November 05, 2008

The Coming Crisis in the Republican Party

Obama has won a convincing victory, large enough to give him a mandate for change. With majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats can enact their ambitious program, if they can stay united. They have not always been good at this in the past, so it cannot be taken for granted. But the severity of the economic crisis may strengthen a common resolve.

At the same time, the stunning defeat of the Republicans in the 2008 election has exposed a three way division in their party. First, there are cultural conservatives, represented by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. They passionately reject abortion, the Darwinian theory of evolution, gay marriage, and stem cell research. They passionately support the right to own guns, and they would like to see daily prayer reintroduced into the schools. Second, there are the more secular Republicans, like Mitt Romney, who was a successful businessman before he went into politics, or John McCain. For most of his career he was not allied with the cultural conservatives, but was more moderate. When he selected Sarah Palin, he did so because he needed to motivate the conservative wing of the party. However, as a result, moderate Republicans, such as General Colin Powell, refuse to ally themselves with him, and endorsed Obama. Third, the neo-conservatives are not fundamentalist Christians, but fundamentalist capitalists who believe in deregulation, the projection of American power, and preemptive military strikes against enemies abroad. The Neo-Cons were the architects of the Iraq War. These three groups are ideologically quite different, and as an alliance they make little sense and have lost most of their appeal. Ronald Reagan could hold this unwieldy alliance together. Bush had more difficulty doing so, and now it has come unraveled.

At the same time, the Republicans are becoming a minority party. With their base of voters on the extreme right they have a hard time even winning a majority of White voters. Notably, because of the abortion issue and years of attacking welfare programs, the Republican Party is rejected by a majority of all women. More surprisingly, the Republicans now get support from less than half of all those with incomes over $100,000. The Party also have weak appeal to the (mostly younger) people who have a mobile phone but no land line phone: 55% of them voted for Obama, only 35% for McCain. These numbers would be much worse for Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Neither could win a presidential contest. They look ignorant and provincial to the millions of Americans who are immigrants, have a good education, or who have lived abroad.

Not all elections are created equal. Some mark decisive changes in the coalitions and alignments of national politics, notably that of 1932, which brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to power and put the Democrats in control of Congress as well for most of the next 36 years. These were years of reform, when the United States moved toward a welfare state. But then in 1968 the Republican Party recaptured the lead role in US politics, and held it for most of the next 40 years. This domination began with the election of Richard Nixon in a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Nixon triumphed because he convinced several Southern states to vote Republican. After the Civil War, the Democrats long could count on unwavering support from the South. Indeed, the Southern hatred of "the party of Lincoln" was so strong that there were few Republicans in Dixie.

Nixon's "southern strategy" was a revolution in US politics, because it broke apart the New Deal coalition that Roosevelt had constructed in 1932. Roosevelt had joined together the industrial laborers and immigrants of the North with the rural South. Nixon was able to pry the South loose from the Democrats because culturally conservative Dixie was upset by the Civil Rights movement and the New Left. The new coalition reached the height of its power under Reagan. It was only briefly broken in 1992 and 1996 by Clinton because he and Gore both came from the South. But the Republicans still controlled the Congress.

However, in both 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush's support was weak. Indeed, in 2000 Gore received half a million more votes. The nation was changing demographically, and it has continued to do so. Back in Reagan's time, the Republicans had a good chance at winning in California and New Work. No more. These states are now solidly Democratic. Why? Because the population has changed. The largest minority in the US today are the Hispanics, 40 million strong, and they vote Democratic. Obama won that constituency over McCain by a ratio of more than 2-1. Likewise, the rising tide of Asian-Americans seldom agree with Republican cultural conservatives, though they are more likely to be comfortable with the business wing of the party. Even more decisively, 90% of African-Americans also vote Democratic. As a result, Republicans need to win 60% or more of the white vote to have a chance, but they cannot do that because they have alienated too many white women and educated voters. In this election, they barely managed to win a majority of white voters, and so lost decisively.

These trends can be seen in the South and West, where the Republicans have been dominant since 1968. Large numbers of Hispanics and liberal voters have moved to Colorado and New Mexico, western states that used to be solidly Republican but now lead toward Obama. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of outsiders have moved into the southern states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, in all of which Obama also has overwhelming support from Black voters. As a result, Obama won both Florida and Virginia, and as of this writing leads by 0.3% in North Carolina, breaking the 40-year Republican hold on the South. As regional differences decline and as the nation becomes more multicultural, the Republicans risk becoming the party of the old, the white, the poorly educated, and the fundamentalists. This may seem exaggerated, but look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primaries.

McCain has lost the White House and the Republicans have lost 6 or more seats in the Senate and at least 23 seats in the House of Representatives. They are much worse off than when they were a minority party from the 1930s until 1968. Then they were at least a national party. Now they risk becoming a declining regional white party, in a nation that is increasingly multicultural.

The Republicans must reinvent themselves, but this may take a generation. Meanwhile, the rejuvenated Democratic Party can be expected to control the Federal government for at least eight years under Obama, and quite possibly for much longer than that. 2008 looks like a turning point in US politics as important as 1932 or 1968. If the Democrats pass their platform into law, then in a few years the United States will have a national health system, a radically new energy policy, a green environmental policy, and a less confrontational foreign policy. The collapse of the Republican coalition has given Barack Obama a historic opportunity for change.