Building A Progressive Republican Movement: An Interivew with Travis Johnson

Note: This is an interview I did back in November and is also found on my blog, NeoMugwump.

A few weeks ago, I got an invite to join a group on Facebook called Progressive Republicans. The group was described as “…Republicans interested in social justice, civil rights and a clean environment as well as a small government and strong national defense.” I was curious about it and the person behind the group. A few days ago, I decided to see if I could interview the person behind that Facebook group as well as a blog. The following is a conversation with Travis Johnson the founder of Progressive Republicans.

First off could you tell me a little about yourself: where you live, your age?
I’m a 33 year old father of a three year old. We (My daughter, my wife and me) live in Reston, Virginia. I pay the bills by working in high-tech for a firm here in Northern Virginia.

How long have you been a Republican? Have you been involved in any campaigns?
I’ve been a Republican since lat 1993-early 1994. I was President of the College Republicans at my University and worked on Secretary Kemp’s staff during the 1996 Presidential campaign.

Tell me a little about the “Progressive Republican.” What is it? A blog, the beginnings of a grassroots organization? Why did you start it?
It started as a blog, but it is growing and I believe will continue growing into much more.

If I were forced to trace its origins, I’d have to say that it was a confluence of two things: First it was watching a man I’d admired for over a decade, Senator McCain, give in to the extreme right wing of the Party in his quest for the Presidency. Everything from embracing Jerry Falwell, who he once called an “agent of intolerance” to hiring the thugs who made racially charged phone calls about his adopted daughter to the extremely short-sighted selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, was a clear message to the Right Wing of the Republican Party that he wanted to be their President. Meanwhile, 18% of Republicans, 95% of African-Americans, and 72% of Hispanics wanted Senator Obama to be their President! Something was wrong with a Party that allowed one element, albeit a very loud and well-organized one, to guide it by its nose over a cliff.

Then, after the election, I watched as men and women who’d dedicated their energy, time and personal lives to strengthening the GOP were attacked by conservatives because they dared to speak out about their dissatisfaction with the Party.

I decided I’d had enough. I was going to create a place on the internet where people believed in the Republican party at its core, but who were dissatisfied with the status quo, who had a broader view of what it meant to be a Republican could freely and openly exchange ideas.

Why do you use the word “progressive?” That seems like a word more associated with the Left.
Progressive traditionally refers to Republicans. Heck, Teddy Roosevelt ran for another term in the White House as a Progressive. The American Left only took to the term when President Nixon made “liberal” too loaded a term for them to use.

A “Progressive” according to the dictionary is someone interested in making the world a better place. A Progressive, in my opinion, is someone interested in making a brighter future for our children. I refuse to believe the Democrats have exclusive rights to the future.

Some say that the old “moderate Republican” no longer exists. What do you say about that charge? Why do you think moderates in the party have seemed so silent?

Of course they do. They’re just voting Democratic now!

The ones who stayed in the Party have stayed silent because an atmosphere has been created to make them feel unwelcome. The Rush Limbaugh-flavor conservatives even have a name for them: RINOs (Republican in Name Only). What kind of geniuses come up with derogatory, exclusionary names for people whose vote is support is essential to winning in 21st Century America?

The GOP has suffered a major defeat. What do you think was the causes of the defeat and how can the GOP rebuild itself? Do you think that social conservatism has scared off voters?

Not so much social conservatism, but social conservatism at the expense of everything and everyone else. Social conservatives deserve a seat at the table just like everyone else does. But they need to realize that their seat is not at the head of the table. Not within the Republican Party and not within America as a whole. If we can move social conservatism back to being a voice, but not the voice of the Republican Party, we’ll be on the road to rebuilding and retooling for the 21st Century.

One of the things that I have noticed is that we are seeing more and more voices of African American Republicans speaking up about the state of the party (including both you and I). What is interesting is that many of them are asking for the party to be less socially conservative. What do you think about this?

I think we know what will play in our communities and won’t. We know that African Americans aren’t going to go for all that social conservatism, not when their young men and women are being shot at in the streets of Baghdad, Kabul or New Orleans. We know that African Americans will move to a Party with plans to help their sons and daughters get good jobs, help keep them out of gangs or help them own their own businesses. We just have to present that kind of a party.

Michael Steele (the former GOP Lt. Governor of Maryland) is in the running for chairman of the Republican National Committee. What do you think of Mr. Steele’s chances, and could he be an asset to the future of the GOP?

Governor Steele is a good man who should be n the United States Senate right now. I can see a lot of Republicans supporting him this year, in light of Barack Obama’s victory. Picking him this year, however, sends the completely wrong message. It would be repeating the mistake the GOP made by sending Alan Keyes to run against then-State Senator Obama back in 2004. We don’t need an African American in charge of the GOP to show we’re just as cool as the Democrats. We just need to have a message that resonates with large swathes of the country that have begun abandoning the Party.

What can the GOP do to reach out towards minorities?

Talk to us! Recruit and support more candidates who look like us. Spend time in our communities (without cameras and an imminent election). What’s the worst that could happen? You end up with a few more votes?

Getting back to Progressive Republican, where do see this group going? What are your hopes? How do will you get there?
I’d like to see it become for the Progressive wing of the Republican Party what organizations like the Eagle Forum and CPAC are for the conservative wing. I see the Progressive Republicans raising funds and campaigning for candidates who support our ideals in the primaries. I hope to see our candidates winning elections in urban areas, so we can break the cycle of single-party rule that is so prevalent in so many communities across our nation. We’re going to make the Republican Party a nation-wide Party again.

The first step is to get the members of the Party who have hidden their Progressive views to publicly announce who they are, begin to self-identify as a Progressive Republican. Then we have to bring the Progressives who left the Party to join the Democrats back home. We can’t do this without them. Then we have to get into the local, state and national party apparatus and make our voices heard as loudly as we can.

We’re going to save the Party and, by extension, the country. I think that’s worth a little noise.

If someone wants to get involved with Progressive Republican, what should they do?
They can check out our blog (www.progressiverepublican.info), subsribe to the RSS feed there, They can also visit our Facebook group, as well as our new social network, http://progressiverepublican.ning.com .

Author: DENNIS SANDERS