Divided we stand

If the Republican party does not change it risks extinction
February 22, 2012

At the 1858 Illinois state Republican convention, Abraham Lincoln declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was, of course, speaking of the rift between the slave states and the free states, the South and the North, which three years later ignited the bloodiest conflict in American history. While the United States is certainly not heading for another civil war, the long and increasingly nasty presidential election of 2012 reveals deep dissonance within America’s political parties and American society itself.

The Republican party used to be unified and disciplined. This year the contest over who will be nominated to stand against Barack Obama has been anything but gentlemanly. The New York Times calculated that in the week before the Florida primary on 31st January, 92 per cent of the political adverts were negative. Newt Gingrich charged Mitt Romney and his company, Bain Capital, with destroying jobs. Romney lambasted Gingrich for lobbying on behalf of the troubled federal mortgage guarantor “Freddie Mac.” Running to the right of both Gingrich and Romney, former senator Rick Santorum blasted his rivals for failing to see that America’s problems are moral as much as economic, while the Texas Congressman Ron Paul blamed the whole apparatus of government for the nation’s ills and his rivals for being part of that apparatus. The “super-PACs,” which can raise unlimited money for a candidate as long they don’t co-ordinate directly with his campaign, were much more vicious in their adverts. They reminded voters of Gingrich’s serial adultery, Romney’s rich boy gaffes (“I’m not concerned about the very poor”), Ron Paul’s newsletters (which prophesied “race war”) and Santorum’s support for big spending bills in Congress. The Republican candidates for president are so busy accusing each other of violating various of the Ten Commandments that they’ve forgotten Ronald Reagan’s famous Eleventh: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

The Democrats, on the other hand, have never been renowned for discipline and unity. As humorist Will Rogers once said, “I belong to no organised political party: I am a Democrat.” With an incumbent president as the undisputed candidate in 2012, you’d think Democrats would be solidly together, ready to give Barack Obama a second term. But the Occupy Wall Street movement has exposed disaffection on the left, especially amongst the twenty-somethings who were so enthusiastic about Obama in 2008. While they direct most of their ire toward the big banks and corporations, which they see as crippling American opportunity, they are also unhappy with Obama’s cosiness with corporations, his approval of offshore oil drilling and relaxation of air pollution rules, and his continuation of George W Bush’s draconian terrorism policies. Some Jewish voters, usually reliable progressives, think Obama is insufficiently pro-Israel, and some Roman Catholic Democrats are upset with his healthcare program, especially his recent ruling that hospitals and educational institutions owned by the church must provide contraception as part of their employee insurance package. Latinos are unhappy over record-high deportations and Obama’s failure to enact immigration reform. Even some African Americans, who had been the president’s most reliable base, grumble that he has forgotten them. Most are not as miffed as the African-American Princeton professor Cornel West, who called Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs,” but they are disappointed that he has not done more to address the needs of the working class which may not bode well for voter turnout in November.

Six months ago, everyone thought this election would be about the economy. Unemployment was at close to 10 per cent and Barack Obama couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Mitt Romney, a successful Republican businessman who had such crossover appeal he’d once been governor of the notoriously liberal state of Massachusetts, would be the nominee, the Chamber of Commerce-approved safe pair of hands to lift America out of recession. Now rising job rates and increasing consumer confidence have robbed mainstream Republicans of their strongest issue. So they’ve revived an old favourite: the culture wars. But all they’re doing is splintering the party.

Newt Gingrich, a veteran of the ugly battles over social issues in the 1990s when he was Speaker of the House of Representatives (he once called Bill Clinton the “enemy of normal Americans”) represents the rage-fuelled Tea Party faction. They despise “elites”—Ivy League graduates, coast-dwelling readers of the New York Times, travellers to Europe (Gingrich ran a campaign advert slamming Romney for speaking French). The Rick Santorum-Michelle Bachmann contingent is militantly evangelical, obsessed with forbidding gay marriage, restoring the “traditional” family, and banning abortion under any circumstances. Santorum has said he’d like states to have the power to outlaw contraception. Ron Paul and his libertarian brigade loathe government so much their goal is, as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist once said, to shrink it down so small you could “drown it in the bath tub.”

None of this bodes well for Romney, who has two degrees from Harvard, sponsored the Massachusetts healthcare plan on which Obama based his national scheme, and on abortion, used to be pro-choice. He tried to address the charge that he is one of those despised “moderates,” a RINO (Republican in name only), in a speech at February’s Conservative Political Action Committee, insisting he was not merely conservative but “severely conservative.”

Nor is the party’s demographic future looking good. Republicans are overwhelmingly white, older, male and Southern. African Americans and Latinos make up only about 11 per cent of the party and Republicans have done little to appeal to them; indeed, the Republican party has been alienating minority groups ever since Ronald Reagan raised the inflammatory (and false) image of “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs to collect their dole money. Republican-controlled states such as Alabama and Arizona have passed stringent laws allowing police and other authorities to demand Latinos prove they’re in the country legally. Latinos, not surprisingly, resent Republicans’ depiction of them as interlopers who will dilute “American culture,” never mind that Latinos were America’s first European immigrants, never mind that their numbers are booming in traditional Republican strongholds such as Texas. Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the population: the US Census Bureau projects that they will be in the majority by 2050. Outside of the still-loyal Cuban exiles in Florida (though younger Cubans increasingly say they’re Democrats or Independents), Latinos are registering as Democrats. It may be that the determination to beat Obama at all costs will unite Republicans in November. But what happens after that? If Republicans don’t change, their party will go the way of the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, and the Bull Moose—all extinct.


If one thing unites the Republican party other than the desire to beat Obama, it’s the fear of American decline. American politicians have long feared national eclipse, but Republicans have been particularly keen to jump on the declinist bandwagon in 2012—some in more colourful fashion than others:

“America is not destined to become a decaying city in a hole, but rather a shining city on the hill… It’s time for members of Congress to put down their shovels, and walk away from their hole-digging hell.” Mike Lee, Utah Senator

“We must decide if we are prepared to… recede and become just like everybody else… that is the choice. It’s not a choice between a person we like and a person we don’t.” Marco Rubio, Florida Senator

“Just because we followed Greece into democracy doesn’t mean we need to follow them into bankruptcy.” Tim Pawlenty, ex-presidential candidate

[In response to government mandates intended to save water with toilet flushes] “We’ve become a nation of double-flushers with our designer plungers because of the activities of the Stasi police of the regulatory government. I want my liberty back! Steve King, Iowa Congressman

“Internationally, we have witnessed a weakening of our military and a decline in our standing in the world.” Mitt Romney, presidential candidate

“There is doubt in the minds of Americans that we will continue as this great, exceptional nation.” Michele Bachmann, ex-presidential candidate

“We are on the precipice of an abyss.” Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring?

Obama hit back in his State of the Union address: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”