It’s hard to believe that less than five years ago George W. Bush won re-election, and the G.O.P. secured control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Since that time, the Republican Party has gone through one of the greatest meltdowns in political history. Americans have been leaving the party in droves. And while Democrats have rallied around the impressive stewardship of Barack Obama, Republicans appear leaderless. Their public face has been represented in recent months by Dick Cheney, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and radio jock Rush Limbaugh, individuals with limited national appeal.
How did the G.O.P. disintegrate so quickly? Let’s count the ways.
The Republicans’ quest for ideological purity is certainly a major factor. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania cited this problem when he announced his switch to the Democratic Party. Specter complained that Republicans have been moving to the far-right for decades. Conservatives’ demands to “purify the party” in primary elections often cause defeat in the general elections, he noted. A day after Senator Specter made his decision public, one of the two remaining Republican senators from the Northeast, Olympia Snowe, confessed in the New York Times that, as a Republican moderate, she “sometimes feels like being a cast member of ‘Survivor.’ ” Snowe claimed her party “cannot prevail in the future without moderates.”
It should not be surprising that Arlen Specter did not want to face the G.O.P.’s true believers in the Pennsylvania primary or that Olympia Snowe feels like a lonely figure among zealous conservatives. For years, movers and shakers in the G.O.P. such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have tried to clean out the ideologically impure. Militants despised RINOs, moderates they characterized as “Republican In Name Only”
Long ago, the G.O.P. provided abundant space for moderates. In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke about building “Modern Republicanism,” a term that hinted of center-right politics. In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan stressed conservative principles, but he also tried to bring diverse political groups into the G.O.P.’s “big tent.” These days, gate-keepers want to ensure that only true conservatives enter that tent.
When G.O.P. leaders now talk about their party’s values, they often invoke the term “conservative.” But when Democrats speak of values, they hardly mention ideology. Democrats rarely talk about promoting a “liberal” agenda, and they cite the less controversial identity of “progressive” much less than Republicans mention the term “conservative” (“Progressive” appeals to Democrats because 67% of Americans now have a favorable impression of the word). Democrats emphasize pragmatic rather than ideological approaches, a strategy that better suits the public’s temperament.
Association with ideology has been hurting G.O.P. candidates for several years, but the party’s leaders seem reluctant to adjust. They speak often of reasserting their fundamental commitment to conservative principles. To compromise seems like an abandonment of the right’s political religion. It represents heresy. Few spokesmen for the right are willing to consider the painful lesson of Arlen Specter’s defection. Instead of acknowledging a need for adjustment, they say “good riddance” and urge renewed commitments to partisanship.
The Republicans’ stands on social issues hurt their standing with voters in recent years. G.O.P. leaders tended to move their party in the opposite direction of public opinion. New surveys suggest that Republicans’ positions on emotion-laden topics will likely create difficulties for their candidates in the future. America’s younger voters are generally more tolerant than older ones. A New York Times/CBS News poll released in April, 2009 showed, for example, that 57% of Americans queried who were under the age of 40 supported same-sex marriages. A few years ago opposition to gay marriage led many Americans to vote Republican, but this issue appears to be losing force. Republicans have also been closely identified with anti-abortion stands in recent years, yet surveys show that less than a quarter of Americans adamantly oppose the procedure. The G.O.P.’s resistance to forms of stem cell research during the Bush years and coddling of people who want “Intelligent Design” taught in the public schools gave an impression that the party was hostile to science.
On many other critical issues of the day, Republicans appeared to offer only fearful warnings and negative votes rather than thoughtful ideas and practical remedies. As evidence mounted about the dangers of global warming, lots of G.O.P. leaders acted like the manufacturers of cigarettes, claiming that scientific evidence on the subject remained a matter of “debate.” When the Obama administration proposed strong new measures to deal with the health care crisis, influential figures in the G.O.P. offered few alternatives. In the face of an extraordinary financial crisis, Republicans recited the old mantra of lower taxes and less government, endorsing points that George W. Bush promoted vigorously during his eight years in Washington. It seemed the G.O.P.’s major strategy for challenging Obama’s plans to rescue the economy was to resurrect an old bugaboo, the warning about “socialism.”
Republicans have also been losing ground in matters of demography. Their shrill complaints about immigration sent Latinos into the arms of Democrats. The G.O.P.’s inattention to women’s issues, stands against the “choice” of abortion, and enthusiasm for military action abroad left many feminine voters uncomfortable in their ranks. Barack Obama enjoyed a huge advantage among the under-thirty voters in the 2008 elections, a troubling sign for Republicans who want to win the hearts and minds of young adults in future elections.
The G.O.P.’s “tent” no longer seems very large. It attracts southerners, evangelicals, and white men, especially. America is turning increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial, but crowds at Republican meetings often look like an assembly of Anglo-Saxons. Women are growing more prominent as political leaders, but most of them are Democrats.
Can Republicans learn from their faulty reading of the public’s changing sentiments? Can they develop better skills at political compromise? Will they abandon their commitment to militant conservatism and achieve, once again, identity as champions of the moderate right? Can they do a better job opening their arms to citizens of diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, and sexual identities, making their party look more like America?
Historians often suggest that the American political tradition is essentially pragmatic. Parties and leaders adjust with the times. Politicians are determined to win, and success in local and national elections calls for the constant monitoring of voters’ attitudes and frequent changes in strategy. That is the tradition, but Republicans have not provided much evidence recently that they are eager to honor it.
Sooner or later, an appeal to pragmatism is likely to resonate among leaders in the G.O.P., and the party will tack towards the middle. If that expected development fails to occur, a third party may emerge in the style of moderate, Eisenhower-style Republicanism. That new party could present a formidable challenge if the G.O.P. continues to appear radical and marginal to a majority of the American electorate.
Robert Brent Toplin
History News Network
Robert Brent Toplin, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published a dozen books and is a writer for the History News Service.
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