29 May 2013

Republicans, circling the drain

There's an obvious parallel between the dire situation of the Republican party today and that of the Democratic party in the 1980s (I've already alluded to this).  In both cases the "out" party is/was beholden to radicals whose views alienate the mainstream of the country; baffled by the enduring popularity of the "in" party's President (Reagan / Obama); and in deep denial about the real causes and likely cures of its electoral failures.  Molly Ball at the Atlantic looks at the comparison and concludes that the Republicans have a long way to go yet before making the kind of moves to the center and electoral comeback which the DNC and Bill Clinton ultimately engineered for the Democrats in the early 1990s.

Beyond the general inertia Ball diagnoses, I see two factors that differentiate the Republicans of today from the Democrats of the 1980s, and will make it harder for the Republicans to make a similar comeback:

(1) Demographics.  Everyone cites the gradual upward drift of the non-white (particularly Hispanic) percentage of the population; even more important is the rapid growth of the non-religious percentage (from about 7% to 20% in barely over a decade) and corresponding increase in acceptance of gays and even gay marriage.  This is particularly marked among young people.  In general, groups that lean Democratic are growing while groups that lean Republican are shrinking or at least aging.  There were no such factors contributing to the Democrats' woes in the 1980s.

(2) Religion.  Many of the radical Republican positions that turn off mainstream voters -- primitive attitudes about gays, women, science, and so on -- are rooted in the hard-line religious character of the party's base.  Indeed, the main division between left and right in the US is no longer over economic policy or the size of the state, but is rather a secular-vs.-theocratic split.  The problem is that religious fanaticism is far more resistant to change than ordinary political convictions are.  For example, see the base's fierce push-back against recent RNC hints of a softening on gay marriage.

Point (1) suggests that a Republican comeback will require even more profound shifts in the party's stances and character than the Democrats needed in the early 1990s; point (2) tells us that any such shifts will be much harder for the Republicans to swallow than they were for the Democrats.

Republicans, meanwhile, remain mostly in denial.  They talk hopefully of a "pendulum swing" back their way (though the growth of non-white population and the decline of religion seem very unlikely to go into reverse) and cite the old saw that "people get more conservative as they get older" (not true).

The Republicans aren't dead yet.  Gerrymandering, vote suppression, and the low turn-out of off-year elections will hand them some wins for a while yet.  Occasional Democratic blunders or scandals (real ones, not like the recent nonsense) will take down a candidate here and there.  But such factors can't change the underlying fundamentals; at most they will mask the inexorable decline and perhaps even discourage a comeback by seeming to vindicate those on the right who claim no real change is needed.

Predictions of one or the other party's decline into irrelevance or extinction have been wrong before.  The Republicans might make a genuine comeback.  But I certainly see very little sign of it happening, and it's hard to imagine the base permitting the specific steps such a comeback would require.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Good analysis. I believe Michele Bachmann's recent announcement supports it. Her favorability in her once "sure-thing" district have plummeted, and she has a campaign finance scandal to cope with.

And Mitch McConnel's numbers aren't that great either.

29 May, 2013 06:42  
Blogger LadyAtheist said...

...and in other news, Michele Bachmann has thrown in the towel. Is this the beginning of a trend?

29 May, 2013 06:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Bachmann is the kind of world-class nutjob without whom US politics will be considerably safer if somewhat less interesting. Good riddance.

And after McConnell's bleatings about the need to make Obama a one-term President, I'd love to see him go down while Obama is still in office.

29 May, 2013 08:19  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"..and in other news, Michele Bachmann has thrown in the towel. Is this the beginning of a trend?"

"'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

29 May, 2013 08:57  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I agree with your general thesis about the fragile condition of the Republican party, but I must say that I disagree strongly with a big part of your analysis:

"In both cases the "out" party is/was beholden to radicals whose views alienate the mainstream of the country"

The defining Democratic positions of the late '70's/early 80's were civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam war. By 1980, a majority of people felt the Vietnam war was a gigantic disaster, and they also were pro-civil rights. These Democratic positions had the additional virtue of being on the right side of the moral divide. By contrast, the Republicans have allowed a group of people who, by 1980's standards, were utterly off of their rockers, define the party's positions, leaving it vastly out of touch with public sentiment in massive swathes of the country. It is a false analogy to suggest that this parallels in any significant degree what happened to Democrats in that period of time.

29 May, 2013 15:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: In a way I wish she'd stayed on for one last election and lost the seat to Graves rather than leave so a less loopy Republican can run and possibly win. But it's nice to know she'll definitely be gone.

Green Eagle: I'm talking about the 1980s here, by which time the Vietnam war was already over -- it wasn't really a factor in politics by then (also, opposition to the war was hardly a core position of the Democratic party since many Democratic politicians had supported the war). The civil-rights struggle, too, was more a battle of the 1960s and 1970s than of the 1980s. The unpopular and out-of-the-mainstream views which defined the Democrats in the 1980s were the ones Ball lists: "racial quotas, handgun bans, and welfare rights, [...] soft on crime, weak on communism, and antagonistic to family values". Not all of those things are unequivocally wrong, but the party as a whole at that time was pushing them to extremes which could not win majority support.

30 May, 2013 04:13  
Anonymous krissthesexyatheist said...

It used to be back in the day (80's) Republicans were just about balancing the budget, military and small government in general. It was until the Bush Jr. regime (and his born again stuffs) that they became all religion-y, which equates to anti abortion, anti climate change, anti stem cell research, rewriting history books, I.D. in the science classroom etc...

And they used to compromise.


30 May, 2013 15:03  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

Kriss, Republicans were never about balancing the budget, in the 1980's or any other time. Reagan piled up the largest budget deficits in our history up until Bush II. As usual, all they were about was talking about the deficit.

Infidel, even by the 1980's civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam war were still the defining things about the Democrats. It's what people thought of when they thought of Dems. Democratic candidates and officeholders like Carter were destroyed by a primitive version of the same smear tactics which are the mainstay of Republicans today (and racism- the Southern Strategy was still in full force,) not by any kind of principled opposition to what they stood for

30 May, 2013 22:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Kris: I think the Republicans' commitment to small government and balanced budgets was always more rhetoric than reality. What they really cared about was tax cuts for the wealthiest. Their actual track record on balancing budgets is terrible.

The Republican alliance with fundamentalism dates back to the late 1970s (I have a post in the works about that), but the fundamentalist role in the party has grown gradually -- it's only much more recently that they've become the dominant element in the party base.

Green: I think you're missing the point. In the 1980s, civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam war were not deeply unpopular with the mainstream, therefore they were not part of the reason the Democratic party was so out of step with the mainstream, which is what the post is about. The reasons for that were the issues I cited quoting the Ball article. And it makes no sense to claim that opposing the war was a fundamental position of the party when so many Democratic politicians supported the war.

31 May, 2013 08:09  

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