Tuesday’s elections were a disaster for the Republican Party. From President Barack Obama’s re-election to the loss of seats in the House and Senate, Republicans were chastened by an electorate that seemed to them to be changing overnight. Even their brightest ray of hope — their ability to hang onto control of the House — was tempered by the fact that more voters nationwide backed Democrats than Republicans for those seats. If not for Republican gerrymandering after 2010, the GOP would have lost that as well.
The GOP’s losses have been blamed on everything from changing demographics to the incompetence of the Romney campaign to Hurricane Sandy. All of those played their part, but they are not the only reason that Republicans find themselves losing ground nationally. Now, Republicans find themselves in the difficult position of trying to find a way to attract new voters without sparking a revolt from a base that has been told for four years that any compromise is akin to treason.
Demographic Shift Unraveling Nixon Coalition
The current Republican Party has its genesis in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act was passed primarily by a coalition of Northern Democrats and New England Republicans, and signed into law by a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. The South had been discontented with Democrats since the 1948 convention, and the end of segregation cracked the Solid South wide open. For the first time since before the Civil War, white Southerners were fully in play.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, running in support of states’ rights, won only Arizona and 5 states in the Deep South, but that victory was an awakening for the GOP. In 1968, former Vice President Richard Nixon reached out to disaffected Southerners, building on Goldwater’s campaign. Nixon lost the Deep South to George Wallace, but victories in North and South Carolina and Tennessee were enough to put Nixon past 270 electoral votes. In 1972, Nixon would sweep the South, and while Jimmy Carter won it back in 1976, the South moved permanently into the Republican column in 1980.
The Southern Strategy brought white, working-class, and — frankly — racist Democrats into the Republican fold. The strategy paid dividends outside the South; it was used as a way to reach out to socially conservative voters who might have voted for Democrats on economics alone. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he said it would cost Democrats the South for a generation. He was wrong. It cost them for two generations.
The voting public is not static, though. The white voters who were attracted to the Republican Party have gotten older, while younger voters were born into a nation that was, at least officially, trying not to be racist. People of color grew steadily as a percentage of the population, and younger voters grew up without the racist baggage of Jim Crow.
For a long time, this didn’t really matter for the Republican Party. There were enough socially conservative white voters to win. Republicans worked hard to keep this group in the fold, opposing social insurance programs as hand-outs to minorities, embracing implacable opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights and allowing the nativist wing of the party to dictate a draconian approach to immigration. The strategy worked — until it didn’t.
As recently as 1992, white voters made up 87 percent of the electorate. That year, 94 percent of the votes George H.W. Bush won were from white voters. In 2012, white voters were down to 72 percent of the electorate, and Mitt Romney got clobbered among the other 28 percent.
The strategy of playing to white voters, which worked well for almost half a century, has rebounded on Republicans, to devastating effect. When you pass draconian “papers please” legislation, or denigrate any social safety net program as giving T-bone steaks to “strapping young bucks,” you send a clear and unmistakable signal to people that you do not value the people you’re attacking. Unsurprisingly, these people then vote against you. With people of color making up a greater percentage of the electorate, Republicans have hit a demographic brick wall — there simply aren’t enough white voters intrigued by a return to segregation to overcome the massive deficit Republicans face among voters they’ve tried to dehumanize.
Voters Less Religious, More Tolerant
Another factor working against Republicans is their embrace of conservative social issues. The Religious Right had its genesis in the fight for continuing segregation. When the American apartheid system was finally killed, leaders in the movement such as Jerry Falwell retrenched, fighting instead against abortion and homosexuality, as well as pushing women toward “traditional” family roles. The positions espoused by the religious right became part of the Republican catechism. It drove some Rockefeller Republicans out of the party and caused others, like President George H.W. Bush (and Mitt Romney), to reverse their positions on abortion rights. The GOP was happy to make the deal, though, as there were more than enough socially conservative voters to make up the gap.
The problem for the Republican Party is, unfortunately, that younger voters had their own minds, and used those minds to draw different conclusions about the world. As more LGBTs came out and demanded civil rights, as more women joined the workforce and as birth control went from unusual to ubiquitous, younger voters became more liberal in their views.
The disconnect between young and old is seen most sharply in the split on same-sex marriage. Younger voters strongly favor full civil rights for same-sex couples, and view opposition to it as pure bigotry. This is true even among Republicans. Republicans have been slow to pick up on this sea change, in no small part because older, less tolerant people make up the core of activists and elected officials in the party.
Republicans still do well among Christian Conservatives, but there are fewer conservative Christians all the time. Protestants are no longer a majority of the population, and the fastest-growing religious group in the country is “no religious affiliation.” The upshot is that the country is rapidly moving away from the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, toward a more tolerant, pluralistic society.
Unfortunately for Republicans, they’ve been opposing tolerance and pluralism for forty-odd years. Simply put, the party is out of step with the country — and especially, with younger voters.
Economic Policies Unpopular
Republicans have always been a party of wealth, and much of their drive to attract working-class voters can be seen as an attempt to deal with the simple reality that there are always more non-rich people than rich people. That doesn’t mean that Republicans have been unable to push their economic vision these past fifty years, though. Republicans have used their relationship with value voters to advance their ideal of smaller government. They’ve managed to do this in no small party by not actually cutting that much out of government, of course — but they’ve succeeded in winning tax breaks for the wealthy, which has been a key part of their policy.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the past decade of slow growth has laid bare the fact that tax cuts aren’t particularly correlated with economic growth. As the middle class has stagnated, the rich have continued to get richer, causing wide swaths of the electorate to question the wisdom of trickle-down economics. Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters supported raising taxes on the wealthy. Indeed, Romney’s loss can be pinned in no small part on his opposition to government intervention in saving the auto industry; his belief in “smaller government” would have cost a million jobs, concentrated in the Midwest. It’s no surprise that the Rust Belt rejected Romney, despite his being a native of Michigan.
This leaves the Republicans in an awkward place. If people are turning against their economic proposals, and if there aren’t enough white conservative voters to keep winning on social issues, where can they go from here?
Coalition is the Key
Republicans have already begun the process of looking for a way out of the box they’ve put themselves in. Fox News host Sean Hannity did an abrupt about-face Thursday, declaring that he now supports a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens. Meghan McCain, the daughter of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called on the party to move away from divisive social issues. There is a growing realization among party leaders that they will have to change course.
The problem for Republicans is that, like all parties, they have built a coalition, and the furthest-right elements of the party have been driving the platform the last few years. Nativists may not be enough to win the election, but they still represent a loud and vocal component of the party, one that can’t simply be ignored. Christian Conservatives may be unable to deliver the general election, but they can make life tough on any Republican who is impure on abortion or gay rights.
This pushback has already begun. No sooner had Hannity made his pronouncement than Rep. Steve King, R-Ia., blasted Republicans who want “citizenship for illegals.” The Tea Party has spent the past four years pushing an extreme version of ideological purity on the party. They will not stop simply because they lost this year.
If Republicans reverse course on same-sex marriage or abortion rights or affirmative action, it would be good for the country and the party’s long-term future — but in the short term, these changes would produce howls of indignation, outright revolt or a fracturing of the party.
Republicans are not the first party to face such a challenge. In 1948, Democrats had a large base of support among segregationists. That year, the party finally began to move to work against segregation and to embrace civil rights.
It took courage to stand up to them, courage to tell them that however many votes they delivered, their positions were simply anathema to liberty. Segregationists howled, revolted and eventually left the party altogether. The Democrats did the right thing for the country, and three generations later, those decisions have built a new, stronger and ascendant coalition, one built on notions of tolerance, equality and pluralism. Republicans now have a choice to make: eject the bigots from their party, or accept that they are going to become less and less relevant as the years go on.
Eventually, Republicans will seek to find a new coalition, or a new party will spring up to replace them; America is not going to become a one-party state. That does not mean the process will be easy or quick, however. For the Grand Old Party to move forward, they will have to break faith with part of their coalition. That may be good for them long-term, but it could also cause them to lose for a generation — maybe two.