The GOP’s Problem, Or Challenge
Continuing the theme of the day, an Evans-Manning prize to Edward Hamilton for this reflection on the future of the GOP, after reading that excerpt from the focus group in Robert Draper’s story:
What strikes me here is how little traction the Republicans are finding on any of their issues. It’s not that there’s a small subset of poison pills that are dooming an otherwise popular small-government agenda. It’s that there’s literally no positive thing that these young voters can manage to associate with one-half of the political spectrum. There’s hostility toward the business wing of the party, antipathy toward the Bush-era legacy of protracted and unproductive warfare, all compounded by the complete absence of any kind of social conservative agenda items that young voters would ever endorse.
It’s different than the problem with ethnic voters, where there are some exploitable ideological schisms at the local (like school choice). Here, the Republicans are literally trying to sell an all-Spam menu to kosher Jews. Maybe with enough preaching they can convert a plurality of Millennials on debt issues, although if the period of peacetime record-breaking deficits from 2009 to 2011 didn’t make that sale, I’m not sure what else does. But otherwise, right down the row, the “right” maneuver for the Republicans to appeal to these voters is to simply believe the opposite of what Republicans have spent the last three decades believing. It might be possible to avert the rise of a replacement third-party if the current generation of Republicans simply dies off, effectively letting that replacement party take over the shell of Republicanism. But otherwise, demographics and immigration have put the GOP on a long, slow death-watch.
What will probably happen first is that Frum-like parts of the party will desperately try to neuter the social-con wing and then reap a crippling backlash as aging rank-and-file heartland conservative activists fail to provide the grassroots energy to support tax cuts and interminable warfare. So we’ll get a long period of civil war, before the entire decrepit empire finally gets swept away by some innovative tribe of young barbarians ready to define their critique of the Democrats from an entirely different angle.
What worries me most is the emergence of a libertarian race to the bottom on sexual ethics. Currently the Democrats are reaping enormous branding benefits from being the party that’s just a couple steps more progressive on sex issues (by no more than 4-8 years on homosexuality), and young voters show no propensity to punish anyone for “evolving” at arbitrarily rapid speeds. If any blue-state Republicans start taking aggressive pro-gay (or pro-contraception, pro-abortion, pro-cohabitation, etc) stances as a flanking maneuver, the Democrats will have an urgent need to rush back ahead of them. The odds that Democrats will surrender that branding advantage in exchange for a declaration of victory is nil. They need to keep this engine running at all costs. Sex trumps pocketbooks.
That could result in a rapid sequence of transformations in the classical social contracts surrounding marriage and family, all of them being executed on a purely ad hoc basis without waiting to measure and evaluate their effects. If so, it’s going to add up to a rudderless social engineering project reminiscent of the way that mortgage lenders were climbing over one another to make the most foolish loans possible, out of a fear that competitors would make those loans first.
What a thoughtful set of remarks. I am sure what will happen is that we social conservatives will be thrown over. There are reasons to justify such a move, chiefly the fact that a signature SoCon issue, gay marriage, is hugely popular with younger voters. But the more important points to consider are that a) the GOP donor class is likely far more liberal on social issues than the social conservatives; b) the headlines a rebuke to the SoCons will generate from a media that despises us will be very valuable to a party desperate to rebrand itself; and c) we have nowhere else to go. Think about how the fossilized Democratic Party, in its moribund state in the 1980s and early 1990s, risked the wrath of black voters with Clintonian, New Democrat ideas on welfare reform and suchlike.
I get some pushback from readers for my “defeatism” on gay marriage, but the idea that we can turn this around politically is wishful thinking. We can’t turn the politics around because we’ve lost the culture. I just spent a couple of weeks doing a lot of reading and thinking about how all this came to be — I’ll have a piece on it in the next issue of TAC, which means it will eventually be up on this site — but the thing to keep in mind is that same-sex marriage/gay rights are not an issue separate from others. As I said in this space the other day, the main reason SSM succeeded so brilliantly as a cause is because the groundwork had already been laid for many years by tectonic cultural changes. Many cultural conservatives fail to understand how deep and how powerful the currents in all this run. Charles Taylor discusses the radical change in sexual morality in his magisterial history A Secular Age, and points out that it has its roots in the “expressive individualism” that has become a main theme in Western culture and civilization since the Enlightenment.
Republicans have been keen to exploit this theme when it suits them, e.g., to posit the government, and government regulation, as an obstacle to expressive individualism. What they don’t get is that it’s very hard to chest-thump about individualism and freedom when it comes to economics and regulation, but deny it when it comes to social issues. Alas for conservatives, it’s fairly easy for the Democrats to call for more personal liberty when it comes to sexual behavior, but also demand more welfare-state protections; despite the philosophical inconsistency, people will always want to be taken care of.
It’s bad form to quote oneself, but I’m only doing it here in case readers have forgotten: I’ve come to believe that the only way social conservatives can enjoy political success in the new environment is by rethinking and reframing our views in libertarian concepts, and using libertarian language. This bit from Draper’s story gets to what I’m thinking about:
Bret Jacobson, the Red Edge entrepreneur, insisted that the solution was ultimately a simple one. “I think the answer for a vibrant Republican Party is to make our North Star empowering every individual in this country to follow their own dream, free of legislative excesses,” he told me. “There are millions of Americans who take seriously their religious culture as well as traditions that have been handed down for centuries. And the party has to empower them to fight those battles in the social sphere, not in the government sphere. That’s harder work than taking control of the country for four years. But it’s the appropriate battle.”
Well, I don’t think the answer is simple at all, and I don’t have the answer either, and I hate this “empowerment” jargon. But we SoCons have to figure out how to articulate our concerns, and advocate for our concerns, in the political culture that exists, not the political culture we imagine. We are going to have same-sex marriage in this country sooner or later. Is there a way to push politically for the creation and support of a middle ground in which institutions of civil society that support socially conservative values and live them out can operate free from as much government interference as possible? My gut tells me that’s the best way to go. The work we social conservatives have to do is primarily — is overwhelmingly — cultural, not political. The best we can hope for from politics is that we can use it to defend ourselves, not to “convert” the culture.
I also wish the GOP would wake up and understand that it is seen, quite rightly, as the party of Big Business. This is not entirely fair; the Democrats are in hock to Wall Street too. But the Republicans give people few reasons, either in terms of policy or rhetoric, to think that they’re on the side of the little guy, of Main Street as opposed to the plutocratic class. They should also recognize that for young people, environmental concerns matter a lot. The GOP will never be able to out-green the Democrats, and shouldn’t try. But they have to stop ceding this issue to the Dems. Identify people within GOP ranks, like conservationist Brent Fewell — a former Bush Administration official, scientist, and practicing Christian — and give them a voice within the party — and not just for window-dressing, either.
To return to Edward Hamilton’s comments, I think it’s misleading to think that all the GOP has to do is to throw over the SoCons and their problems will be solved. The Democrats will always be more sexually progressive than the Republicans. The biggest problem with the Republicans — and we’ve seen this in the last two election cycles at least — is that they cannot free themselves from seeing the world through the lens of Reaganism. The world has changed, and is changing, but they only seem to talk to, and listen to, each other. I’m old enough to remember the Democrats of the 1980s — I was a Democrat in the 1980s — and this feels very familiar.