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Why Republicans Can't Change


As information about the Republican Party’s 2016 platform trickles out, people on the other side of aisle express dismay: the GOP is as hateful and oppressive as ever. Why haven’t they learned anything?

When Republican candidate Mitt Romney lost the Presidential election 2012, party brass did, in fact, do some soul-searching, as detailed in their 2012 Growth and Opportunity Project book. They recognized that they have a difficult time reaching minority voters:

The Republican Party must focus its efforts to earn new supporters and voters in the following demographic communities: Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, women, and youth. This priority needs to be a continual effort that affects every facet of our Party’s activities, including our messaging, strategy, outreach, and budget. Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections; the data demonstrates this. In both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority voters, including not only African Americans but also Hispanics, Asians, and others. The minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050. Today these minority groups make up 37 percent of the population, and they cast a record 28 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election, according to the election exit polls, an increase of 2 percentage points from 2008. We have to work harder at engaging demographic partners and allies. One outside group that has been particularly successful at engaging its community and increasing its Republican support is the Republican Jewish Coalition. We should incorporate some of its tactics in our efforts. By 2050, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population could be as high as 29 percent, up from 17 percent now. The African American proportion of the population is projected to rise slightly to 14.7 percent, while the Asian share is projected to increase to approximately 9 percent from its current 5.1 percent. Non-Hispanic whites, 63 percent of the current population, will decrease to half or slightly less than half of the population by 2050. In addition, the Republican Party lost youth and women voters in 2012. It is imperative that we reverse this troubling trend, as women represent the majority of voters and youth are future voters for decades to come. The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten. The Republican Party must compete on every playing field.

Amid a list of recommendations is this, which hints ever so slightly at the underlying problem:

This new organization should develop a program designed to educate Republicans on the importance of developing and tailoring a message that is non-inflammatory and inclusive to all.

I will note that nowhere in the document are words like “racism,” “prejudice,” “structural,” or “systemic” used. Republican failures to attract minority votes are chalked up to a problem of messaging. It’s not that black people, Hispanics, etc. have heard the Republican message and rejected it–they must not have heard it at all! And yet, the inclusivity problem is mentioned multiple times:

When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues. ... Republicans are thriving on the state level. Republican governors, conservatives at their core, have campaigned and governed in a manner that is inclusive and appealing. They point the way forward. ... Because [George W. Bush's] tone was inclusive and his effort to build a relationship was long-term, Hispanic Americans were willing to listen to his principles and policies on education, jobs, spending and other issues. ... The Republican Party is one of tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles. In the modern media environment a poorly phrased argument or out-of-context statement can spiral out of control and reflect poorly on the Party as a whole. Thus we must emphasize during candidate trainings, retreats, etc., the importance of a welcoming, inclusive message in particular when discussing issues that relate directly to a minority group. ... On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters. In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; many see them as the civil rights issues of our time. We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters.

Instead of the party taking these ideas to heart, it has continued to double down on divisive, oppressive rhetoric. Opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and the Affordable Care Act have only intensified since 2012. Why is this?

The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party has boxed itself in. It can’t change because the ideological levers of the party forbid it. If everything to the left of a Republican is anti-American and destroying the country, there is nowhere to go but to the right. To move to the left would also invite Tea Party challenges, which many Congressional Republicans fear. There is an element of groupthink, as well: the GOP is a party of ideological conformity, in which outliers are pressured to recant and align with orthodox positions. But when that orthodoxy is always shifting further to the right, the policy imaginations of Republicans continue to shrink.

This has narrowed Republicans’ options year after year. Instead of backtracking from their toxic positions, they double down and assume that they failed only because they weren’t conservative enough. These failures have not gone unnoticed by Republican voters, either, who chose outsider Donald Trump, essentially in protest. From an ideological perspective, picking Trump makes no sense–he doesn’t even believe half the things “real” conservatives are supposed to. But it does make sense if one considers that Republican voters (and, indeed, most Americans) aren’t particularly ideological, using party affiliation as a cultural marker rather than a label for specific, coherent beliefs.

Consider what Republican voters generally do want to be assured of:

  1. We will find bad guys, whoever they are, and take them out.
  2. We will protect you from all the scary social changes you've heard about.
  3. We will keep your taxes low.

Only the last one represents an actionable policy prescription; the others are empty promises that are impossible to meaningfully keep. But in essence, Republicans have a few key demographics: racists/xenophobes, Christian fundamentalists, and corporate cronies. And they have only managed to keep the latter happy, leaving the other two to seek alternatives. It just happened that the excitable xenophobe contingent was the only one big enough to lock the nomination process, ergo Trump.

The RNC’s 2016 platform could have been an opportunity for the party to moderate Trumpism, to communicate that while the Presidential candidate is a hot mess of naked bigotry, the rest of the party hasn’t lost its mind. Instead, it stakes out positions even more deranged than Trump’s, railing on about pornography, subjecting gay people to conversion therapy, teaching the Bible as literature, and defying reality with the insistence that all coal is clean energy.

Out of context, it would appear to make no sense at all–why would they risk so many votes for the sake of looking ideologically pure?–but understanding the trajectory of the Republican Party over the last several years, it all adds up. They don’t go back on their extreme positions because they can’t. Conservatism requires believing that America can be reshaped into a fantasy version of its past. When you keep promising people the impossible, they’ll eventually get sick of it and rebel–they’ll pick something else. And when a party collectively fails to understand that their goals are impossible, they back themselves into an ever-smaller corner.

What happens when they finally run out of room to move is anyone’s guess.

Photo by DonkeyHotey