The GOP's White Men Problem

You know the parable of the scorpion and the frog: The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river, and the frog says, "But what if you sting me?" The scorpion replies, "Why would I sting you? If I do that we'll both drown." Then midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. "Why?" the frog cries, as they begin to sink to their doom. "It's my nature," replies the scorpion.

I keep thinking of this as in one election after another Republicans lash out at one large group of American voters after another in the hopes of holding on to the affections of the older white men who form the party's base. The people who run the party know that their continual efforts to stir up resentment, bitterness, and at times outright hatred at people who are not older white men do profound long-term damage to the party. But as a collectivity, the GOP just can't help itself. It's their nature.

This is a topic Jonathan Chait takes up in an essay in New York magazine, in which he argues that 2012 is the Republicans' last chance to hold on to power before their shrinking base undoes them:

In the wake of [Bush's] defeat, strategists like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy urged the GOP to abandon its stubborn opposition to [immigration] reform. Instead, incredibly, the party adopted a more hawkish position, with Republicans in Congress rejecting even quarter-loaf compromises like the Dream Act and state-level officials like Jan Brewer launching new restrictionist crusades. This was, as Thomas Edsall writes in The Age of Austerity, "a major gamble that the GOP can continue to win as a white party despite the growing strength of the minority vote.

None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible. The bulk of the campaign has taken the form of throwing up an endless series of tedious bureaucratic impediments to voting in many states—ending same-day voter registration, imposing onerous requirements upon voter-registration drives, and upon voters themselves. "Voting liberal, that's what kids do," overshared William O’Brien, the New Hampshire House speaker, who had supported a bill to prohibit college students from voting from their school addresses. What can these desperate, rearguard tactics accomplish? They can make the electorate a bit older, whiter, and less poor. They can, perhaps, buy the Republicans some time.

It isn't just clinging to a shrinking portion of the electorate that does the Republicans harm, it's the way they do it. By focusing on resentments and animus, they make their politics more anti than pro, the consequence of which is that you only win some of your target group (whites), while alienating all or most of the groups you're setting yourself in opposition to (blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, non-religious people, young people, women...). And while it's difficult to make a particular portion of the electorate love you, it's pretty darn easy to make them conclude that you hate them, and thus they shouldn't even consider voting for you.

It's important to remember that this is seldom a coherent, organized strategy. When George W. Bush was in office, one smart operative, Karl Rove, could to a large degree dictate the party's direction. But today, any bunch of yahoos can hijack the party and set it moving down a politically dangerous path. Bush can spend years courting the Hispanic vote, and then when he's ready to leave office, the guys trying to succeed him get into a nasty fight about who hates immigrants more, and all that work is undone, the result being that Barack Obama beats John McCain among Hispanics by 36 points (and then four years later, they do it all again). A bunch of crazy legislators in Virginia introduces a bill mandating transvaginal ultrasounds before a woman can get an abortion, and before you know it the whole party has jumped aboard an anti-contraception train, even though anyone in the party with a brain knows it's politically disastrous. A crazy primary process ends up with Rick freakin' Santorum, perhaps the most personally unpleasant, Puritanical national figure in American politics, becoming one of the faces of the party.

In short, the incentives to appeal to the resentments of its base are strong enough that the party goes through campaigns telling one group after another, "We can't stand you, so don't even think about voting for us."

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