In the wake of the election results, there have been a lot of calls for the Republican Party to wake up to the need to change--to open up, to modernize, to moderate, whatever--to adapt to changing demographic and cultural realities. Certainly, the party faces poor long-term prospects if it continues to be rejected by a large majority of young voters, overwhelming majorities of Latino and Asian voters, and practically all African-Americans. This harsh reality is increasingly recognized by all but the most hard-bitten, deluded partisans.
Of course, a major obstacle to change resides in the fact that a large part, if not a predominant part, of the Republican Party “base”--the people who vote in primary elections--are indeed hard-bitten, deluded partisans. Mitt Romney in 2012 didn’t adopt the far-right positions he did because he thought they would appeal in the general election; he did so because it was the only way to overcome the Gingrichs, Perrys and Santorums of his party. Aspiring Republican reformers would be similarly constrained. No one wants to go the way of Indiana’s Sen. Richard Lugar, a traditional conservative who lost his primary battle to a red meat rightist.
But even beyond the problem of the base, the Republican Party faces a more fundamental dilemma, one which soul-searching Republicans cannot explicitly acknowledge and which has gone largely unnoted by observers outside the party as well. Republicans have a real tradeoff to consider. They have been winning elections for over 40 years by exploiting what can broadly be defined as cultural resentment--resentment above all of blacks, but also of unruly young people, insubordinate women, gays, secularists and other intruders into White Christian America’s traditional image of itself. How does the party of cultural resentment become a party of tolerance and openness without giving up on a major component of its mass appeal?
Cultural resentment has been such an important basis for Republican electoral success because if every election were fought only on economic policy issues, the Republicans would almost invariably lose. A party that doggedly represents the interests of the affluent upper crust of the electorate needs to deflect attention from that core mission: it needs wedge issues. In the years immediately after World War II, after the New Deal had established a clear class basis for partisan conflict in the United States, the Republicans were able to cross-cut that conflict initially by attacking their opponents as soft on communism. Republicans re-gained the presidency in 1952 with the help of “communism, corruption and Korea.” By the end of the 1960s, with the development of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, race and later “family values” joined anti-communism and national security in the Republicans’ repertory of wedge issues. In the next few decades, even as the party moved progressively to the right, it was able to veil its commitment to elitist economics with populist appeals to cultural resentment and xenophobic fears.
President Obama apparently has neutralized the Republicans’ exploitation of national security issues. If the Republicans now genuinely embrace a multicultural, racially diverse, essentially secular America, how do they seek electoral advantage--what’s left for them? The people who used to be called “Reagan Democrats” have no objective interest in and little attraction to the free market fundamentalism to which both Republican elites and base are firmly attached. A broadening of the party’s appeal risks eroding the cultural basis for the Republicans’ success with white working class voters. The pluses and minuses of that tradeoff are by no means easy to calculate. The dilemma is no less real for the fact that no Republican can openly acknowledge it.