The discussion on fivethirtyeight.com started by Ruy Teixeira’s report (.pdf) on how Republicans are alienating the fastest-growing demographic groups, and continued by Tom Schaller and Andrew Gelman, at first looks familiar: whether a contemporary political party does better to move to the center or to mobilize its base. But one of Schaller’s comments suggests a more basic issue:
the challenge of trying to evolve and adapt is itself limited by demographics because the GOP’s older and whiter residual white minority coalition is simply less amenable to the sort of changes it would take to modernize the party.
Why would that be? The answer must have something to do with ideology in the strict and old-fashioned sense: the coherent narrative that gives a group reason for feeling conscious of itself as a group and for mobilizing in politics accordingly. The Republicans’ problem with respect to older white voters resembles that of twentieth-century European socialist parties with respect to the traditional working class (also a minority and a shrinking one). Przeworksi and Sprague’s classic treatment in Paper Stones suggests that the Republicans are in serious long-term trouble.
The socialists’ problem was that their Marxist ideology unified the traditional working class (men who worked in large workplaces for others in physical jobs) while leaving out—in fact often insulting—groups that might be willing to vote for a left-of-center party but not a Marxist one: women, whether employed or at home; students; professionals; and so on. If the Socialists stuck with their old ideology, they faced demographic oblivion. But if they abandoned it in favor of a broader, populist appeal that spoke of “the interests of working people” instead of “the mission of the working class,” or travailleurs instead of ouvriers, they gave traditional working-class voters little reason to vote Socialist. Working-class voters inclined to judge each election on the merits might vote center-right, since those parties also promised to protect everyone’s interests and appealed to identities (religious, national, taxpaying) that might become salient when class conflict was de-emphasized. Those workers, on the other hand, who continued to identify with their class status and the old socialist ideology could and did vote Communist, or stay home.
Was the move to the center still worth it? Przeworski and Sprague, with an austere but fairly convincing dynamic model, answer “sometimes.” A lot depended on whether there was a good alternative for workers to run to (such as the communists in France and Italy) as well as whether there existed institutions, e.g. unions organized on corporatist lines, that would keep workers’ identity unified and their politics center-left even when talk of the working-class’ special mission and identity was played down.
But the Republicans’ current case seems much closer to the “no-win” situation of postwar French Socialists: when they abandoned Marxist rhetoric in favor of more general rhetoric with potential mass appeal, they lost large swathes of the old working class to the communists and became electorally pathetic, the “party of teachers.” If the Republicans become lukewarm on health reform, friendly to diversity, and broadly accepting of social change, the kind of older whites who vote on the basis of visceral conservatism and a strong white, Christian identity will have little reason to stick with them. Some may stay home; some may defect to an independent Tea Party; a few might, as a last resort, vote their economic interests and choose the Democrats as the party that actually supports Social Security. The only caveat is the electoral system: none of the European parties lived under first-past-the-post, so workers felt they could defect without immediate consequence. But I don’t think that’s enough to undermine the basic logic. When alienated Europeans choose third parties, alienated Americans just stay home—but the effect on would-be majority parties is similar.
What’s keeping the Republican base together is a special, ideological anger that articulates group grievance and defines opponents as existential enemies. The party cannot dump that anger and survive. It’s a matter not of losing the base but of dissolving it: absent a particular kind of appeal, older white voters would have no reason to regard themselves as having much in common. The Democrats, as a Will Rogers coalition party, face lots of problems (see “Blue Dogs”) but not that one.
To be sure, Teixeira realizes all of this. With respect to the Republicans, his “advice” is probably more ironic than practical. In his own, characteristically soft-spoken words:
The Democrats, for their part, are in a considerably more comfortable position. They have exchanged their old coalition for a new one based on emerging demographics and have already gone through the painful process of ideological reexamination and change that the GOP is currently avoiding.