisis: Trump and Trumpism, or something else, for every office at every level of government.
Gerson was encouraging something else, and warning about a conservative environment that could create a demagogue, even before Trump became a serious threat. In a lengthy essay in the Winter 2014 edition of National Affairs, a right-leaning quarterly journal, Gerson took Republicans to task for "a theoretical zeal and indiscipline in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging and denigrating."
Gerson was not a liberal Republican. His 2014 essay heaps plenty of blame on Democrats and liberals for overreach, for ineffective governance, for hostility to business and for provoking the antigovernment hysteria.
But he was warning Republicans that they must not throw out the baby (democracy) with the bathwater (Democrats). He also was delivering a basic civics lesson, that our governments do mostly good and essential things. And a government small enough to drown in the bathtub (an image created by antigovernment zealot Grover Norquist) might not be large enough to do good and great things.
Gerson specifically focused on the rise of the Obamaphobic Tea Party, which turned out to be Trump's base, strongly allied with white nationalist and other antigovernment elements and fundamentalist Christians. In scholarly fashion, Gerson traced their roots all the way back to the founding of the nation and to Anti-Federalists who initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Gerson would find it fitting that Trump most recently has suggested the Constitution be suspended so that he can be reinstalled as president.
The founders who prevailed, Gerson wrote, "did not ... view government as an evil, or even a necessary evil." Instead, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (and later, especially, Lincoln) understood that a stronger government of, by and for the people would have to meet the changing needs of those people.
What we got and have so far preserved, Gerson said, was a Constitution and a government that were powerful and flexible enough to "transition from a slave-holding, horse-and-carriage society dominated by a few Anglo-Saxon Protestants to a high-tech free society of more than 300 million demographically diverse citizens."
Lincoln, the GOP's most illustrious founder, greatly expanded federal power, mostly to fix the largest founding flaw, the monstrous original sin of slavery. Lincoln was not arguing that government could fix every wrong, Gerson wrote, but it was certainly obligated to fix wrongs it had done to its own people.
Gerson was essentially pleading for conservative acceptance of an evolving democracy and a strong governmental role in providing economic security and true equality of opportunity for all races and cultures. He said these roles may "require examination and reform, but they are not inherently illegitimate."
The essay ended with an assertion that most Americans, judging by recent election results, will affirm. And in the process he posed a tough question for conservatives who lay claim to patriotism.
"Skepticism toward government," he wrote, "is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?"
Dane Smith is a retired newspaper reporter and former president of a think tank.