The real problem with the American right: Aging, white radicals

Everyone knows the GOP has been unable to moderate its image or agenda. But less understood is the true reason why

Published January 22, 2014 12:44PM (EST)

Rand and Ron Paul                                             (Reuters/Jim Young)
Rand and Ron Paul (Reuters/Jim Young)

The Republican Party's total failure to make even cosmetic changes to its image and policy agenda last year has at this point become the kind of cliché-cum-running joke that often attaches itself to accepted truisms in American politics. Like chucking about Bill Clinton's inability to contain himself in the company of women, or noting that Dick Cheney actually ran the show during George W. Bush's first term, observing that Republicans have failed to moderate or reinvent themselves after losing badly in 2012 is the kind of thing even sympathetic political wise men can say to signal that they get it. That in what was a tough year for President Obama, Republicans screwed up too.

But the observation of these symptoms is less crucial than the diagnosis. Why are Republicans so stuck?

When it became clear about a year ago that Republican leaders would have a much harder time advancing immigration reform than they realized -- that GOP activists and conservatives were livid about the idea that Republicans were going to help illegal immigrants gain citizenship -- it started to look like the party had an insoluble problem on its hands. Watching Republicans attempt to broaden their appeal to growing, traditionally Democratic constituencies has been like watching someone try to cover a bedroom floor with a poorly cut carpet, fastening it into one corner but pulling it out of the others in the process.

They can't connect with traditionally Democratic constituencies without breaking connection with their reliable supporters. They can tug in every possible direction, but at some point they need to acknowledge that the carpet's too small.

For a long time now, people have argued that the solution to the GOP's problems will resemble the slow, painful, but steady moderation process Democrats went through in the 1980s and through the Clinton presidency. The adherents to this theory include Barack Obama himself, as he told the New Yorker's David Remnick during an interview for a new profile:

"There were times in our history where Democrats didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the concerns of middle-class folks or working-class folks, black or white. And this was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party—to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit. And I think that the Democratic Party is better for it. But that was a process. And I am confident that the Republicans will go through that same process.”

If the theory were correct, you'd think repeated election defeats would have set the process in motion already. Maybe a third defeat, in 2016, will catalyze a more rapid transition. But over time, I think the important differences between the Democrats' old challenge and the challenge Republicans now face have started to show.

Democrats didn't have an easy go of it, exactly, but they were able to modify their positions across a range of issues without, for instance, creating a left-wing-primary perpetual motion machine, or giving rise to a permanent population of resentful protest voters. Maybe Republicans can do the same. But the 2013 experience suggests they are so in hock to aging, white, conservative reactionaries that taking on new debts with minorities, gay people, single women and so on entails the risk of defaulting on the old ones.

Another way of saying this is that Republicans have depleted most of their crossover potential. And that's a pretty novel problem for a modern American political party. It's manifest in the GOP establishment's pusillanimous relationship with conservatives. They didn't cry "Hallelujah" when "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson preached a bigoted sermon about gay people and the Jim Crow South, but they also notably didn't treat his remarks as an opportunity to instigate a Sister Souljah-style confrontation with the right. To the contrary, they rallied to Robertson's defense and to a defense of conservative revanchism in general. And when they have mustered the courage to confront the extreme elements in their party, it's been over tactics, money, campaigns, rhetoric and other shades of window dressing. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will (finally!) criticize moneyed pressure groups for misleading voters and attacking Republicans, and they'll dump on unrepentant hard-liners when they say insensitive but revealing things about gay people, poor people and ethnic minorities. But they haven't cut the Gordian knot by admitting that these people's motivating beliefs have failed or been rejected by the public. It's a consultant-class conflict, not the deeper turbulence that would accompany an ideological course correction.

An undertone in Obama's comments to Remnick is the idea that Republicans will adopt new economic, as well as social, positions. If the Republican transformation is to genuinely mirror the one Democrats underwent, then the implication is straightforward. And if being more welcoming to women and minorities is too difficult, then Republicans can try embracing ideas to help the poor and middle class first.

But that just proves political memories are short-lived. Republican leaders settled on immigration reform as their one big overture precisely because they thought it would be the easiest gesture to make to the voters who rejected them without antagonizing the ones who didn't. The GOP donor class hates taxing wealthy people to subsidize takers, but supports immigration reform uniquely among social issues for opportunistic reasons; and of all the Republican Party's potential growth constituencies, working immigrants are the most sympathetic to conservative voters who oppose abortion and marriage equality out of religious principle.

So immigration reform is the greatest common factor -- and it has been on a breathing machine for half a year and counting.

Meanwhile tax increases and new social spending are completely out of the question. House Republicans have basically admitted they won't hold a vote on Senate-passed legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination against gay people. And as for women?

"A faction of conservatives will introduce a resolution at this week's meeting of the Republican National Committee urging GOP candidates to speak up about abortion and respond forcefully against Democratic efforts to paint them as anti-woman extremists," CNN reported Tuesday.

Conservatives are everywhere actively preempting phantom Republican moderates. Unless that problem begins to resolve itself organically, from the grass roots up, I don't think there's any process Republicans can undertake to fix it.

And to my eye, Obama remains a little bit credulous about why all these things are happening. Here's how he condensed what ultimately amounts to the same dynamic.

“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues. You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”

I get that he sometimes has to be a little pollyannaish about divisive issues. But I think he has this backward in both directions, and his invocation of the Medicaid expansion is extremely revealing. By and large, the Republicans who have rejected the Medicaid expansion didn't do so because it's too bureaucratic or centralized or expensive -- the growing number of GOP governors who have opted in can attest that it's a cheap and easy way to insure hundreds of thousands of poor constituents. No, they rejected it because embracing it is a cardinal sin to those Calhounists, who in many ways dictate dogma to the GOP; and the progressives who dismiss Republican arguments against the Medicaid expansion aren't doing so because they reflexively reject legitimate debate about the bureaucratic nature of the welfare state, but because they detect the misdirection at the center of the GOP's position on this and many other issues.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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