GOP Belief in Fox News Fantasies Could Make the Party Irrelevant
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Republicans' belief in the feel-good Fox News fantasies of what "real America" wanted and believed helped them lose the election. Would Romney have lost if his base didn't stubbornly insist that polls were rigged, that almost half the country was looking for a handout (and the other half was angry about it), and that government exists only to coddle or sabotage (not so much the "Nanny state" as Mommie Dearest)? The "conservative entertainment complex", as columnist David Frum put it, promulgated a view of the American electorate that wasn't just objectively false, in terms of polled support, but to which they objected. That is, they didn't just get wrong how much support Romney had; they told a story about American voters that Americans themselves didn't believe.
You can't win an election by appealing solely to a class you've arbitrarily designated as the "makers" – there are too many of us who don't believe getting back from your government is "taking". And when it comes to civil rights, you can't woo voters with a description of a future they're not part of. Ultimately, we didn't want to be the kind of country Mitt Romney and the Republican party told us we were.
The reality that Republicans even now seem to have trouble accepting is that not only do we not want to be Romney's America, we aren't and can't be: progress can't be undone, increasing diversity can't be willed into segregation. This isn't just a metaphorical point, either: between 2000 and 2010, the number of Americans who identify as multiracial grew three-and-a-half times faster than those identifying as being of a single race. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say they have a friend , co-worker or relative who's gay, up from 42% since 1992. Women now attend college at rates higher than the male population and are the primary breadwinners for 60% of all families. Put that in a binder and smoke it.
One of the only divides in America that's growing is the one between the very rich and the very poor (now at its greatest since 1967). And as Bill Kristol (of all people!) has pointed out, Obama won two elections promising to narrow that divide. If Republicans are surprised that the viciously capitalist America of their imagination instead truly desires to "spread the wealth around", I'm even more surprised that people aren't angrier that Obama hasn't done more to make that happen.
The "conservative entertainment complex" is still reeling from the reality bomb that went off on election day, an explosion with a mushroom cloud wide enough to cast a shadow over all of the GOP's 2016 hopefuls. It destroyed Mitt Romney's credibility and wounded Karl Rove's pride. About the only conservative structure to survive intact was Donald Trump's hair – and to be fair, entertainers such as Trump have no interest, yet, in changing their weirdly comforting (to some) message about voter fraud and the "food stamp president".
On the other hand, the party's leaders and spokespeople, official and self-designated, are shellshocked, concerned primarily with distancing themselves from the fallout, but without a new direction. GOP politicians engaged in tandem bike back-pedalling from Romney's reliably tone-deaf post-election analysis of mass vote-buying, but can't seem to accept the idea that Obama's victory was based on anything but some form cheating: he sat on the Petraeus scandal (according to the GOP chairman of the House intelligence committee); too many people got to vote (Paul Ryan's coded rationalization about the "urban" constituency); and, of course, "the media did it" (see this complaint about "partisan fact-checking" – I guess facts have parties now?).
To let go of these fantasies would mean grappling with America as it exists, not as Mitt Romney thinks it should. The tentative steps Republican leaders in Congress already made toward some form of immigration reform suggest that reality has a chance, though there will be those in the GOP, or proudly to its right, who will protest any policy movement toward the center as an abandonment of conservative principles. To those scolds, I suggest that one of the wonderful things about democracy is that you can believe in whatever you want, and argue to convince people to agree with you, but policies don't always have to conform completely to one set of beliefs or another. They just have to deal with – there's that word again – reality.
If the GOP can release itself from the makers/takers rubric and examine, for instance, the number of lives changed for the better by our social safety net, they can talk about changing its structure with a degree of credibility. If they can let go of a vision of America where rights are static, they might find an audience for a debate about where growing sets of rights come into conflict.
Romney lost the respect of many voters because it seemed like would do anything to win. The president's final argument against him centered on accusations of "Romnesia" – and conveniently forgetting whatever it is you've said before does seem deeply cynical. But the original Cynics were actually devoted to seeing the world for what it is: false beliefs, they argued, ultimately lead to suffering.
If the next Republican nominee wants to win the White House, the most cynical approach is the most realistic one: be a little less Republican.