The culture war in the United States is over. The liberals won. Of course the conservatives — or most of them anyway — aren’t ready to give up so soon. And this very fact will cement liberal dominance over the next decade.
David Frum says the Republicans can take one of two routes. Either they can make a Palinesque appeal to their heartlands:
The first choice is the choice on display at the excited rallies that cheered Sarah Palin all through the fall. This is a choice to fall back on the core base of the Republican party. The base is almost entirely white, almost entirely resident in the middle of the country, moderately affluent, middle-aged and older, more male than female, with some college education but not a college degree. Think of Joe the Plumber and you see the core of the Republican party.
Republicans have won a string of elections thanks to Joe.
Joe came through in 1994, delivering both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Joe was not enough to elect Bob Dole president, but thanks to him the Republicans kept a dwindling hold on Congress in 1996, 1998, and 2000.
Joe rallied to President Bush after 9/11. Republicans owed their gains in 2002 to Joe. And without Joe, George W. Bush would not have won in 2004.
Or the Republicans can reach out to college-educated people:
A generation ago, Republicans dominated among college graduates. In 1984 and 1988, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won states like California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut – states that have been “blue” for a generation. (America’s least educated state, West Virginia, went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.)
Those days are long gone. Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics – and Republicans have become more conservative on social issues.
College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats – but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.
(As an aside, the Democrats need to resist the temptation to vastly increase spending and taxes, or the educated classes may stop thinking “their money is safe with Democrats”.)
The problem with the first strategy is that demographics are against it (see also this). The Republicans’ core — the Palin supporters, the Joe the Plumbers — are white, middle-income Christians who didn’t go to college. But demographics are against relying on this group: most people are white, most are Christians, and most are non college educated; but in all three cases the proportion is getting smaller.
Stephen Bainbridge suggests the GOP go for these policies:
- Reduce government budget deficits
- Accepting that human activity contributes to global warming and using some combination of a carbon tax and cap-and-trade programs to address it.
- Telling Big Oil to take a hike.
- A fuel price stabilizer tax under which the tax goes up as oil prices come down and vice-versa?
- Explain why free trade is in American interests in a way Bush never did.
- Pro-life but willing to accept that political reality requires that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare, with an emphasis on the latter.
- Educational reform that busts the teachers’ union monopoly on education.
- Federal civil partnerships for nontraditional couples, along with bans on discrimination against LGBT people.
- Decriminalization of pot and an emphasis on treatment rather then imprisonment for more serious drug offenders.
- Sensible immigration reform and border security, only after which we address the issue of regularzing the existing undocumented population.
- A return to the realist school of conservative foreign policy and a repudiation of the Bush foreign policy.
Of course, to do so would mean abandoning the culture war. As commenter Rohan says:
I really don’t see how you can reach Frum’s vision without abandoning–or at least seriously downplaying–religious social conservatism.
What you and Frum are asking for is for an economically conservative, but socially liberal/secular/uninterested party. Do you think that’s really possible, especially considering the modern primary system for choosing nominees?
Another commenter, DaMav, opines:
We just finished an election in which the poster boy for these kinds of policies was led the Republican Party to an historic drubbing. Yet this is a call for a more centrist, bipartisan, reach across the aisle approach? Didn’t we learn anything from 2008?
Frum’s proposals are repulsive. And sorry to break your stereotype but I have multiple post-graduate degrees including a doctorate and was planning on sitting out the election until Palin was nominated. I disagree with some of her positions but her leadership abilities transcend that, and where it really counts she is right on the money.
And that’s the core of the problem. Any attempt to move the Republican Party in the way Frum and Bainbridge suggest would be regarded as “repulsive” by many Republicans, who will make their views known in the primaries. The Frum/Bainbridge agenda is in the short term a recipe for civil war in the Republican Party.
Democrat snart snarkily replies to DaMav:
I want to encourage DaMav and others thinking along the same lines. It is clearly the case that the Republicans lost because the are not far enough to the right. The more shrill and uncompromising the party becomes on social issues, the more likely it is to win that ever elusive permanent majority.
So there we have it. The Republicans can either adopt many of the Democrats’ social policies or they can keep losing elections. It’ll probably take one or two defeats in presidential elections for the message to hit home, by which time democraphics will be even more against social conservatives. But Duverger’s Law means that eventually the two-party system will re-balance itself and both Republicans and Democrats will fight over the middle ground. However, becasue of demographic and cultural changes this middle ground will have preferences on social issues that today would be considered liberal.
UPDATE: it’s actually Anthony Downs, not Duverger, who says that in 2-party systems they end up fighting for the middle ground.