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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can the GOP Expand Its Demographic Base While Moving Right?

At the American Prospect site, Paul Waldman’s written a good summary of the demographic trends that have largely doomed the Republican Party’s ancient strategy of winning national majorities by appealing to the “upoor, the unblack, and the unyoung.” And as Waldman notes, there aren’t too many signs that today’s Republicans understand that the old strategy won’t work anymore.
I’d go a bit further than Waldman, whose main evidence for GOP cluelessness involves the “Barack the Magic Negro” incident. That’s bad enough, but there’s every indication that Republicans (beyond a few smart but powerless intellectuals like Ross Douthat or David Frum) are thoroughly united in the belief that a more rigorous fidelity to conservative ideology in all its particulars is not only consistent with the party’s strategic needs, but is essential to their achievement.
Even RNC Chair candidate Michael Steele, who has consistently condemned Chip Saltsman’s tone-deaf racist “jokes” as damaging to the party, still buys into the idea that there’s an audience of Democratic and independent–and African-American and Latino–voters who would gravitate to the GOP if they understood how thoroughly the party has resolved to eschew “moderate” heresies. The manifesto for his candidacy is very blunt on this central issue:

Moderates in our party, and liberal elements outside it, have tried to steer this debate toward the suggestion that we need to change our core views, desert our convictions and give up our conservative philosophy. This is nonsense. The country did not become liberal on November 4. In fact, just the reverse is true.

So speaks the “moderate” candidate for RNC chair.
This raises a very simple question: is it possible to be rigorously conservative at this particular moment in history while successfully reaching out to demographic categories of voters who either have always been or are trending in the direction of a firm attachment to the Democratic Party? Or to put it another way, are the attitudes that have repelled, say, minority voters truly detachable from conservative ideology?
In my opinion, the true test of these dubious “move right and win more voters” hypotheses isn’t whether Republicans repudiate stupidly racist tactics and messages, but whether they repudiate sophisticated racist tactics and messages that amount to the same thing. And for that reason, it’s extremely telling that none of the candidates for RNC chairman, or any other conservative thinker or talker that I’ve heard, has yet to express any doubts about the demographic impact of the McCain-Palin message down the homestretch of the presidential campaign, which was heavily based on the argument that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party were determined to ruin the country on behalf of its unworthy minority-group constituencies.
Did efforts to promote minority homeownership actually cause the financial crisis? Is a progressive tax code truly “socialist?” Are refundable income tax credits really “welfare?” Is a presumption in favor of the right to vote geniunely “voter fraud?” Are doubts about the Iraq War in fact “treason” or “a failure to support the troops?” Is support for comprehensive immigration reform indeed a matter of subordinating the very idea of citizenship to a crass desire to build a dependent Latino political base? Are women seeking legal abortions carrying out an American Holocaust? Are gays and lesbians determined to destroy the institutions of marriage and family?
All these conservative talking points during the campaign carried all sorts of nasty and exclusive demographic freight, as evidenced by the fact that they were generally delivered by politicians who avoided the more hamhanded “Barack the Magic Negro” types of rhetorical overkill.
This is not to say that conservatives are subjectively racist, homophobic, nativist, or antifeminist. But conservatives need to come to grips with the very real possibility that large elements of their ideology are leading them ineluctably to political appeals that are perceived by people outside their coalition as excluding them or as terribly hostile to their own interests.
All things being equal, it’s probably good for the GOP to avoid sounding like Jesse Helms, to express at least occasional contempt for their talk-radio or Fox TV clowns, to recruit candidates who aren’t white men, and to do all the other practical things “reformers” are suggesting to improve the party’s mechanics and outreach. But all things aren’t equal when it comes to what Republicans need in order to break out of their demographic box. “Moving to the right” or even “clearly conveying core conservative values” are basically attractive to the same old coalition that is now failing the GOP. Perhaps more votes can be squeezed out of the old turnip with better technology, more attractive candidates, and a clearer message. And maybe fidelity to what conservatives consider to be the eternal truth of their ideology is worth losing a few more elections.
But the widespread, almost universal conservative search for anything, everything, other than ideology as the source of the GOP’s demographic problems could well be a blind spot that keeps them wandering in the wilderness, endlessly looking for more attractive ways to package the same product. It would be nice to see a few more conservatives consider that possibility.

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