If some evil mastermind devised a plan to not only destroy Republican hopes for the 2016 Election but also threaten the party’s continued existence, his plot might have included the Paris attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis. It would be hard to compose out of pure fantasy a scenario more likely to inspire Republicans to set our own house on fire.
A party suffering from a slowly expanding demographic nightmare has one hope for survival – develop a sincere appeal to demographic groups beyond the Neo-Confederate base. Instead, we are slipping into a well-worn groove of ethnic scapegoating, walling off our only political escape route. The world has changed since these tactics helped Bush II win in 2004. What worked then is a non-starter with today’s electorate.
Say what you will about the morality of Karl Rove’s 2002-04 plan. As a short-term strategy it was a work of pure political genius. By welding together terrorist fears and religious fundamentalism, Republicans built a dogwhistle agenda that not only split the Democratic coalition; it finally cleaved the Neo-Confederate right in the South away from their last remaining ties to the Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, that’s not all it did. What boosts your performance in the short term can destroy you over time. Just ask a cocaine addict. Rove imagined that after a series of campaigns built on white nationalism he could somehow force a pivot. In 2005 he tried to leverage the base he’d constructed to pass immigrant-friendly legislation. His new base would have none of it and the effort failed miserably. The Party of Lincoln has been shedding its last fragments of support outside of Dixie ever since.
There are good reasons that a political message based on exploiting terrorism fears has lost its resonance. The 9/11 attacks challenged our unconsidered notions of isolation and very briefly heightened our fears of the rest of the world. Neither of these conditions could last.
A decade and a half into a series of catastrophic adventures abroad, we have lost most of our sense of uniqueness. For the first time in our history, a generation is growing up with a sense of belonging to a larger world. In 1990, 11 million Americans held a passport. Now that figure has risen to 125 million. In 1995, 19 million Americans traveled abroad. Last year we hit another annual record as nearly 70 million Americans traveled to another country.
After invisible WMD’s, Abu Ghraib, CIA torture campaigns, the collapse of Iraq, and our growing domestic awareness of our homegrown violence, we are changing. Americans have lost much of the characteristic naiveté that shaped our global image as bright-faced, adorable morons. We are growing up. Atavistic appeals to racism in response to events abroad simply do not move an American electorate as powerfully as they have in the past.
Complicating this picture is the country’s growing demographic complexity. We are no longer a nation of white suburbanites. Ten percent of new marriages in America cross a racial line. Whiteness, as we have come to understand it, is slowly and steadily disappearing as a dominant ethnic definition. With each election that passes, we are less religious, more urban, and less white than the last time around. Political appeals predicated on a country-music definition of American identity are increasingly counter-productive.
What’s worse, Democrats who were shell-shocked by the brazenness of Rove’s strategy fifteen years ago are better positioned now. In the 2002 election the country had not yet been divided by the Neo-Confederate revival. Democrats were defending seats in the South that they had held since time immemorial. The same poison that finished off the Southern Democrat would cripple the Northern Republican. Consult a map, and the long-term problem with Rove’s strategy becomes evident.
Post-Rove, the Democratic Party is far less ideologically splintered than in the past. Its power is concentrated in the segments of the country generating the most wealth and the most Electoral votes. Cut loose from Southern conservatives, Democrats are no longer dithering in the face of Republicans’ dogwhistle appeals. President Obama’s scorching comments on Tuesday presage a line of attack that Republicans have never faced before. It will not be pretty.
What are Republican candidates doing to avoid being tarred as cowards and maneuvered into the jaws of a demographic trap? Nothing. Instead they are trampling each other to stake out the most absurdly anti-immigrant positions they can conceive. So far there are no signs of caution or restraint. Even David Frum is taking the bait.
Since George Bush II left office in 2009, more American civilians have been killed by gun-wielding toddlers than by terrorists. More Americans have died at the hands of white, Christian domestic terrorists than from murderous Muslims. Almost everything we did under Republican leadership to respond to 9/11 made the world less safe for democracy. Seven years of new leadership has almost, but not quite, recovered the ground we lost under Bush. A national debate over the “safety” of the American people is not a debate we should invite on these terms.
It isn’t hard to find concrete examples of the diminishing power of terror-related campaigning. Notice how President Obama’s handling of the 2012 Benghazi attacks destroyed his hope of winning re-election? See how worries over Benghazi have prevented Democrats from nominating Hilary Clinton?
Terror hype no longer moves the political needle. It merely hardens the already-committed base. And right now, the GOP base is too small to win a national election and too fiercely unpopular to form the core of a wider coalition.
Keep hyping the dangers of accepting Syrian refugees, and we will be treated to a broken record of Republican arguments made in the 30’s about the danger of accepting Jewish Holocaust refugees. With a prominent 2016 Republican Presidential contender carrying the name “Bush,” our best hope is to change the subject as soon as possible.