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The Rich, White, Conservative GOP Must Change, But It Won't

Demographic trends are making the formerly Grand Old Party obsolete, but is the party going to do anything about that?

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 4:09 PM EST

Such polling figures should frighten GOP leaders. There's no reason to believe that what we saw on November 6th was anything but the tip of the iceberg.

The factions in the party that are not socially conservative see these looming threats as an opportunity to get the GOP to drop the social stuff. But movement conservatives aren't going to cede ideological ground, not when they (correctly) think it's a necessity if they are to attract their base voters. "This country doesn't need two liberal or Democratic parties," is the way Bobby Jindal puts it, typically enough.

Like right-wing pundit Fred Barnes, many movement conservatives and Tea Party leaders will continue to insist that whites are going to remain "the nation's dominant voting bloc… for many elections to come." Hedging their bets, they have decided to become more "inclusive" or at least just inclusive enough in these days of micro-targeting and razor-thin election margins. After all, Romney would have won New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado if he had captured even slightly higher shares of the Hispanic vote and he could have won in the Electoral College if fewer than 200,000 voters in key states had switched their votes.

To get more inclusive, however, these leaders offer an entirely cosmetic approach: emphasize the Party's middle-class message, increase outreach or "partnership" with Hispanics and Asian Americans, back off the anti-immigration message a tad, say fewer stupid things à la Akin and Mourdock, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.

A Nonsense Strategy

When it comes to why this won't work down the line, it's hard to know where to start. Take that middle-class message. Many Republicans think that it should offer "crossover appeal" on its own, so long as it's said loudly enough.

But what exactly is it? After all, it's never about jobs going abroad, retirement worries (except insofar as the GOP wants to increase insecurity by privatizing Social Security), underwater mortgages, missing childcare for working families, exploding higher education costs, or what global warming is doing to the Midwestern breadbasket and coastal agriculture (much less the long-term capability of the planet to sustain life as we know it). Instead, it remains about "choice," lowering taxes (again), "entitlement reform," and getting the government out of the way of economic growth.

As if what the middle class really wants or needs is "choice" in education (Jindal"s plan to divert tax funds to private and parochial schools through vouchers was just ruled unconstitutional); "choice," not affordability, in health care (the #1 cause of personal bankruptcy in America); and ever more environmental pollution, as well as further challenges to getting workman"s comp if you get injured on the job.

Studies have repeatedly shown that most Americans are "operationally" liberal on the substance of most policy issues. In other words, Republicans will support "small government," until you ask about cutting spending on anything other than anti-poverty programs. In fact, less than a third of self-identifying Republicans surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos this year "somewhat" or "strongly" disagreed with the proposition that the wealthiest Americans should pay higher tax rates.

As a counter to the charge that the GOP is the party of the rich, Jindal offered this on Fox News: "We... need to make it very clear... that we"re not the party of Big: big businesses, big banks, big Wall Street, big bailouts."

Um… who other than Republican true believers will buy that?

The Jerk Factor

As for those demographic groups the GOP needs to start winning over in the medium- and long-term, putative 2016 A-lister Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to see a middle class "message of prosperity and freedom for all" communicated loudly to immigrants and the young. But as one astute Republican insider said to me, "Hispanics won't hear our message so long as they think our immigration platform says, ‘We hate Mexicans.'"

Bobby Jindal was right to say, "If we want people to like us, we have to like them first." But the Party hasn't truly begun to grasp what might be called the liking gap between the GOP and the groups it needs to cultivate. It's time for Republicans to take a long, hard look in the mirror. It's not just recent anti-immigration fervor that repels Hispanics and others from the party. The GOP needs to internalize the fact that the dead bird hanging from its neck is its entire modern history.

It's true that the Democrats were once the segregationists and Abraham Lincoln and the conservationist, trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt were Republicans, as Republicans are fond of pointing out. But that"s ancient history.

The Party's modern history began when business leaders got politicized in response to the New Deal and then the GOP began courting the Dixiecrats after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (despite knowing that he had "just delivered the South to the Republican Party"). The white South started voting for GOP presidential candidates in the Nixon years and would soon become solidly Republican. At 70% of the electorate (nearly 90% in Mississippi), it remains so today.

White-flight suburbs around the country followed suit. Add in the fervent cultivation of evangelical Protestant Christians—anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-evolution, anti-science—and the various modern incarnations of nativist Know Nothings. don't forget the ejection of moderates from the Party, and you have the essential history of the modern GOP in two paragraphs.

So the GOP can say that it wants to and plans to like Hispanics, Asian Americans, unmarried women, and secular youth, but to be believable, merely easing off on its anti-immigration message or going quiet on abortion won't do the trick. And if it wants to prove that it cares, it will have to put some real money where its mouth is.

What the Party Should Do—and won't

Here's an idea: how about some "extraordinary financial gifts" like the ones Mitt Romney denounced just days after his loss!

To really go after the groups it needs, the GOP would have to do the inconceivable: drop the "entitlement reform" racket, open the wallet, and reach below a restrictive definition of the middle class. It might, for instance, mean adding more money to Food Stamps, rather than poking fun at the "food stamp president," because a full quarter of Hispanics and 35% of Hispanic children are poor.

According to the Census, the median income for Hispanics in 2009 was $38,039 versus $51,861 for whites. The difference is far starker when you compare median net worth: Thanks to the economic crisis, Hispanic households lost 66% of their median net worth, falling to $6,325 in 2009, compared to $113,149 for white households (a 16% loss).

It would undoubtedly mean supporting equal pay for equal work, which the GOP has consistently opposed. It would mean working to make healthcare more affordable for everyone. That"s how you prove you care in politics—and it would also be good for the nation.

Similarly, if the Republicans want to be taken seriously as "defenders" of the middle class, they would need to do something to defend it from its predators. No, not the lower class but the upper class, the predatory lenders and speculators, the fraudsters, the manipulators of the financial system, the folks who got bailed out while everyone else shouldered the risk.

It hardly needs to be said that this isn't likely to happen in any of our lifetimes.

So far the only Republican suggestion I've heard that seems more than (barely) cosmetic is for the Party to drop its aversion to gay marriage. That would, at least, be a beneficial, if cynically motivated, move to look less hateful.

Hesitation in the Face of Change

It is, of course, theoretically possible that Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) could attract enough Hispanic and other voters in 2016 to win the presidency. Provided that the primaries don't turn into another bizarro battle. Provided that the tone set by Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, or fringe candidates of their ilk doesn't sink the A-listers. Provided that not too many "stupid" things are said—on abortion, immigration, evolution, or global warming. (Rubio has already gotten to work on that one by punting on a question about the Earth's age to keep the creationists happy.)

But come 2020, 2024, or 2028, whatever's left of the GOP is going to be kicking itself for not having built a foundation of anything other than words that no one outside its rank-and-file actually believed. Texas, after all, could go purple by 2020 or 2024.

Of all the signals emanating from the GOP since Election Day, perhaps the most significant came last week when the socially and fiscally conservative Tea Party kingmaker Jim DeMint voted with his feet. The man who would rather have "30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don't believe in anything" is leaving that body for the Heritage Foundation—a hint about the future of what is arguably the most important GOP organization in the country.

It looks like the GOP is at the wheel of the Titanic, sailing toward that iceberg, while the band plays "Nearer My God to Thee" for all it's worth.

Jeremiah Goulka, a TomDispatch regular, writes about American politics and culture, focusing on the Republican Party, race, and security. He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Hurricane Katrina recovery worker, and an attorney at the US Department of Justice. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com.

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