It will undergo a revival—but an internal war will come firstby John McTernan / April 22, 2016 / Leave a comment
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“In 1968, we traded regions—turns out we got the better end of the trade.” So argued veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg at a presentation in London last week. He was talking about the success of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” through which the Democrat voters of the south—the “Dixiecrats”—were successfully won over by Nixon’s Republican Party in the 1960s. This delivered the Presidency to the Republicans in five of the next six general elections—a run interrupted only by Jimmy Carter’s post-Watergate win in 1977.
But what looked like one of the smartest ever political strategies is now delivering defeat after defeat to the Republicans. They have ended up with voters that are rural, white, older and religious in a country which is increasingly urban and diverse. They have now lost four of the last six Presidential races and look doomed to lose this year’s.
In his new book, “America Ascendant,” Greenberg predicts not just another Democratic victory this year but an era of change and reform comparable to the Progressive Era—a period of huge political reform at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th.
Greenberg’s message was that America is changing rapidly—in terms of demographics and values—and that is changing not just the electoral landscape but the political demands made of leaders. We are seeing an energy revolution—from fracking to solar. Increasing racial diversity and tolerance. The shift from marriage and religious observance to co-habitation, blended families and secularism. The metropolitan revolution—the shift from the suburbs to the cities.
And parallel to all this is the changing ethnic make-up of the US population. The number of Asian Americans has risen by 27 per cent since 2012, the number of Latinos by 17 per cent, unmarried women are up by 7 per cent to 59m. Taken together with African Americans and 18-34 year olds, otherwise called millennials, these are termed the “Rising American Electorate” and they now amount to 133m out of an electorate of 210m. All of them groups with whom the Republicans struggle, particularly with women, over the issues of abortion and immigration.
If America is changing, then why isn’t the Republican Party changing in a way that accommodates it? Greenberg argues they are being driven by their base—and it’s an angry one. They feel betrayed by their own leadership who didn’t stop Obama on immigration, on Affordable Care or on gay marriage. Evangelical Republicans in particular are angry at the spread of social liberalism. Republican candidates seeking selection have an incentive to play to that anger. This was what prompted a questioner at the Policy Network event where Greenberg spoke to ask whether Nixon’s advice for Republican Presidential candidates still applied. Can you run to the right to get the nomination and then get back to the centre for the election? Greenberg said that the centre isn’t there any more. Which led to two more fascinating reflections.
First, that the Republicans can stay as they are for a long time. That’s primarily because they have an electoral lock on those rural, religious, often Southern states, so can get regularly re-elected there. Winning these means that in total they can hold 40 per cent of the states—their Governorships and their Senators.
The problem is that this isn’t a majoritarian project. The Republican base may give the Party the near-guarantee of 40 per cent of states but it is only 20 per cent of the US population. This is a trap, albeit a comfortable one. It gives Republicans a big enough share of the political spoils to maintain successful and fulfilling political careers for the time being, but offers no incentive for them to broaden their electoral appeal. Unless the party changes it will be locked in perpetual minority.
But Greenberg’s second point was that he has never seen a political party change without a civil war. He traces the emergence of the “New Democrats” to the campaign of Gary Hart in 1984, who lost the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale. Mondale’s landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan later that year was the end of the “Old Democrats.” Bill Clinton came to office articulating the politics that Hart had championed. Greenberg’s deeper point was that you don’t change an American political party’s ideological settings without contesting them. And no Republican primary candidate is making the arguments about accepting the constitutional position on abortion or the reality of immigration—even though the Republican leadership makes them behind closed doors.
So Clinton, Greenberg predicts, will win this election and the Republicans will sit it out again, but there will be reform and revival—eventually—because there are still a large number of moderates in the Republican base. They are, in fact, the largest single grouping: at 31 per cent they are just larger than Evangelicals, at 30 per cent. And perhaps the liberal Supreme Court majority (after the death of Justice Scalia in February the Court has a vacancy) that President Clinton will establish after her election victory will be the spur to change they need. Otherwise, demographics doom Republicans to repeated defeats.
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