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UHCL prof shares insights on GOP's post-election identity crisis

The riots that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have become a flashpoint in U.S. history. Many Americans fear further unrest upon the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

With so many elements of our democracy in turmoil, University of Houston-Clear Lake's Assistant Professor of Political Science Se-Hyoung Yi is sharing his insight on how Republicans can begin looking to the future and restoring stability and calm to the nation.

For the last four years, the Republican Party's loyalty to President Trump was almost universal, but his strong position has been diminished with the second impeachment of his presidency, resulting from role he played in inciting the violent riots. Democrats have called for President Trump's resignation, or for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. Some once-loyal Republican lawmakers and many corporate donors have withdrawn their support.

Yi examines the current political climate and explores the way forward.

Salvaging the GOP's public image

"The GOP must resurrect itself, but Trump is not going anywhere, even after all the chaos is over," Yi said. "I believe he and his family are going to remain influential figures in American politics. He will keep up his social media presence, and we will watch him and listen to him on cable TV or podcasts."

Yi said the GOP has two options moving forward. "They must show they are returning to 'normal.' That is to say, they must try to once again resemble the GOP before Trump," he said. "They must create a broad crossover appeal to diverse voters. Before, they were attempting to appeal to minorities and middle-class voters as well as well-educated, urban and suburban voters, hoping to be more inclusive. But those efforts were frustrating to a huge Republican base, especially by those who felt abandoned by the party and disenfranchised by the new economy."

Yi said Trump appealed to this segment of voters, along with ultra right-wing populists and conspiracy theorists. "Trump gave them the false sense that they were being represented or heard," he said. "There has always been a significant number of people who embrace extremist and racist ideas, but before Trump, those voices were filtered out within the GOP. Now, the GOP recognize how powerful those voices are and how critical they are to helping them get re-elected."

There is a huge gap between the former, "old school" Republicans and the new generation that came of age during Trump's presidency. "This leads to the second option," Yi said. "Republicans may decide to continue to excite this 'base.'"

Finding a way to resonate with the 'base'

"As we saw from the last election, there were many Republican anti-Trump activists like The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump that poured a lot of effort into fighting Trump in the Republican Party," he explained. "But I don't think they were completely successful; they did not resonate with many Republicans. Trump still received more than 74 million votes, and Democrats did not do well in many statewide and local elections."

Yi said Republicans know they need the support of Trump's base to get re-elected. "So far, Trump's GOP has been successful. Even after the violent riots at the Capitol, we have seven senators and 138 congressmen who still objected to the lawfully-cast electoral votes in Pennsylvania," he said. "The new generation of Republicans and the populist base have become one flesh. If it's not Trump, they could find another similar mouthpiece."

"Many Republicans do not actually like Donald Trump," continued Yi. "They may not really want to be associated with him, but they know this is the base that is necessary to get re-elected. The GOP could go either way. I hope they try to return to their 'normal' and 'common sense' pre-Trump status, but I'm not sure it's possible," he said. "If they value their long-term political future, I believe this is what they need to do."

With the recent run-off election in Georgia resulting in two new Democratic senators, Yi said it's clear that many Sun Belt states with a history of voting for Republican candidates are moving toward the Democrats. "There is a rising number of moderate, well-educated, middle-class voters who are moving away from this populist, radical philosophy, and if the Republican Party does not recognize this, its political future is not bright," he said. "The GOP needs to change."

At the same time, Yi said that the Democrats will also play a significant role in what the Republicans will decide. "Many who voted for Trump voted for Obama in 2008. It's the Democratic Party that has also failed," he said. "There are some who voted for Trump, but with great reservation, even though they knew he was not a good man. But the Democrats were not offering better alternatives."

The Biden presidency

Yi said President-elect Joe Biden will face serious challenges from the moment he takes the oath of office. "First, he must give a clear message to the people that this violent far-right anti-government movement has no place in our country. Calling for unity may be easy for politicians, but for those who have endured discrimination for a long time in this country, it's not a good message," he said.

"People feel they are being asked to unite with their aggressors who don't seem to be facing consequences for their actions. Unity must be the final goal, but he needs to be very careful about how to frame that message.

"During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson had begun with a base of supporters in the southern states, but he lost them and split the party," he said. "How was he able to fight for civil rights in the South with no political apparatus supporting his agenda there? By making a coalition, with civic organizations, activists, churches and educators. While there is only so much a government can do, Biden can learn from this."

"He must think about enhancing civic dialogue on the issues of civil rights and race. Trump tapped into the dark side of populism, but Biden can do better. He can mobilize the democratic side of populism to turn the tide."

Tapping into the bright side, becoming civically educated

"Freedom of speech applies to everyone in this society. We express our thoughts without a fear of persecution, as long as doing so does not incite violence, threaten others, or cause substantial disruption," Yi said.

"This is what distinguishes our society from others. After seeing this insurgence on Jan. 6, some may be tempted to conclude people are ignorant, and may want to silence these toxic voices," he continued. "There is a better way to fight misinformation, conspiracy theories, and toxic ideologies: more free speech. Citizens, politicians, educators, students, and civil rights activists can work together to promote a culture of inclusiveness, mutual respect, civility, and justice."

Tapping into the bright, democratic side of populism and addressing the source of the frustration of others is the place to begin. "It's a failure of politics. Both sides have frustrated a lot of people and politicians have neglected this," he said. "Many people are consuming the baseless conspiracy theories that are going around via social media. No matter how you try to disprove these theories with facts, they will just bring other 'evidence' that they believe will prove their point.

"Since I teach core courses in social science, we think about what we do to fight civic illiteracy. We don't understand how government operates, we don't understand how politics work, and that is why some are tempted to listen to these unorthodox and fundamentally incorrect opinions and voices."

Yi said that as a college educator, it is his obligation to do more to enhance civic literacy. "Many of us didn't know the details about how electoral votes are certified, so they believed it was possible for the vice president to reject those votes," he said.

"The 12th Amendment states that the vice president has no power to reject the votes already certified by states, and now we are seeing that we need to know these things," he said. "Ironically, because of Trump and his recklessness, we have been forced to become more attentive to these details. As a political science professor, this is a reckoning moment."

For more information about UHCL's Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, go online.