The Revenant Republicans

In August 1992, The New Republic published an article, titled “The End of Conservatism”, which purported to outline how the conservative movement was coming to an end due to party infighting. Although the Republicans lost the presidential election that year, they scored a resounding win in the midterm elections of 1994. Nineteen years later—following the defeat of Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election—a headline in The Huffington Post proclaimed “The End of the GOP”. In 2014, the Republicans enjoyed sweeping victories in the midterm elections. In January 2016, The Atlantic wondered, “Will the Republican Party Survive the 2016 Election?” In November 2016, Donald J. Trump won the presidency, and the Republicans retained control of Congress.

For the past 30 years, pundits have been prophesying the death of the Republican Party, and yet it continues to rebound from the shambles of defeat like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Political commentators have claimed that their successes will not endure because of changing demographics. Their claims about demographics are partly correct. America is diversifying racially and ethnically. At present, the Republicans are predominantly white, especially in comparison to Democrats. According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 41 percent of Democratic voters are non-white, whereas only 14 percent of Republican voters are. But they do not see the Republicans’ ideological diversity and fail to account for it when predicting its future.

In essence, the Republican Party is a coalition of ideologies. Senator Barry Goldwater led the rise of the conservatives with his presidential campaign in 1964. President Ronald Reagan stoked the coals of the “Moral Majority” into a raging fire. Moderates like Senator Howard Baker moved the agendas of both parties closer to the center. President George W. Bush ushered in the era of neoconservatism. Congressman Ron Paul brought libertarianism to the forefront of the Republican Party. Most recently, President Donald Trump has brought new life to the populist movement. It is apparent that since the rise of the modern Republican Party beginning in the late 1960s, there has been no singular, consolidated platform that every individual Republican has adopted.

As a result of this ideological diversity, the GOP has been able to capture voters who may not usually identify as “Republican.” For example, The New York Times found in a post-election survey that 47 percent of hidden Trump supporters—people who voted for Trump but did not publicly say so prior to the election—were moderates. This is a radically different picture than that painted by Secretary Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media. Democratic leaders tried to portray Trump supporters as racist, far-right extremists. But clearly that was not the case. There must have been some element in Trump’s platform—whether it be a rebellion against politically correct culture or the promise bringing blue-collar jobs back to America—that appealed to them.

The magic of the Republican Party is not that all its factions agree with each other, but that its supporters are able to rally around a conservative presidential candidate that incorporates certain aspects of each faction’s interests into his platform. Seventeen presidential candidates debated on August 6, 2015. While they were all competing for the same nomination, their ideologies ranged widely from the libertarianism of Senator Rand Paul to the neoconservatism of Governor Chris Christie to the centrism of Governor John Kasich. Political commentators thought that there was too much infighting, and it would doom the Party in the general election.

Although there were fierce clashes on the debate stage, this diversity was beneficial. Pew Research Center reported in November 2015 that 59 percent of Republicans had “an excellent or good impression of their party’s hopefuls.” At the same time, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders only had 54 percent and 34 percent approval ratings, respectively, according to Gallup. Clinton and Sanders appeared to be very similar ideologically by comparison with the broad conservative spectrum of their opponents. As a result, though, the Republican candidates appealed to a wide group of voters who held variety of beliefs during the primaries and, in turn, increased the favorability of their party.

This loose confederation of ideologies has the ability to considerably grow the GOP in the future. In a 2009 TED Talk, leadership analyst Simon Sinek argued that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.” The ideological diversity of the Republican Party is in part due to the way that it markets itself.

Ultimately, all Republican candidates communicate some form of this message: “I want to be free, and I believe that we need limits on our government to preserve that freedom.” While their specific plans for maintaining freedom vary, this singular message transcends their differences. Donald Trump implemented this strategy. His core message convinced voters that they were dominated by the political and corporate elites who served only their own selfish interest, and that he could fix their woes by fundamentally altering the culture of Washington, D.C. Regardless of whether one agrees with Trump, his message was much more energizing than that of his opponent.

In contrast, the Democratic candidates failed to sell the “why” of their party. Secretary Clinton could explain the fine details of public policy but could communicate neither the promise of equality that President Barack Obama invoked nor the vision of societal progress championed by President John F. Kennedy. Vice President Al Gore and Governor Michael Dukakis suffered from the same shortfalls in their presidential campaigns. On balance, the Republican Party has been better at conveying its core beliefs to voters in recent years.

Uniting around a common cause, such as freedom, or finding a common enemy, like “big government”, is a strategy much more effective at mobilizing voters than identity politics. When the Democratic Party first employed this tactic, it was extremely successful in that it made people feel that it was their destiny to adopt the Party’s beliefs because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or some combination of these. But as these categories have grown narrower, the strategy has become divisive and exclusionary. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel cast off the shackles of toxic identity politics when he proclaimed to the Republican National Convention: “I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American.” It does not matter whether a candidate is a libertarian or moderate conservative; in the long run, voters will be more likely to rally around him or her if they propound a message of freedom instead of telling them how to vote based upon their identity. This will be the key to the Republicans’ future successes.

Ideological diversity has the potential to reach new voters who defy demographic trends. Republicans may not be able to depend upon moderate voters every four years, but they could win over enough to score victories for crucial elections like 2016. Similarly, the strongly Catholic Hispanic community votes for the Democrats at the present time; however, they could be peeled off if the religious right or libertarian factions gained control of the GOP.

The shifting control of power between the ideological factions within the Republican Party has guaranteed its survival for the past thirty years and will continue to do so in the future. Even though commentators frequently forecast its inevitable demise, it is unlikely that it will come anytime soon. For just as a revenant rises from the grave, so too does the Republican Party from its ever-“inevitable” death.

 

Liam O’Connor is a freshman from Wyoming, Delaware. He can be reached at lpo@princeton.edu.

 

Photo by Gage Skidmore (Flickr: Ron Paul) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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