Ideological clarity and the GOP’s dilemma.

The Republicans now face the same big problems of French socialists in the mid-twentieth century: how to craft a broad appeal while retaining the votes of a class that defines itself in terms of its unique and special grievances.

The discussion on 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.


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

10 thoughts on “Ideological clarity and the GOP’s dilemma.”

  1. As long as democrats neoliberal policies continue to hollow out the middle class, there will be plenty of new people willing to vote on anger.

  2. Might this be wishful thinking? We prefer to think bad politics isn’t rewarded, but look around you. The radicalization of the Republican base isn’t entirely a cohort effect, & the size of the radicalized base isn’t fixed. They in part respond to demographic change; the political behavior of demographic groups changes as the demography changes. Under suitable conditions, proletarianized white college graduates may act like the white working class they in part come from. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Republicans can retain their current base & also fracture the rising groups. Demographic trends aren’t entirely outside political control. One point of immigration restriction & transfer of the illegal population, which win in the short-term, is to mitigate Republicans’ long-term demographic problem. Ask yourself why the Republican right thinks it can thread this needle. Look on the dark side.

  3. I suppose on (illegal) immigration restriction they think they can thread the needle, because they're a VERY long way from defending a minority position. And if they win on that one, where public opinion is heavily on their side, the Democratic party's scheme of 'electing a new people' stops, maybe even gets reversed a bit. IOW, the long term demographic problem isn't inevitable, it's being deliberately engineered, and can be stopped.

    The big problem for them on this front, is that a substantial portion of elected Republicans are in the pocket of businesses which profit from a ready supply of illegal immigrant labor. And trying to do something about illegal immigration and failing IS a lose-lose proposition. They must succeed, or suffer badly. Whether they can muster the will to do more than pretend to care about illegal immigration is questionable.

  4. It's not about ideology, it's about cognitive decline. (There is no ideology, just a bunch of dissociated shards of pseudo-philosophy that can be reassembled to meet any tactical need.)

    …and the next best thing to cognitive decline is a botched, neglected, or evaded education. Fill in the blanks.

  5. We can however create an atmosphere where the retiring hippy boomers stay home and don’t vote. Let them have their legal pot. These people are the activist of the 60’s and are very involved but most of them have been busy raising a family and working. As they retire, they become very active once again.

    Imagine its election day and these people don’t show up because they are home all smoked up eating cookies. Every demographic counts and this one we can encourage to stay home.

  6. Transfer of the 12 million wouldn't solve the Republicans' problems. That elements of the Party's base imagine otherwise says more about them than about the demographic realities. The needle to be threaded is the intertemporal problem. A hard hand against immigrants, or Hispanics generally, is unambiguously popular now among the older white people who've settled in the Southwest. It's less popular among people of whatever ethnicity who'll be alive to vote 15 or 20 years from now — among, say, the cemetery workers who'll bury the supporters of transfer.

    Republican politicians who resist the most brutal measures against the illegal population are in most cases not just acting on behalf of industries that depend on illegal labor. (Those industries have local strength, but account for a small share of US business profits & don't dominate the business lobbies, which aren't reliable defenders of illegal workers.) They want votes, now & in the future. Some even have moral limits, & understand that the measures that have been proposed are beneath contempt.

  7. Brett, I think the few people who support these ship-them-all-home ideas do so precisely because it remains an abstract idea to them. If there were ever a serious effort to deport all undocumented peoples it would be so violent and ugly that even the cracker-iest folk would probably recoil. I give them that much credit.

    From what I've seen of conservatives, they are usually sympathetic to people they personally know, and unsympathetic to those they don't, regardless of actual facts or conduct. If people they personally knew and liked got shipped off for non-violent offenses, many would change their minds. If tv news covered the deportations happening now, I think you'd see the support drop. This whole thing is not about crime anyway. It's the economy and people's fear of the future.

    And anyway mass deportations are not going to happen. 400,000 a year is bad enough, you can forget about any significant increase happening. A large part of the DP would probably take a walk if the President doesn't move those numbers *down*, in fact. I see problems in 2012 otherwise.

  8. IMHO the biggest difference between the current GOP dilemma and the traditional Socialist dilemma is that the GOP is also the party of the economic elites and military-industrial complex. Those are two major strengths. In addition, because of those two factors, they've got a nice hold on the MSM. They have and will continue to get much better coverage than they deserve – thing of how badly they botched the Bush II administration, and how lightly the press treats them now.

  9. "I suppose on (illegal) immigration restriction . . ."

    There is a big difference between illegal immigration restriction and illegal immigration elimination.

    The American public is not so much in favor of the latter, no matter how much those proposing it paint it as the former, and certainly Americans would not be in fvor if they understood the cost-benefit ratio of what is being proposed by the anti-immigrant crowd.

    One could eliminate pollution, drunk driving, and speeding, but the costs would be prohibitively high compared to the benefits.

    Of course, conservatives understand the cost-benefit ratio when addressing the issue of pollution.

    It is amazing why they can't understand this principle when it comes to illegal immigration.

    Or then, maybe not. Ethnic bias, hatred, and racism do not constitute fertile grounds for clear thinking.

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