More on Republican Disarray

19 November 2008

Recently in my The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown I characterized the Republican Party as being on the verge of collapse as a result of its electoral defeat. Also in my The Difference Four Years Can Make I made the claim that, “If the Democrats can retain the discipline they are showing at present … they can look forward to many years as the party in power.”

Both of these discussions were inadequate. The problem of the contemporary Republican Party is, like everything else in the world, quite complex once you get into the details. And there are details for every taste. There are always countless ways to break down the vote, and many are the statisticians who obsess over the details of electoral postmortem.I do not want to deny the value of such inquiries, but such are not germane to our present train of thought.

In my Today’s Thought on Civilization I formulated this general principle concerning the historical viability of a civilization: a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes. Now, to speak of civilizations is to speak at a level of profound historical generality and abstractness. To say something meaningful about the contemporary Republican Party requires a great deal more detail (hence complexity) and a great deal less generality and abstraction. However, one need not lose sight of principles in delving into detail. On the contrary, and in a Kantian spirit, one can say that “principles with applications are empty, while applications without principles are blind.”

And indeed the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change… ” or “A union fails when it fails to change… ” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”

How has the world changed, and how has the Republican Party failed to change, thus rendering doubtful its long-term viability? If anyone is to take seriously the claim that the Republican Party is threatened with dissolution due to a true “sea change”, and not merely that it has suffered an electoral defeat from which it will recover in time, the case must be made as to why the change, both in the world and in the Republican Party, represents a genuine novelty and not more of the same.

In the recent past the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of congress. Noises were made about a permanent Republican majority. Now the tables have turned, and the Democrats have (or will soon have) the presidency and both houses of congress. Why should we not expect the pendulum to swing, in good time? Why should we not expect the tide to turn again? The case could be made on obvious demographics, but ours is not a demographic inquiry. Our contention is that the world has changed, and that the Republicans have either not changed in order to keep up with the world, or that they have changed in the wrong way, so that they fall out of sync with the Zeitgeist. To be more specific, I make both claims: 1) in some ways the Republicans have failed to change, and 2) the Republicans have changed in ways that will work against their broad (hence national) electoral appeal.

With Karl Rove’s strategy of pumping up the base and essentially abandoning the swing vote, the Republicans took two presidential election cycles. How was it different in the most recent election cycle? The difference lies in the distinction between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. The votes of religious conservatives alone, or even their votes along with those of their fellow travelers in the Republican Party, are no longer sufficient to elect a president. Everyone knew during the last election cycle that getting the votes of religious conservatives was a necessary condition for the Republican candidate to be elected president. However, though it was a necessary condition, it was not yet a sufficient condition.

During a previous election cycle I heard religious conservatives begin to refer to themselves as “people of faith”. Now, you must understand that “people of faith” was a code word introduced for the express purpose of grouping politically conservative fundamentalist Christians together. What is the significance of this? This term, eo ipso, marks a turn. It makes of the conservative Christian vote simply another interest group. And in American politics, being just another interest group, albeit a powerful one, is a world away from representing Nixon’s “silent majority”. An interest group is, by definition, a self-defined minority, that is to say, a minority that defines itself by excluding others. No one wins elections by exclusivity. Elections are won by inclusivity.

People of faith” is precisely analogous to “people of color”, but whereas the evolution of the world is on the side of the increased influence of so-called “people of color”, self-identifying “people of faith” do not represent the direction that the world is moving, nor the direction that the US is going. Yes, I am well aware that the vast majority of Americans self-identify as being religious, thus, in a sense, as being “people of faith”. But a recent poll revealed interesting complexity behind the apparent monolithic facade of organized religion. Because in the US social disapproval is mobilized against the tiny fraction of the population that does not self-identify with any religious tradition, very few people bother to take this stand. Few people care enough to pay the price for such non-conformity. However, since any kind of religious affiliation is judged better than no religious affiliation at all, that is exactly what we have: people by and large self-identify with some “faith tradition”, indeed with any faith tradition, but these traditions are many and various, and they are not well represented by those who self-identify as “people of faith”. As the Pew Forum put the matter, “…religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.”

It was one of the lasting insights of Marx that certain kinds of societies produce certain kinds of people. Institutions (economic and otherwise) shape individuals. Or we could say that individuals recapitulate institutions. We need not follow the details of Marxist theory in order to see the validity of this idea (and if you are uncomfortable in presence of a Marxist idea, just think of it as one of the fundamental insights of structuralism, of which Marx was an early representative). We cannot escape our institutions, and our institutions are democratic. The free market of ideas has also yielded a free market in faiths, and since religious toleration is taken seriously in the US, competing denominations find themselves in free-for-all competition for souls. This may sound unseemly, but it is a fact of American life. This is the direction that the world, especially US society, is heading, and this is not the direction that the Republican Party is heading, and that is why the Republican Party is heading toward marginalization even in the face of regional strength.

The change that the world is experiencing in the large, and which US society is experiencing at a slightly smaller scale, is toward the diversity and fluidity of the Zeitgeist. That is to say, today’s change is toward change itself. Thus to return to our principles enunciated above, the change that the Republicans have made that is contrary to the direction in which other change is moving, is to increasingly identify themselves with an exclusive interest group of self-identified “people of faith” that excludes the diversity and fluidity identified by recent Pew Forum research. The change that the Republicans have failed to make is to develop an inclusive mechanism for accommodating diversity and fluidity. This can still be done, but there is no sign yet that it is being done or will be done The question is not, “Can the Republicans reinvent themselves?” but rather, “Are the Republicans willing to reinvent themselves?”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “More on Republican Disarray”

  1. […] More on Republican Disarray « Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon To say something meaningful about the contemporary Republican Party requires a great deal more detail (hence complexity) and a great deal less generality and abstraction. However, one need not lose sight of principles in delving into … […]

  2. geopolicraticus said

    As I began this post by noting the inadequacy of my earlier discussions, so I have addressed some of the unfinished thoughts in the above post in a later post, Challenge and Response, which can be read here:

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