In the aftermath of the shellacking that the Republicans took in 2012 – which makes it five of the last six national elections in which they have lost the popular vote – there has been increasing discussion among the political and media elites of whether the GOP should or can reinvent itself as a responsible center-right political party.
The issue is urgent. Very little can get done in this country politically without a rough consensus in the political system. Yet no reasonable consensus can be reached where one of the two major parties has taken on the nature of a political third party, an extremist faction on the political spectrum whose views are obviously out of date, flagrantly false and at odds with the historic values of mainstream American society. The United States is currently in a long-term decline, which will become irreversible if causes are not addressed. Thus, the answer to the question of whether a GOP evolution can take place is among the most important facing the nation. Let’s look at the chances.
Demographic changes have certainly shown that the principal political strategy of the Republican Party for the last 35 years, namely, appeal to the White Vote, is increasingly ineffective in delivering an electoral majority. Obama and the Democrats have assembled a multiracial, multigenerational and multicultural coalition of women, minorities, educated, young people and political progressives that is increasing both in absolute numbers and relative to the white vote. This coalition is immune to defection to the Republican Party as presently constituted as the racist, misogynist, nativist, hate mongering and socioeconomic elitist political affinity group that it is. As a result traditional issues raised by the Republicans – the so-called “culture war” issues based on race, religion, gender and national origin -- have now become wedge issues against the Republicans. Go figure! Unless the Republicans change not only their rhetoric, but their policies, too, they’re finished in national elections.
But what happens if they try it? The White Vote strategy actually holds back the Republicans from changing, because without the racism, sexism, nativism, religious bigotry and homophobia, they have nothing to deliver to the white electorate masses. Their message of economic elitism and exclusivity has no mass appeal whatsoever. At a fundamental level, the conservative movement, the right and the Republican Party are so hostile to the notion of social and economic equality that they can’t effectively change political strategies without abandoning their so-called “principles” (better known as prejudices) – particularly, those relating to economic inequality.
This leaves the GOP in an electoral bind. If it changes policy or even rhetoric on social equality issues, it may have to abandon the White Vote strategy (as Paul Ryan and others have hinted or implied). But doing so might just undermine its allegiance to the economic inequality that is the very raison d’être of the Republican Party. Remember, the right believes ( and virtually the only “principle” that the right believes in is) that “property rights” are absolute and sacrosanct; that the free market system is based on the unfettered transfer of property; and that market forces must not be interfered with -- regardless of their accompanying deleterious economic, social and political effects.
Thus, although discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin is not a condition of property ownership and not required by conservative policy or philosophical considerations (unlike economic inequality and the social class differences thereby created), as a practical matter, the Republican Party would be unlikely to abandon its appeal to social inequality as an electoral strategy.
Becoming a responsible political party would require the GOP to acknowledge full social and political equality as a social and political starting point. That is possible, but don’t bet on it for the reasons just stated.
Yet there is still a way for the country to move forward, even if the GOP does not. Progressives and moderates will have to continue grass-roots political mobilization to build public support for social and economic equality and to mobilize a more culturally diverse electorate. They can do this by bringing in those who are not registered and also those who are turned off by the Republicans’ extremism and getting them to vote. The GOP, in this case, will have sealed its own irrelevance – and, hopefully, demise.