The Lost Party
The strangest primary season in memory reveals a GOP that’s tearing itself apart.
On a biting, brittle mid-February morning 30 miles north of Detroit, Rick Santorum plants his flag in a patch of turf as politically fertile as exists in these United States. For three decades, Macomb County, Michigan, has been both a bellwether and a battleground, as its fabled Reagan Democrats first abandoned the party of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis, then gradually drifted back in support of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. Today in Macomb, the action is as much on the Republican as the Democratic side, with the county GOP riven by a split between mainstream and tea-party cadres. And yet in demographic terms, Macomb remains Macomb: overwhelmingly white and mostly non-college-educated, heavily Catholic and staunchly socially conservative, economically anti-globalist and culturally anti-swell.
All of which is to say that when Santorum takes the podium to address a Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition rally in Shelby Charter Township, the 1,500 souls he sees before him are his kind of people—and soon enough he is speaking their language. To explain how America has always differed from other nations, Santorum invokes the Almighty: “We believe … we are children of a loving God.” To elucidate the evils of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and cap-and-trade, he inveighs against liberal elites: “They want to control you, because like the kings of old, they believe they know better than you.” To highlight what’s at stake in 2012, he unfurls a grand (and entirely farkakte) historical flourish: “This decision will be starker than at any time since the election of 1860”—you know, the one featuring Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on the eve of the Civil War.
But before the nation faces that decision, Michigan has its own to make: between him and Mitt Romney in the Republican primary that takes place on February 28. “Do you want somebody who can go up against Barack Obama, take him on on the big issues … or do you want someone who can just manage Washington a little bit better?” Santorum asks, as the audience rises cheering to its feet. “That’s your choice. What does Michigan have to say?”
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2012 or Never
Republicans are worried this election could be their last chance to stop history. This is fear talking. But not paranoia.
Of the various expressions of right-wing hysteria that have flowered over the past three years—goldbuggery, birtherism, death panels at home and imaginary apology tours by President Obama abroad—perhaps the strain that has taken deepest root within mainstream Republican circles is the terror that the achievements of the Obama administration may be irreversible, and that the time remaining to stop permanent nightfall is dwindling away.
“America is approaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course,” announces the dark, old-timey preamble to Paul Ryan’s “The Roadmap Plan,” a statement of fiscal principles that shaped the budget outline approved last spring by 98 percent of the House Republican caucus. Rick Santorum warns his audiences, “We are reaching a tipping point, folks, when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority.” Even such a sober figure as Mitt Romney regularly says things like “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and that this election “could be our last chance.”
The Republican Party is in the grips of many fever dreams. But this is not one of them. To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis—that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care—is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.
The GOP has reason to be scared. Obama’s election was the vindication of a prediction made several years before by journalist John Judis and political scientist Ruy Teixeira in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Despite the fact that George W. Bush then occupied the White House, Judis and Teixeira argued that demographic and political trends were converging in such a way as to form a natural-majority coalition for Democrats.
The Republican Party had increasingly found itself confined to white voters, especially those lacking a college degree and rural whites who, as Obama awkwardly put it in 2008, tend to “cling to guns or religion.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had increased their standing among whites with graduate degrees, particularly the growing share of secular whites, and remained dominant among racial minorities. As a whole, Judis and Teixeira noted, the electorate was growing both somewhat better educated and dramatically less white, making every successive election less favorable for the GOP. And the trends were even more striking in some key swing states. Judis and Teixeira highlighted Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, with skyrocketing Latino populations, and Virginia and North Carolina, with their influx of college-educated whites, as the most fertile grounds for the expanding Democratic base.
Obama’s victory carried out the blueprint. Campaign reporters cast the election as a triumph of Obama’s inspirational message and cutting-edge organization, but above all his sweeping win reflected simple demography. Every year, the nonwhite proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point—meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 percent, a huge amount in a closely divided country. One measure of how thoroughly the electorate had changed by the time of Obama’s election was that, if college-educated whites, working-class whites, and minorities had cast the same proportion of the votes in 1988 as they did in 2008, Michael Dukakis would have, just barely, won. By 2020—just eight years away—nonwhite voters should rise from a quarter of the 2008 electorate to one third. In 30 years, nonwhites will outnumber whites.
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