Saturday, November 23, 2013
Why the GOP "Can’t Quit" its Nativist White Base
In 1987, in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections, the New York Times ran an article entitled “GOP Ponders an Appeal to Minorities” that began thusly:
“WHEN Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, stared down at an audience of young Republicans the other day, he was struck not so much by what he saw as what he did not. ''I'd like to see 50 wheelchairs in this audience,'' he said, ''I'd like to see 50 black faces, 50 Hispanics, 50 Asian-Americans.'' The problem with the Republicans, he said, is that ''we're sort of a hard-hearted party, the upper crust.
“Representative Jack Kemp, who is also running for the Republican Presidential nomination, has made the opening up of the party to members of minority groups something of a private crusade. Vice President Bush has signed on blacks both in the Vice Presidential office and in his Presidential campaign.”
Twenty-five years later not much has changed. At a time when the United States has become ever more racially and ethnically diverse, the Republican voting bloc is nearly as white today (89 percent in the 2012 elections) as it was when it captured the southern Dixiecrat vote decades ago (96 percent in the 1972 elections). Meanwhile, Republican leaders have continually bemoaned its overwhelmingly white base.
Cue today's Republican hand-wringing. Says Colin Powell:
“[H]ere’s what I say to my Republican friends: the country is becoming more diverse…you say you want to reach out, you say you want to see if you can bring some of these voters to the Republican side. This is not the way to do it.”
Powell is far from the only Republican pol who has read the electoral tea leaves and forecast a grim future for the GOP. After Romney's 2012 loss, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the GOP was "not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal likewise warned that Republicans must stop "being the stupid party.”
Okay, so…change the message, right? Use more inclusive language to “Bring in some of these voters to the Republican side.” The Republican Party "autopsy" report noted that the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections:
"We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters."
The problem is that non-whites are not really buying what the GOP is selling. The GOP is also losing their support among seniors, and it turns out that minorities may be no more socially conservative than the population as a whole (and do not vote on gay rights or abortion anyway).
The more fundamental problem is that today's Republican base is (almost uniformly) white social conservatives. As Donald Rumsfeld put it during the Iraq War, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. The folksy late columnist Molly Ivins put it like this: “you got to dance with them what brung you.” The upshot is that the GOP is terrified of losing its dedicated white conservative base in a possibly vain effort to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters.
Possibly inadvertently, Republicans have struck a multi-generational contract with an army of socially conservative (increasingly southern and/or rural) white Christians who are deeply suspicious of the “plantation mentality” of African Americans. Who believe that Mexicans are taking away the jobs of native-born whites. Who distrust or despise liberals, intellectuals, artists, feminists and foreigners.
Truth is: the current denizens of the GOP tent don’t much care for creating a bigger tent—and this is as much true today as it was twenty-five years ago. The 1987 article reckoned that the GOP might (already then) be running up against the “limits of conversion,” which was the very real fear that it was fearful that “too overt an appeal to blacks would endanger gains among whites.” Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush, as they say...
This is why the vaunted (and often mocked) Republican “outreach” to minorities, youth, students, and women is probably just hot air. Today, as decades ago, the GOP’s Achilles Heel is its reliance on a single demographic group (Southern and/or rural white conservatives), who will only countenance outreach on their terms. Said Kim Messick:
Because of [the GOP’s] demographic weakness, it is more beholden than ever to the intensity of its most extreme voters. This has engendered a death spiral in which it must take increasingly radical positions to drive these voters to the polls, positions that in turn alienate ever larger segments of the population, making these core voters even more crucial — and so on. We have a name these days for the electoral residue produced by this series of increasingly rigorous purifications. We call it “the Tea Party.”
In fact, many Republican voters believe the problem is their leaders are not conservative enough. A New York Time blog cited a recent Pew poll suggesting that a majority (54 percent) of self-identified Republicans believe that the party needs to become more conservative and more inflexible in Congress; only 41 percent felt they needed to be more moderate. Any movement to capture the median American voter is doomed to failure if the GOP still aims (as it must in order to win primary elections) to maintain the support of their (largely deluded) base.
Despite proclamations by Jindal, Priebus and others that the GOP had learned its electoral lessons and was learning to reach out to minority communities, these efforts do not resonate with the Republican base.
On immigration, 74 percent of GOP voters feel the party’s position is “about right” or should be “more conservative”; only 17 percent believe the GOP leadership should be more “moderate” on immigration (meaning that they should make sure that the path to citizenship for undocumented workers is not too accessible).
What does this add up to? Basically, today's Republican Party has poor chances at the national level, at least for the next few electoral cycles. Their dilemma is clear to anyone who cares to look. The GOP voting base is so homogenous that it is easy for firebombers to hijack local or primary GOP elections--dooming the election chances of anyone who has a half-way reasonable shot at attracting majority vote at the national level. For years, the most important opinion leaders on the Republican side--Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and the denizens at Fox News--have been singularly focused on nursing their viewers' primal rage over Democrats, secularists, feminists, and the like. There is very little like "outreach" going on in the conservative media.
For these reasons, the GOP has assumed a largely neo-confederate approach to governance: obstructionism at the national level, policy transformation at the local level. A few geographical snapshots illustrate the point: Republican legislatures and governors have gone to town on abortion clinics in the past few years--using numerous legislative tactics to restrict womens' access to reproductive rights.
They have also implemented legislation to make voting more difficult (aimed at poor people, seniors, minorities, immigrants, students...who are disproportionately Democratic).
Of course, the GOP is nothing if not massively pro-business, and have restricted the rights of workers to unionize in numerous (mostly Republican) states under so-called right-to-work laws, which incur an average "wage penalty" of 6.5 percent for workers in those states. This is because RTW laws weaken unions' leverage in collective bargaining over wages and benefits.
At the national level, the GOP does appear to be in a death spiral. Perhaps death comes before rebirth. In the meantime, the GOP focuses its energies on creating pro-business, social conservative havens at the state level.