The GOP’s Two Options: Build an Inclusive Majority or Become the Permanent Minority

Posted: October 29, 2008 in Politics
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In the aftermath of the 2006 mid-term elections, I wrote this post lamenting about how the Republican Party’s losses that year were indicative of a widening gulf between the libertarian wing (which I consider myself to be a part of) and the social conservatives. This trend has sprung up more prominently as an issue in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks as it has become almost assured that Americans will choose Barack Obama over John McCain for President on November 4th (unless you believe that every single reputable poll is incorrect). The internal struggle between the various factions of the GOP is characterized in a number of ways (i.e. elites vs. evangelicals or urban vs. rural), but it still basically comes down to a fight over whether the party should focus on fiscal conservatism or social conservatism.

Since 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to create a coalition of those two conflicting groups that would be a force in American politics for a quarter of a century. Indeed, George W. Bush won two elections by leveraging this powerful coalition – the irony is that the splinter of the party is going to come on his watch (whether this was substantially his fault is a discussion for another day). Even before the nation’s economy became the predominant issue over the past month, John McCain was handed a Republican Party that was in disarray without a vision (and in turn, his campaign has failed to create any vision in its place). In the zeal with which the current leadership of the GOP to use the “50-plus-1” model of securing an ideological base with a slight majority, they forgot that moderate independents are the ones that elect Presidents in this country. This group increasingly felt shunned by the Republicans, which resulted in the changing of control in Congress to the Democrats in 2006 and putting the 2008 GOP Presidential candidate, no matter who it was, at a severe disadvantage against any Democratic candidate. The Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world believed that those people that didn’t meet every single litmus test of being supposedly conservative were RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) that ought to be kicked out of the party and ridiculed (Right Wing Nut House has a great post on this subject – despite the title of this blog by Rick Moran, who is the brother of Nightline anchor Terry Moran, it is actually one of the most well-reasoned and rationally-based conservative sites out there). Well, guess what – those so-called RINOs did end up leaving in great numbers, taking with them tons of independent voters that have similar viewpoints, and could very well end up giving the Democrats both the White House and a veto-proof Congress.

I’ll be straight-forward with you on my personal bias here – there is absolutely no political philosophy that I abhor more than populism. Most people that have my political worldview – fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and live in a large progressive city – would say the same thing. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party most open to populists and they have certainly hammered home that type of message on the economic front in this election (which is why I will not be voting for Barack Obama). However, the Republican Party has increasingly become more populist since the 1990s (encapsulated by Pat Buchanan’s horrific speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention – of course, he came back this year and called Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention the greatest convention address ever). Even worse is the anti-intellectualism that seems to have come along with this rising tide of populism in both the GOP (once again, Rick Moran hits this point directly). As the evangelical and rural influence in the Republican Party has increased, so has the corresponding aversion to intellectualism. (Minneapolis Red Sox alludes to this in one of his latest posts.)  It wasn’t that long ago that people with higher income and educational levels were voting Republican by large margins over Democrats. Yet, the GOP has become so beholden to its populist wing that it is now the opposite, where the wealthy and highly-educated are actually voting for Democrats more (despite the lingering perception that the Republican Party is the party for the rich).

These Republican populists are more likely to be ideologues on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. This isn’t a good thing for the Republicans simply because of demographic trends which will likely come to fruition in this year’s election. The interior Western states that voted heavily for Bush in 2000 and 2004 have more libertarians as opposed to evangelicals, which means that they are less likely to vote on socially conservative issues (other than possibly gun ownership). Those states also happen to have the fastest-growing Hispanic populations outside of Florida, which will make the Republican Party pay for its nativist rhetoric over the past two years (even though John McCain was at the forefront of trying to get a compromise passed on this issue, which made him so unpopular with the GOP populist base that it almost doomed him in the party nomination process from the get-go). Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that McCain is poised to lose Colorado and Nevada, which would essentially make it impossible for him to win the Presidency.

At the same time, a number of Southern states are seeing rapid changes in their own demographics due to an influx non-evangelical and educated Northerners transplants. Case in point is Virginia, which has gone from a solid-red state to one where Obama appears to have a commanding lead as a result of the increasingly Democratic area of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. North Carolina has experienced a similar influx and, not surprisingly, what once was a lock for the Republicans is now a toss-up. Essentially, these moves are mirroring what has happened in suburban areas across the country, which were once rock-hard Republican bases but are now leaning Democratic. (When DuPage County is having toss-up races, the GOP should note that it’s in a whole lot of trouble.) Add in a worrisome economy on top of all of those demographic shifts and the likelihood of America witnessing a landslide early on Tuesday night (as opposed to staying up late to see if a couple of precincts in Florida and Ohio get their returns in to decide the election) is extremely high.

While John McCain’s campaign has been far from stellar at any level (whether it’s the incoherent day-to-day messaging, the pick of Sarah Palin as the VP candidate that has backfired with independent voters, or the complete lack of an overarching message as evidenced by this New York Times Magazine piece), it’s important to note that he personally is actually polling better than the Republican Party generally. This means that if McCain loses, it will be more because of the long-term political miscalculations of the party behind him (plus the economy) as opposed to anything his campaign could have possibly done. The Republican Party needs to take note of this since there will be the inevitable ill-advised mouth-breathing calls from the conservative media establishment in the event of a McCain loss that he failed to generate any excitement from the conservative base and moved away from the moral values of the party.

Even though I will be voting for John McCain because I truly believe he’s the one national politician of our time that has proven that he is an independent thinker even when it was politically detrimental to him (I personally like Obama and will ultimately be fine with him as President, but I concur with Ruth Marcus in failing to see how his policies break with the traditional Democratic Party approach at all – the fact that Obama’s incredibly well-oiled Chicago-style campaign has been able to get the American public to largely perceive that he is the supposed change agent while McCain is “four more years of Bush” is sad on a number of levels) and hope that he will somehow win (which would be kind of like saying that I hope that the Illini will get to the BCS National Championship Game this year – technically, they could if they win out and every team ahead of them lost every single other game, just as McCain could win by sweeping every single battleground state despite the fact he’s not leading in any of them with less than a week to go), in a way, a horrible loss for the Republicans next Tuesday would be a good thing long-term for the party. This will put the discord between the libertarians and the populists front-and-center such that the GOP has to figure out which direction it’s going to take since the old Reagan coalition will have become fodder for the history books. The Republicans have the opportunity to either perform a make-over to become a true majority party that invites intellectual debate or alternatively could choose to be a vocal minority that only cares about ideological purity. Is the party going to opt to grow and attempt to expand its base by adopting a libertarian platform in light of substantial demographic trends, even in the traditionally Republican strongholds in the South? Or is the party going to look to protect its evangelical core because they are the loudest and most activist group? If the Republicans take the former approach, they will retain me as a supporter in general. However, it will be the last straw for me and a whole lot of other people if the party decides to largely stick the same old socially backward tactics to scare up evangelical votes.

(Image from Los Angeles Times)

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Comments
  1. I’m no fan of populism, but identity politics is what I most abhor. Unfortunately, identity politics has become the driving force in American politics. And I assert that identity politics has been the main culprit in steering wealthy, highly educated voters away from the Republican party.

    Democrats have historically been able to rely on the party loyalty of their constituents to drive voter turnout. But Republicans always had to make a compelling argument to convince voters — even registered Republicans — to vote for Republicans. So where Democrats could always say things like “Republicans are only for the rich; Democrats are fighting for people like you,” and “Republicans are racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/anti-Catholic/anti-Irish/anti-Italian/
    anti-Hispanic/anti-Eastern European immigrant/homophobic, etc., but Democrats are fighting for -insert ethnicity/gender/sexual identity/religious group here,” Republicans have long had to make their case on specific issues and values.

    Which is why Ronald Reagan was such a transformational figure in American politics. Reagan was able to sell Barry Goldwater’s ideas to the American electorate (where Goldwater never could). With his combination of integrity, disarming charm, quiet confidence, ease with words, enduring optimism and strong sense of humor, Reagan sold vast swaths of country on the the virtues of:

    1.) lower taxes
    2.) limited government
    3.) strong national defense
    4.) America’s unique role as a source of good in an otherwise dangerous/shady world

    Reagan’s coalition was brought together by a common belief in specific American values. But it was still a coalition built on ideas, rather than on identity or party loyalty. Reagan’s coalition — even as represented by registered Republican voters — voted for those ideas/values, rather than for the “R” next to Reagan’s, George H.W. Bush’s, or George W. Bush’s name (although, G.W. Bush’s election and reelection notwithstanding, I’m convinced that the Reagan coalition had largely disbanded by 2000, and had most certainly broken off into different constituencies by 2004).

    And while the Reagan coalition has eroded, Republican voters still don’t generally vote on the basis of brand or party loyalty. They still need to be convinced to vote Republican.

    But, as has been the case for generations, Democrats still do vote on the basis of party loyalty. And while the Democratic base has lost many of its old blue collar, Catholic, Southern, and white ethnic constituents, it has added new constituencies of loyal Democrats.

    Unfortunately for Republicans, the types of voters who were once attracted to the Republican party — high earners, the highly educated, the upper middle class, wealthy urban and suburban voters — are increasingly identifying with the Democratic party (and becoming unfailingly loyal Democrats).

    But I’m not sure that Republican populism is the reason for the exodus of the wealthy, educated voter from the Republican party. I think it has more to do with changing currents in American culture.

    If you spend much time in gentrified neighborhoods, or read “Stuff White People Like,” you know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Liberal cultural values rule the roost in polite society. And upscale Americans aspire to be more sophisticated (if not more European) than the rubes out in the suburbs, xurbs and rural areas who drive big SUV’s and watch Fox News. Ironically, as the Americans have become more affluent, they’ve been able to afford to be more liberal. Thus, wealthier, more highly educated Americans in urban and decidedly upscale suburban areas trend liberal on cultural/social issues. And increasingly, those voters are assigning more weight to their cultural values than to fiscal issues.

    Ultimately, it’s all about status. Members of the cultural elite are liberal. Those who wish to break into elite circles (or at least identify with more elite circles) become more liberal by extension (just as, the saying goes, everybody becomes more Jewish when they go out to Hollywood … even if they’re not actually Jewish). David Brooks touched on this in 2006, when he revisited an old Tom Wolfe essay:
    webserve.govst.edu/users/ghrank/Political/Not-So-Great%20Expectations/jocksvsnerds.htm

    Thus, largely due to their cultural leanings, wealthy and highly educated voters are becoming a new constituency within the Democratic identity politics juggernaut, while guys like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder represent a new core of Republican base: hard working members of the middle class who either own a small business, or hope to own a small business, and who aspire to move into the upper middle class.

    The highly educated, wealthy voters of the upper middle class have the luxury of being able to assign great weight to matters that less affluent voters would likely deem frivolous: matters such as Barack Obama’s allegedly towering intellect, Barack Obama’s ability to inspire crowds — sometimes 100,000 strong — with his lofty rhetoric, Barack Obama’s Ivy League pedigree, or the historic, “healing” nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy (as in “Look at how non-racist I am — I support Barack”).

    But middle class voters who aspire to greater things are still prone to be motivated by the promise of lower taxes and smaller government. It’s yet another ironic twist: highly educated, affluent voters increasingly eschew the Republican party and become a cog in the wheel of the Democrats’ identity politics machine because their education level and affluence allows them to identify with culturally elite, progressive Democrats. And in turn, middle class voters in middle America increasingly identify with the Republican party as the Republicans remain friendly to small business, but ratchet up the rhetoric against Democratic “elites.” Republicans are losing a traditional core constituency (and one that used to be unmoved by identity politics) to the party that created American identity politics, because that constituency — increasingly motivated by identity politics — is attracted to the Democrats’ cultural elite cachet.

    That’s why, in her short time on the national stage, Sarah Palin has become such a lightning rod in American politics. To middle class, Americana voters, Sarah Palin — as a non-intellectual, non-privileged, middle class American who rose to Alaska’s Governor’s mansion on her own merit– represents all that is right about America: indeed, to these voters she represents the American dream. But to more affluent, more highly-educated voters, her hinterlands accent, her unturned up “ing’s” at the ends of words, the blue collar “first dude,” the family life that at least somewhat resembles the fictional Connors from the 90′s sitcom “Roseanne”, the moose huntin’, and the unmistakable middle America vibe that Sarah Palin gives off are sufficient grounds to oppose her and ridicule her (if not outright hate her).

    I doubt that John McCain had identity politics in mind when he asked Sarah Palin to be his running mate (sure, it didn’t hurt that she helped to energize the evangelicals and cultural conservatives, but more than anything, I think McCain saw her as something of a kindred spirit — a feisty reformer who had been a thorn in the side of the Alaskan Republican establishment). But thanks largely to a hostile national media (and no doubt, at least in part to the McCain campaign’s total mishandling of her media appearances) she has been turned into the poster child of American identity politics: sophisticates have both contempt and hatred for her; middle American cultural conservative types love her.

    The Republicans would probably be well served by trying to build a new coalition with fiscal conservatism at the forefront of their platform. It worked well for them in the 1980′s, and again in the mid 1990′s, with the Contract With America. But I’m not convinced that affluent, well-educated, urban voters would be as open to the Republican party as they were in the 80′s and (to a lesser degree) 90′s. I think that there’s been a quiet cultural shift in America, and that it could spell doom for the Republican party, regardless of the party’s platform.

    BTW,

    I agree with your assertion that one of the saddest things about this election has been the ability of the Obama campaign (or, perhaps more accurately, the ability of David Axelrod) to portray a first term Senator (who has spent two of those four years away from the Senate, campaigning for President), and former South Side Machine/Springfield politician as an agent of change/reform, while successfully defining John McCain — who truly has been a reformer and different kind of politician — as nothing but “four more years of Bush.” McCain has been his own man throughout his time in Washington, and he’s given George Bush and his administration countless headaches over the the last seven years. Remember, McCain didn’t just call for the surge in Iraq, he fought the Bush administration (and Donald Rumsfeld) tooth and nail until they adopted his suggestions, even though doing so was politically unpopular at the time). And he was proven right.

    Ironically, the success of the surge has taken Iraq off the table as an issue in this election. If Iraq were still a fiasco, it would have been a wedge issue. But with relative peace and progress in Iraq, it fell out of public consciousness. McCain’s foresight on Iraq (McCain had been critical of Rumsfeld’s suggestions on ground troop levels as far back as 2003, and had been calling for increased boots on the ground for years) should have convinced the electorate of his wisdom and leadership vis a vis Iraq and the greater struggle against militant Islamic terror. But instead, the Obama campaign got away with charging McCain as being a rubber stamp for “George Bush’s failed policies.”

    Ultimately, John McCain’s campaign has to be held responsible — at least to some degree — for letting Obama define McCain. But I suspect John McCain expected the public to be more familiar with his record, and more familiar with his personal story/history as an iconoclastic political maverick, than it turned out to be. David Axelrod has stated that he carefully crafted the narrative of Barack Obama’s life in order to give Obama the aura of authenticity. So, essentially, Axelrod created an illusion to make Obama seem authentic. But McCain is the truly authentic candidate, and the candidate with the true street cred. Too bad he wasn’t able to convey that.

    One more thing:

    A horrible loss will NOT be good for the Republican party. It will only deliver a filibuster-proof super majority to the most left leaning Democratic President (and House Speaker) in American history. Divided government is good. Having Uber progressives in control of all branches of government will not be.

    This isn’t Bill Clinton’s Democratic party anymore. The DLC, Blue Dog Dems are a thing of the past. A crushing win by the Dems would likely propel the Republicans into total disarray — and send them into a long (and potentially permanent) political wilderness — rather than cause the party to remake itself as a libertarian leaning tour de force.

    With the cultural Left having already largely gained control of much of the academy, the major print and electronic media and the popular culture, attaining huge progressive (and possibly intractable) majorities in each branch of govt. would sort of be the icing on the cake for Gramsci’s “Long March.”

    Barack Obama promises to fundamentally transform America forever. And while I would certainly like to see some improvements, I kind of like America the way it is.

  2. [...] will be the first to admit that I am one of the few in Chicago’s legal community that has a lot of issues with the political philo….  However, his apparent passion for the creation of a college football playoff system, as shown in [...]

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