The GOP and The Aging Of Their Ideas

by George Kennedy on October 11, 2012

The GOP and The Aging Of Their Ideas


I recently learned that the Republican Party today, primarily suburban and rural, is enjoying declining favorability ratings in nationwide polls. The same polls show that their ideas and policy prescriptions, on Medicare and Social Security, for example, lacked currency with the majority of those polled. Polls, however, are a snapshot of a moment in time. Public opinion is volatile, therefore it is wise to view poll results as just a snapshot.

To be fair, the GOP does lack strong, visionary leadership capable of uniting the disparate, sometimes warring groups vying for preeminence within the party. It can be argued, therefore, that the GOP could broaden its appeal were it not for its slavish fealty to a platform of ideas mired in a past that can not return.

The current Republican Party is like the 1925 Scopes Trial. It represents the age of resistance. The trial was a fierce conflict between 20th century modernity and entrenched traditionalism – a battle of growing American urbanism against rural conservatism.

Some background: If the 31,000 words long party platform ratified at the recent Republican convention is a statement of the party’s core values, then the GOP could be perceived as a misfit in the 21st century. The party’s insular focus, social policy preferences, and fear of the country’s changing demography limits its appeal to those who yearn for a return to an era when, for example, race alone elevated the average American male beyond the loftiest ambition of any person of color. It mattered not that your ancestors may have been indentured servants – as some whites were earlier in our history. At least you were not a person of color. That attitude prevailed well into the 20th century.

The 2012 crop of Republican presidential candidates were socially and psychologically ill at east with the fastest growing group in our country: Mexican-Americans. Their views were “Crush the Dream Act! Build more and higher fences on our southern border. Legitimize racial profiling Arizona-style and Mitt Romney’s preference for “Self-deportation.”

Recall that the primary target group within the electorate for each of the GOP candidates was white southern males (patrons of NASCAR and the World Wresting Federation), working class whites – largely suburban and rural, the 1 percent, and elderly whites. Here is the flaw in that strategy. The youngest, most educated, and more ethnically diverse elements of the population inhabit our largest cities – those with populations over 1 million.

In a recent piece by Kevin Baker in the New York Times, he traced the historical anti-urban bias of the GOP. Yet it is cities with their burgeoning clusters of talent, ambition and brains that could power small businesses and the innovation this country needs to maintain pace with other mega-cities across the globe. The anti-urban bias of the GOP explains why inner-city populations are the most estranged from Republican ideas.

Today, four-fifths of the American population lives in an urban area – the highest percentage in our history. One in 12 Americans lives in a city of over a million people. Yet, each Republican presidential candidate dutifully denigrated African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, and persons of Arab/Middle East descent – those likely to populate urban communities. Republicans are equally contemptuous toward women.

The GOP has demonstrated an alarming degree of comfort with the notion that race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation should determine place in society, a stance that puts them at odds with half of the population and its fastest growing, most diverse elements. Women (who comprise 50 percent of the population and the workforce) are considered no more than chattel – education and professional status notwithstanding. Examine the legislative record of state legislatures controlled by Republicans. They do not take a backseat to their cousins in Speaker Boehner’s House of Representatives.

Republicans support “personhood” laws that criminalize in-vitro fertilization among other widely-accepted procedures that women require. Moreover, they would redefine rape to preserve male dominance over women and their most basic healthcare and contraception decisions while opposing abortion even after rape or incest.

Republicans are also opposed to investing in public education and infrastructure e.g, highways, water systems, bridges, schools and broadband connectivity. They would privatize Medicare and Social Security, and subject millions of Americans to a Medicaid Program administered solely by the states and shaped by the priorities of locally-elected officials tethered only to political ambition.

Republicans blatantly engage in voter fraud, or condone broad-based voter suppression tactics to deny the right to vote of millions of Americans whose only “sin” may be to oppose them on philosophical grounds.

This is the 21st century; the world is changing rapidly and the GOP is fearful of inevitable change. The presumed prerogatives of white males are no longer sacrosanct in the eyes of a changing population. Power, leadership, privilege, position and political spoils must be shared; not necessarily equitably – but shared. Examine the Republican response to our first elected African American president. The rancid racial animus directed towards a sitting president evokes the worst memories of the 1960s.

The election of Barack Obama launched the 21st century version of Paul Revere throughout GOP land to sound the alarm: the future is coming and it may not look like us. Let’s not forget the cabal of Republican leaders who met on Inauguration Day 2009 to plot the downfall of a newly sworn-in president. Is there a precedent for this in living memory?

Republicans are also estranged from a fundamental belief that built America: Before we discovered the vastness of our natural resources, we considered our greatest natural resource to be our people – including slavery, the spine of the southern economy. We subscribed deeply to the notion that everyone in this country (except African-Americans and Native Americans) must be afforded the opportunity to develop their potential through equal and universal access to high-quality, low-cost education. Hence, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 (federal legislation that deputized one university per state with the mission of community outreach in academic fields such as agriculture, engineering, defense and more).

Today, the GOP would burden an emerging generation of college students with a trillion-dollar debt overhang to preserve the profits of financial institutions who assume no risks to disburse federally funded student loans.

The Republican Party is also a misfit in a changing global community as well. Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution reminds us of a 21st century geopolitical reality that has sent the GOP in search of the smelling salts: “The U.S. can no longer dictate the way and has to try and lead by consensus.” What greater threat is there to the notion of American exceptionalism than a path to global domination encumbered by pesky alliances and compromise?

This country’s strength, resilience, and success is a testament to a longstanding partnership between government and the private sector. It was this partnership that combined to win 2 world wars, lead us out of the Great Depression, and build a national infrastructure that was a model for the rest of a world emerging from centuries of colonialism; the oppression of Fascism and Communism and, the rubble of a world devastated by global conflict.

This public-private partnership is under assault by Republicans, conservatives, and the right-wing. The 1 per-centers provide financial support for this assault, the exceptions being legislation that preserves corporate welfare, tax breaks, and preferential treatment for their class under the law.

Paul Ryan, the GOP’s VP candidate, refers to a country of “makers” and “takers.” Why this artificial bifurcation? Without a skilled labor force, “Makers” become redundant. Conservatives like Ryan fail to acknowledge that today’s “Takers” were once “Makers” that contributed a lifetime of time, talent, energy, and personal resources to provide for a dignified retirement. Moreover, Americans also support the tradition that we should care for those less able; the infirm, those temporarily unemployed, and those that have worn the uniform and borne the sting of battle. We don’t label them “Takers.” We were a more compassionate society until about three decades ago when the Reagan Administration launched the first of a sustained wave of attacks on the middle class.

It is the aging ideas of the GOP today that makes them unique, feared, and less desirable as a governing party. They still long for the past and fear the future. Change is hard for Republicans unless they can dictate the shape and pace of that change.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Republicans want to strengthen their brand as the loyal opposition to their Democratic cousins. If so, they need to get real. The numbers are not on their side. The white percentage of the population has declined from slightly above 69 percent to slightly over 67 percent. You then need to break down the numbers among urban, suburban, and rural populations according to their historical voting patterns.

The Republican Party bears half the responsibility for the future stability of this country. However, the maintenance of stability will require the GOP to retool their strategic vision by adopting a more pragmatic approach to consensus building. Their current strategy of “My way” or permanent political gridlock is exhausting and fosters a deep pessimism regarding the future.

Every day, as historian Barbara Fields said in the Ken Burns series, Civil War, we fight a civil war in this country for what is correct and fair.

Kevin Johnson, Mayor of Sacramento, referring to gridlock in Washington, said “Mayors don’t have the luxury of being able to avoid common sense in running cities.” Our elected officials, especially the obstructionists in Congress, would do well to adopt a similar attitude toward governance.

We live in a complex and dynamic world and if America is to retain its ability to serve as a moral force against global extremism, reclaim our position as the world’s most dynamic and innovative economy, and develop the preferred solutions to the most vexing challenges of this new century, we will have to bridge the political divide that threatens permanent polarization in this country. The GOP should move away from sowing fear and mistrust of government to fostering a climate in which the people, the private sector, and government combine to create the most powerful and respected democracy ever.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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