The Real Problem With the American Right: Aging, White Radicals
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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.