There are reasons to think it isn’t: Republicans have failed to win a plurality of voters (or a majority of the two-party vote) in four of the last five presidential elections. The single win was 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected by the lowest margin of any successful incumbent since 1828. GOP talking points at the time touted Bush’s victory as a historic landslide because the map of sparsely populated counties he won (see above) covered almost the entire U.S. Therein lies a tale.
Republicans have enjoyed a state-level resurgence even as they have lost — and lost big — their once commanding national majority. The GOP was once the landslide party, the party of Eisenhower ’52 and ’56, Nixon ’72, and Reagan ’84. Even Bush I’s 53.4 percent in 1988 was very respectable. Reagan’s 50.7 percent in 1980 wasn’t a landslide but still demonstrated that an outright popular majority supported the Republican. In the five elections before ’92, the GOP won popular majorities in four.
The parties have almost switched places since then. The popular-vote success of the Democrats in the last five elections is less impressive: they won an outright majority only once, in 2008. Far from balancing the scales, though, this highlights all the more the magnitude of the GOP’s electoral erosion: from being a party that won with majorities, the Republicans have declined to one that loses to pluralities.
The period in which this has happened corresponds to a historic resurgence of the GOP in Congress and at the state level. There’s an intuitive connection. Significantly fewer people vote in state and congressional elections than presidential elections. The GOP base is better organized and more engaged locally than Democrats are. But this actually undercuts the party at the national level. So well organized are the GOP’s ideological constituencies that they prevail in legislative primaries and push the party’s overall identity to the right. (That’s not the same as making it more “conservative,” as I’ll explain in a minute.) These ideological groups also have a great deal of muscle at the presidential primary or caucus level, but even beyond that, their success at the legislative level means that a presidential contender’s loyalty to the GOP brand — proof that he’s not a RINO — has to be demonstrated by professions of fealty to what is an essentially regional identity, not a national one.
If it seems needlessly complicated to suggest that two effects — grassroots muscle and general party branding — have to be invoked to explain the GOP’s unsuccessful presidential branding, consider this: if the only effect in play were the strength of grassroots right-wing constituencies, you wouldn’t expect the party to consistently nominate moderates like both Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney. None of those nominees had impeccable conservative credentials — far from it. But once they got the nomination, they didn’t run as the moderates they were; most of them sold themselves as being at least as right as Reagan, even in the general election. At least since 2004, this is because the party has pursued a base strategy: an attempt to eke out a narrow win by getting more Republicans to the polls than Democrats, with independents — a small and difficult-to-market-to demographic — basically ignored. The party tries to leverage its regional identity and regional organization into presidential victory. It has failed four times out of five.
The Democrats are regionally weaker, but this has paradoxically helped them in presidential elections: it means that a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama is not really very beholden to base Democratic groups like black voters. Clinton and Obama certainly organize their ethnic constituencies, but when they campaign in general elections they do not relentlessly highlight minority issues that other Americans find polarizing. Oftentimes, they’re hiding or even actively downplaying those issues (think Sister Souljah, Reverend Wright, or the party’s hot-and-cold emphasis on gay rights). The Democrats are less ideologically constrained by their factional interests.
Republicans tend to have a clear establishment front-runner going into their presidential contests, and that individual pretty much always wins the nomination, in part because he usually has far more money than his opponents. Indeed, that financial advantage allows the establishment front-runner to discourage viable semi-establishment opponents — your Mitch Daniels types — from even entering the race. That leaves the ideological groups to field their own non-viable standard-bearer — Huckabee or Santorum types. Because the eventual GOP nominee pursues a base strategy, though, he winds up embarrassing himself by trying to sound “severely conservative.” He has to get religious right and Tea Party voters to turn out for him. But even if they do, they’re not enough: those constituencies don’t add up to 50 percent of the electorate. Republicans are actually closer than Democrats to being the real 47 percent party. (Though it’s more accurate to say the GOP is the 48-49 percent party and the Democrats are the 49-50 percent party.)
This isn’t all about elections, however. The policy options that Congress and the president get to consider and the intellectual life of the nation are also warped by the GOP’s “47 percent” ideology. Because conservatives over-identify with the GOP, and the GOP’s identity is determined by factional and regional ideologies, the result is that conservatives take their definition of conservatism from the party and that definition is more regional- and interest-based than philosophical. This accounts for the spectacle of the GOP periodically getting worked up about “big government” while in fact expanding government — welfare state, warfare state, banning internet gambling, you name it — whenever it’s in power. The blue state/red state psychological divide is more fundamental to the party’s understanding of the world than is any consistent view of the proper extent and uses of government.
This is also why One Nation conservatism or even genuinely Reaganite conservatism, with its appeal to independents and Democrats as well as the base, is impossible today. The ideology of suburbia (“porky populism,” with its hatred of organic food and fetishistic attachment to SUVs and Wal-Mart) and the most intense expressions of heartland Protestantism, together with certain Southern good ol’ boy attitudes (less overt racism than a scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours ethos), are the matrix of GOP and “conservative” identity. The financial and neoconservative elites have designed ideologies of their own to integrate with this matrix: neocons spin their foreign policy as an expression of values (God and America are practically the same thing, aren’t they?), as a token of Protestant-Jewish solidarity (support for Israel), and as necessary for national honor and the Southern economy (wars and bases). Wall Street relies on Mitt’s 47 percent myth: the people who aren’t part of the GOP coalition are lazy and lack self-responsibility; i.e., they are sinful and un-Protestant, while the Gospel makes you rich and happy.
None of this has anything to do with the historic conservatism of Edmund Burke or John Adams, Russell Kirk or Robert Nisbet. It doesn’t even look like the capacious conservatism of Ronald Reagan. It’s a scam: it does little for values in the culture as a whole because the values in question are those of an ideological minority only interested in winning through minority-organization politics; it can’t look at big-picture economics because doing so would tick off the financial interests and get anyone who broached the question read out of conservatism by Wall Street’s coalition allies. A traditionalist or consistently libertarian critic would be perceived as speaking up for lazy immoral city-dwelling welfare queens. This fanciful identity politics, and not principled economics, is what lies behind talk about “socialism,” “big government,” and the “47 percent.” If the case were otherwise, you’d see the anti-dependency case made against the Pentagon, defense contractors, churches taking government money, and red-state recipients of all kinds of largesse. I don’t see Republicans talking about that, with a handful of exceptions whose last name is usually “Paul.”
I’m not the biggest fan of Eisenhower or Nixon, but they (and Reagan) are clearly preferable to this post-Reagan Republican Party. Those presidents won national majorities for a reason. They weren’t strict conservatives, but they certainly weren’t any less conservative than the Bushes, McCain, or Romney. They didn’t pretend they were going to abolish the welfare state — often, they didn’t even pretend they would cut the welfare state — unlike so many of today’s Republicans, who don’t follow through but do use their rhetoric to polarize. That gives us the worst of both worlds: big government plus the delusional sense within one party that it represents the antithesis of big government and may freely hate other Americans who don’t mouth the mantra. And what goes for big government goes for Judeo-Christian values, a strong national defense, and all the rest: the GOP’s rhetoric occupies a separate mental compartment from its actions, even as its voters and ideological apologists continue to believe that there is a profound moral difference between them and the rest of the country. It’s a losing strategy, and worse, it’s made the country ungovernable even as government grows.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow @ToryAnarchist.