“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham
Inside today’s GOP, racism is like global warming. It’s an inescapable reality with powerful implications for our daily lives that is too ideologically upsetting for Republicans to even acknowledge, much less address. Like climate denial, the party’s grimly determined attachment to the remnants of white supremacy is going to cease to be viable soon. The demographics are relentless.
So what comes next? If reason wins out, Republicans will soon begin to build, or perhaps it’s better to say remember, a governing agenda independent of white racial paranoia. Reality-focused policies aimed at strengthening commerce, making government more authentically accountable, and fostering peace and stability through strength and wise alliances are sitting in the neglected back rooms of the Republican enterprise waiting to be dusted off and updated.
No one can promise that reason will win. Lincoln’s appeal to the better angels of our nature is 150 years old and we are still waiting on those angels. Today’s Republican Party might not pivot back toward reason, retreating instead into a Southern and rural regional fortress. What happens to the GOP in the 2016 and 2018 elections will likely determine whether the party recovers its sanity or retreats for the long term into a purely regional, obstructionist role.
Restoring a governing agenda that can win nationally will not be easy. The raw materials are there, but institutional forces inside the party are hard-wired to resist it.
Since the late Sixties conservative politicians have been busy retrofitting older Republican themes to make them fit into an increasingly sophisticated racist agenda. Every traditional element of the party has been reshaped by the demands of the Southern Strategy. Whatever cannot be fashioned around white cultural appeals, like the party’s old urban agenda and its appeal to women, has simply been jettisoned.
Fiscal responsibility has morphed into endless tax cuts. Commercial priorities have been entirely reduced to a program aimed at crippling federal authority. The Republican “traditional values” agenda has been re-imagined as an alternative explanation for the economic suffering of oppressed minorities.
Under the friendly green skies of the conservative alternate universe, racism ceased to exist one afternoon in 1964 when President Johnson signed a certain (ill-advised, according to some) law. Since that afternoon all subsequent inequality between whites and minority groups can conveniently be traced to their own sexual immorality, government dependence, and impiety. As a consequence, any and every reference to continuing racism is itself racism.
The process of grafting Southern racist fears onto the Republican agenda has gone unchallenged for so long that few people can even remember a Republican big-city mayor. Many voters in the prime of life cannot recall the days when Republicans dominated politics in New York, Connecticut, California, and Illinois. If a new generation of blue state Republican figures can quickly rise to prominence at the national level, it may be possible to start righting the party in time. That outcome is not assured.
Reason might not win. The collapse of the party’s influence at the national level might not be enough to change the party’s trajectory. Dog-whistle racist politics as perfected by Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Mike Lee might prevail over the older Hamiltonian commercial values represented by figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.
For the moment at least, we must recognize that the Perry wing of the party is winning. Across Dixie and the rural west they have mastered the art of white racial solidarity, racking up well over seventy percent of the white vote while Republicans slowly disappear from urban and northern landscapes.
A strategy aimed at consolidating national power by appealing to the racial fears of Southern whites has reached the end of its effectiveness. That does not mean we will stop using it.
It is entirely possible that a perverse new version of the Republican Party, the mirror image of its anti-slavery, Hamiltonian heritage may control its brand going forward. Political outcomes over the next four years may determine whether the Republican Party regains its national footing or retreats into a strategy of regional resistance with dangerous consequences for the country.