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Can the GOP Be Saved? The Myth of the Demographic Fix

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Conventional wisdom holds that as African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and gays increase their political clout, Republicans must devise a way of reaching out to these critical demographic groups. Is this wisdom correct?

The four more years that the American electorate has granted President Obama will most likely be spent by the Republicans in feuding over the soul and destiny of their party. From the point of view of making the next Republican presidential nominee electable, it is difficult to imagine a worse strategy. After all, the last great Republican feud — the one that broke out between President Taft and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 — ended in the election of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, and the current feud may put yet another Democrat in the White House in 2016. Yet there seems no way around the coming feud, and this fact by itself is a bit puzzling.

It is not unusual, after all, for an American political party to question what went wrong after being defeated in a presidential contest. From such Monday-morning quarterbacking can come insights into the causes of defeat that can be used over the next four years to help the party turn itself around. This is how Republicans could have handled the 2012 election. For example, they might have gathered around a consensus explanation of their defeat that put the blame entirely on the shoulders of their candidate Mitt Romney, a man whose shortcomings as a candidate were sadly evident even to his warmest supporters. From this analysis would come a simple recommendation: next time around, nominate a candidate who has the common touch and perhaps a healthy dose of that elusive thing called charisma. Otherwise stay the course.

Instead of this low-key scenario, a far more dramatic reading of the last election has received wide attention. According to this point of view, Republican defeat in 2012 had little to do with Romney’s chronic inability to inspire even lukewarm enthusiasm. Rather, it was a judgment on the Republican Party’s refusal to come face-to-face with the new demographic realities of the United States in the 21st century.

There seems no way around the coming feud, and this fact by itself is a bit puzzling.

To put it bluntly, white voters — the traditional bulwark of the Republican Party — count for less than they used to. Those white voters who are more or less traditionalist in their basic values no longer carry the demographic weight sufficient to make the Republican Party a viable option in future elections. As African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and gays increase their political clout in the coming years, the Republican Party must devise a way of reaching out to these critical demographic groups, assuming that it wishes to avoid the fate of the Federalist, the Whig, and the dodo bird.

For the sake of convenience, we will call this recommended solution “the demographic fix.” Widen the demographic appeal of the party and victory will be ours — so goes the advice that many distinguished Republican moderates, including General Colin Powell, have been offering their party, to widespread acclaim and approval by the liberal media. 

There can be no doubt that the advice is well-intentioned and sincerely offered, yet it is hard to imagine any advice more impractically muddleheaded, since it utterly ignores the fact that all politics is fundamentally a jockeying for positions of power and influence among rival interest groups. If the different agendas of different interest groups were all in harmony and could all be carried out at the same time without conflict, there would be no need for politics as we know it. It is precisely because different interest groups have conflicting interests that a system of politics must be created that allows these conflicts to be resolved without a recourse to violence or a descent into chaos. That is the essence of politics — and all the lofty rhetoric in the world about universal principles, such as liberty, justice, and equality, cannot hide the home truth that in a political struggle some will get their way, but only on the conditions that others don’t. And since you can’t hope to please everybody, the politically astute must be sure to please those on whose votes they can reliably count.

Let us take a simple example. If the Republicans wish to make gay voters more friendly to their party, they could take the same approach to gay marriage that the Democrats took in 2012. All future Republican presidential candidates would support gay marriage, and a gay marriage provision could be written into the party platform in the next Republican convention. So far so good, but what about that still considerable number of American voters who are adamantly opposed to gay marriage? In the last election, these voters went overwhelmingly for the Republican Party, but if the party changes its stance on this particular question, will they continue to support it? If the Republicans decide to please the supporters of gay marriage, don’t they risk losing the supporters of traditional marriage?

If the different agendas of different interest groups were all in harmony and could all be carried out at the same time without conflict, there would be no need for politics as we know it.

To this line of argument there is a specious rejoinder: Where else would these traditionalist voters go? They won’t vote the Democratic ticket, so they will obviously continue to vote Republican, if for no better reason than that they have no other alternative. Yet if the Republican Party is busily reaching out to the other solidly Democratic interest groups, offering Hispanics whatever immigration policy they happen to favor, or extending affirmative action programs over the next generations, then what possible incentive to vote Republican will the traditional Republican base have in future elections? This is not a prescription for saving the Grand Old Party. It is an incitement to form a new one.  

There is nothing novel about this predicament. When the Republican Party wrote its first platform in 1856, it ostentatiously denounced slavery as a “relic of barbarism.” By upholding this position, the fledgling party was deliberately alienating a very significant demographic group, namely, the slave-holding South. When the new party was defeated in the presidential election of that year, some Republicans thought that the party should soften its anti-slavery stand a bit, yet any move in this direction confronted two serious obstacles.

First, if the Republican Party severed its association with the anti-slavery movement, the many American voters who were looking for a political party that was opposed to slavery would simply have to look elsewhere. They weren’t going to change their own minds merely because the Republican leaders had changed theirs.

Second, the Republican Party had already damaged its reputation among Southerners by its original condemnation in 1856 of the South’s peculiar institution, and no Southerner could be expected to believe that the founders of the Republican Party had undergone a serious change of heart in the four-year interval. If the Republican anti-slavery rhetoric had changed in 1860 — and it had softened to some extent — no one in the South was swayed by this transparent ruse. The mental association between the Republican Party and the anti-slavery crusade was simply too firmly implanted in the mind of the South, and it wasn’t going to be broken anytime soon. 

Indeed, the Republican Party would be anathema to most Southerners for the next century. In the election of 1956, for example, the only states to vote for the very liberal Adlai Stevenson, save Missouri, were former members of the Confederacy. True, this may be a reflection of Southern stubbornness, but it is also an example of the well-known phenomenon of brand loyalty. We buy Tide because our moms bought it, while we ourselves will continue to buy it simply because it’s what we’ve always bought, just as Southerners long continued to vote Democratic because they had always voted Democratic — an example of political brand loyalty that has ominous implications for those Republican moderates advocating the demographic fix.

Reach out as far as they may, the Republicans cannot hope to live down their negative brand anytime soon — and certainly not by 2016.

The problem is that, in its dealing with the rising demographic interest groups — blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and gays — the Democratic Party has succeeded in the all-important aim of getting there “firstest with the mostest.” So long as the Democratic Party continues to cater to these groups, even by the merest lip-service, it will be able to count on their loyalty to the Democratic brand, while the Republicans suffer from a brand identity that is as anathema to these groups as the Wal-Mart label is to the super chic fashionista. Reach out as far as they may, the Republicans cannot hope to live down their negative brand anytime soon — and certainly not by 2016.

Perhaps the best analogy to the demographic fix is the infamous New Coke debacle of 1985. Back then, the Coca-Cola Company had observed that many people obstinately preferred Pepsi-Cola over its own brand of carbonated beverage. Needless to say, the manufacturers of Coke wanted to remedy this problem, and they did so by reaching out to Pepsi drinkers. How? Well, by making Coca-Cola taste just like Pepsi, so much like Pepsi that those who already drank Pepsi saw no reason to change, while those who preferred Coca-Cola as it used to be no longer bought it. The end result was that the Coca-Cola Company simultaneously lost its old loyal customers, while failing to win over any new ones — and this is precisely the same consequence that adopting the strategy of the demographic fix will have on the fortunes of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party must face the fact that, despite its radical origins in 1856, it has now become the party, more or less, of conservative traditionalists. This may not be true a half-century from now, but it will remain true for some time to come. This fact in itself will no doubt alienate progressives of every possible demographic group, and there is little that can be done about it. The course of wisdom, however, is not to jump on the progressive bandwagon, but to recognize that bandwagons, by their very nature, are liable to break down, to get stuck in a rut, or to crash into an unexpected tree. Trust the liberals to go too far, because they certainly will — especially, as now, when they think that their cause is becoming invincible.

Meanwhile, as the liberals are busily making a mess of things, Republicans must find a way of showing that the traditions they wish to conserve are not just for white Americans, but offer something of solid value to those of every background and every demographic group. Many of those who currently expect the state to come to their assistance when they need it will sooner or later realize that the state inevitably has its own agenda, at which point they will begin to find common ground with their former Republican opponents in wishing to find ways to limit the power of the state. It is up to the Republican Party to concentrate on this common ground, which is large enough to hold an immense diversity of demographic groups, instead of focusing on those narrow petty issues that currently devil the party. The duty of conservative traditionalists is to explain why their traditions are worth conserving, not just for themselves, but for everyone who has a stake in our society. And everybody means everybody.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “What Does It Mean to Say That a Gun Law Is Tough?” “The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories,” and “Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, and the End of History.” Cliff Asness says “The GOP Must Lead (Again) on Civil Rights.” Lori Sanders discusses the “Single Mom Seeking GOP Suitor.” Michael Barone thinks the “Democrats' Dream of Permanent Dominance Is Unlikely.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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