Home/Daniel Larison/The GOP, “Real Parties,” and Factions

The GOP, “Real Parties,” and Factions

Yuval Levin makes a curious error in his review of the election results:

The voters that could carry Republicans to victory are there, but far too many of them did not vote this time. If we must look at it through racial categories (which the exit polls encourage, alas), it’s certainly true that a significant gain in Hispanic votes (rather than a 3 point decline from McCain’s percentage of the Hispanic vote) would have helped Romney some, but there was no plausible path to increasing it enough to overcome the decline in the white vote (of which Romney won 72%) [bold mine-DL].

I assume that Levin must have just mixed up the numbers here. White voters accounted for 72% of the electorate, and Romney won 59% of them. Had Romney won 72% of the white vote (which is virtually impossible), we wouldn’t be talking about a Republican defeat this week. Levin is right that there was a significant drop-off in white turnout between 2008 and 2012, but he then seems to ignore what this discovery implies. Levin has a common but misleading view of what the Republican Party is:

The Republican Party has its own interest groups too, of course. It has often been too protective of big business, above all. But interest groups of this sort in Republican politics play nothing like the role they have in Democratic politics [bold mine-DL]. The Republican Party, for good and bad, is much more of a real party—largely united and moved (and increasingly so) by a complicated and often contradictory but at bottom very coherent worldview we call conservatism which, to vastly overgeneralize, argues for traditional morality, free enterprise, and a robust national defense.

Like the conceit that movement conservatives are more willing to question their assumptions, this is a flattering view for Republicans and conservatives to have about the GOP, but it gets something important very wrong. Unlike the other major party, Levin says, the GOP is not simply an “incoherent amalgam of interest groups,” but rather a party that “seeks power to advance its own vision of the good of the whole.” This isn’t true. The reason it isn’t true is that a political coalition can seek to serve the interests of its members and still have a vision of the common good or the national interest that it seeks to promote. Everyone involved in politics would like to believe that the political coalition he supports is a “real party” rather than a self-serving faction, just as everyone likes to believe that his views are the moderate and reasonable ones opposed to the “extremism” of others.

What this “real party” talk obscures is the degree to which the GOP fails to serve the interests of many of its constituents and its most likely supporters while masking this failure with a generic appeals to “values” or American exceptionalism. Those appeals don’t really promise Republican voters much of anything specific or concrete, and so the GOP conveniently never has to deliver. If many white working- and middle-class voters stayed away from the polls this year, I suspect it is at least partly because many of them recognized that the GOP, especially one led by someone like Romney, had nothing to offer them.

Tim Carney’s argument for free-market populism is a good starting point for Republicans interested in giving these people a reason to support the GOP again. These appeals will also tend to fall on deaf ears among younger voters. According to the exit poll, Romney trailed among the youngest cohorts of voters: Obama won voters aged 30-44 by seven and voters aged 18-29 by 23 points. One of several reasons that Republican candidates keep faring so poorly with younger voters is that these voters have no confidence that the GOP leadership understands the difference between a “robust national defense” and near-constant agitation for new wars, and they can see that the party’s rhetoric about “free enterprise” is frequently undermined by its deference to the interests of concentrated wealth. Advocating reheated fusionism of the sort that Levin is promoting here isn’t going to get the attention of disaffected voters.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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