News & Ideas  -  Longwell: We Need to Tell a Better Story About America

Brad Rourke Kettering Conversations Maura Casey News

By Maura Casey

This article is part of a series of stories covering three panels from Kettering Conversations on Democracy, “Democracy Is Not Partisan.” This event, a collaboration between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Kettering Foundation, was held on May 9 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

GOP strategist Sarah Longwell is a lifelong Republican who believes that we are in the midst of not only a populist moment, but also a political realignment. And no matter what happens, she said, the old Republican Party is not coming back.

Longwell is the publisher of The Bulwark, which provides analysis and reporting in defense of liberal democracy. She also hosts The Focus Group, a podcast that looks into what the average voter thinks about policy, politics, and current events. Longwell spoke before a live audience on stage with Brad Rourke, the Kettering Foundation’s chief external affairs officer and director of DC operations.

Longwell has taken pains to understand how it was that the country elected Donald Trump in 2016. In conducting focus groups and interviewing voters, she learned that many who liked Trump and cast ballots for him never had voted before. They are now engaged in the political system.

Yet there is another group, too: Republican voters who voted for (former GOP presidential candidates) John McCain and Mitt Romney, but were “unwilling to vote for Donald Trump.” This is resulting in a realignment of the Republican party.

Longwell said there are any number of disruptive factors that are influencing the realignment, including social media, the fracturing of traditional media, and geographic segmentation. “The Republican Party of Mitt Romney . . . is not coming back,” she said. It is “much more likely for the person who comes after Trump to be on a spectrum of Tucker Carlson to J.D. Vance than Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney.”

Rourke asked Longwell what pro-democracy messages she has heard in her thousands of conversations with voters.

“I am going to say two things that are going to sound contradictory, but they’re not” Longwell replied. “One is voters don’t care about democracy. . . . And yet, it is deeply embedded inside of them. . . . Republicans think Democrats stole the 2020 election. Democrats think Republicans are a threat to democracy because they said that the election was stolen and then stormed the Capitol.” She went on to add that she has been talking with the 30 percent of Republicans who don’t believe the election was stolen. They still have faith in America and its systems.

One answer to this political situation we are in, Longwell said, is leadership. “We need better candidates and we need people to run who are great leaders.” She cited four Democrats who can meet this moment: [Pennsylvania Governor] Josh Shapiro, [Michigan Governor] Gretchen Whitmer, [Georgia Senator] Raphael Warnock, and [Maryland Governor] Wes Moore. “The Democratic Party,” she said, “has an opportunity to be the big, broad pro-democracy coalition right now and bring in so may of these disaffected Republicans.”

America is coming up to its 250th year as a country, Longwell said, and too many leaders feed off the idea that we have to hate each other, stirring up anger and fear. In order to get people to fight for and care about democracy, we need to tell them a “better story about democracy” and a “better story about America. . . . We’ve got a good opportunity, I think, to make a new pitch for what it is we’re doing here, which is the most special thing that’s ever been done in the world.”

Rourke concluded the session by asking Longwell, “What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve heard in the last month?” Longwell replied that she was encouraged by the significant vote totals in the Republican presidential primaries for former presidential candidate Nikki Haley, despite the fact that she is no longer running. “There is a self-motivated, 20ish percent . . .  who are turning out for no reason other than to cast a vote against Donald Trump,” she said.

To watch the full panel, click here.