No Easy Path Forward for Republicans

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.


Related Stories

Romney: Hooray for Whiteness!

Romney: If Black People Just Want “Free Stuff,” They Should Vote For Obama

Romney Attacked Over Adviser’s “Anglo-Saxon” Gaffe



LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

Thank you for article.

Barbara D.
Barbara U5 years ago

Republicans do well with those who have a hard time with change, those who have trouble recieving new information, drawing new conclusions and changing their minds. Sometimes it seems they're regressing into the Dark Ages.

You notice the demographics at Romney's rallies don't reflect the demographics of the American people. Obama's rallies reflected the real America with people from all demographics.

Republicans seem to be living in a bubble, Reagan did-away with the "Fairness Doctrine" which mandated that broadcasters present contraversal issues of public importance in a honest, balanced, and fair manner. How can that be good for Americans to recieve only one point of view - like the republican-leaning Fox News. I think this is a great dis-service to Americans and allows broadcasters to control what information viewers/listeners recieve. Instead of presenting the facts, opions from all different points of view and allowing people to make up their own minds, they are controlling information and making up the minds of others for them. I find that frightening - it's not even news anymore, it's propaganda.

Anyway, I'm glad Obama won. I wish the republicans would either go the way of the WHIG party, or catch up with this changing world.

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago


It does, however, fit very well. As the last fragments of the Romney/Ryan campaign flutter to the ground, one last confirmation: Paul Ryan is above your petty party rules, and when Paul Ryan is involved with something, the math is whatever Paul Ryan wants it to be.

(It's always the same result, over and over again - when you put it in R, it just goes backward...)

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago


Even though vice presidential Mini-Mitt Paul Ryan was reelected to congress, this was to have been the last year of his highly prized House Budget Committee chairmanship. That's because the Republicans have an ostensible rule that term limits committee chairmen and/or ranking members to six years in those plum positions, partly because Republicans really like term limits and partly to give other members a chance to rake in some of the sweet, sweet campaign money that comes from being in those positions of maximal power. Whatever is the case, I can't think of a better way to welcome official "GOP intellectual" Paul Ryan back into the congressional fold than for the GOP to ignore simple rules of math for his benefit:

Speaker John Boehner is declaring that nobody but Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fresh off his unsuccessful vice presidential bid, will be granted a waiver from internal GOP term-limit rules requiring several members to give up their chairmanships next year.

“He told me he wants to limit it to Ryan,” said Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., of such a waiver, on Thursday

Well, there's some good news: Republican Math Guy will be the only recipient of the magical "rules are for everyone else" waiver, and Peter King specifically won't be getting one. (I have to believe that King isn't especially well-liked even in the GOP, because, well, c'mon. Have you heard him?)

It does, however, fit

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago

Thanks, Lynn C.!

And thanks to Leonard T. for posting this URL:

Very interesting indeed!

Michael M., if I could give you all the Green Stars you deserved, you'd probably smother, so just as well I can't...

It sounds as though the Republicans are incapable of moving forward, and I suspect that they may be thinking of running Lyin' Ryan again, next Presidential election, so be warned...

hu Nov 15, 2012 at 06:15 PM PST
Despite GOP term limits, Republicans allow Paul Ryan to continue as head of Budget Committee

by Hunter for Daily Kos

Even though vice presidential Mini-Mitt Paul Ryan was reelected to congress, this was to have been the last year of his highly prized House Budget Committee chairmanship. That's because the Republicans have an ostensible rule that term limits committee chairmen and/or ranking members to six years in those plum positions, partly because Republicans really like term limits and partly to give other members a chance to rake in some of the sweet, sweet campaign money that comes from being in those positions of maximal power. Whatever is the case, I can't think of a better way to welcome official "GOP intellectual" Paul Ryan back into the congressional fold than for the GOP to ignore simple rules of

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

The republican party will be just fine, just like the democrat party would have if Romney had won.

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Really enjoyed Michael M. and Dorothy N.'s discussion, among other comments. Thank you all.

Leonard T.
Leonard T5 years ago

@Jim L

More background and straight from the horse's ass himself, Lee Atwater. To put him in context, he was part of a troika of GOP dirty tricks specialists, contemporary of Donald Segretti and Roger Ailes. Karl Rove is a Segretti protege. Atwater was partially redeemed when on his death bed he apologized for all the dirty stuff he pulled on behalf of the GOP, and he had a great deal to answer for as you can hear in this clip.

Thomas P.
Thomas P5 years ago

Thanks. Jacob R......there's not much of what your wrote that's correct. It turns out President Obama DID win the election (it's this thing called Math, which those on the right seem to have great difficulty understanding), he got 51% of the vote (that's called a mandate, which is what happens when you win MOST of something (again, Math..over 50% necessarily means most), and he did something only 3 others (Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan) have over 50% of the popular vote in 2 successive elections. Not only did he win, not only does he have a mandate, but the win was truly historic.