The folks at Facebook are worried. The key demographic that drives all American commerce – teenagers, and those who wish they were still teenagers, and those who think they somehow still are teenagers – has decided Facebook is for old farts. Twitter is still cool, sort of, and there’s Instagram and this and that, with more alternative social networks to come. Facebook, however, has been taken over by baby boomers – and that would be the AARP crowd, connecting with folks they once knew in junior high in the fifties. There are lots of posts about the grandkids, along with attempts to remember good times way back when, which usually fail. Too much time has passed, and memory is always selective, and people change – or maybe they become what they were supposed to become sooner or later. Politics never came up in junior high – that was stuff the parents thought about, and thus boring, which is the opposite of cool. Now it comes up all the time on Facebook, and those of us who were boom babies discover the cool kid from history class now posts about how no one is going to take his guns, damn it, or how Obama should be lynched, and the guy who sat next to him, drawing doodles of hotrods, now thinks the rich should all be taken out back and shot, and thinks Obama is a damned Republican tool of corporate interests. It gets pretty heated, and it’s no wonder today’s teenagers will have nothing to do with such things. They’ve gone elsewhere.
The political divide is wide too, mirroring the partisan nastiness that has developed since Newt Gingrich once said this – “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”
That’s from 1978 and the Republicans took his advice, up until George Bush came up with his Compassionate Conservatism, something which conservatives said wasn’t really conservative and liberals pointed out wasn’t all that compassionate. In fact, as with so much else, no one knew what the hell the guy was talking about, but in this case that might have been the whole point. Compassionate Conservatism sounded kind of cool and got him elected, sort of – the Supreme Court had to decide that 2000 election. But it didn’t matter. We ended up with Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, and aging baby boomers having at each other on Facebook. Compassionate Conservatism is the Oldsmobile of American politics, no longer in production, an abandoned brand. Nastiness is now the order of the day. Fox News revels in it, and Rush Limbaugh talks of sluts who dare to take birth control pills, and a Republican candidate just called for Obama to be lynched – although the Secret Service paid him a visit and the party thinks he might want to give up his run for office. That’s not the sort of thing you Tweet on Martin Luther King Day. Newt may have been right, but there’s no need to go all crazy with the nastiness. One must practice focused strategic nastiness.
That pops up in boomer posts on Facebook, with thousands of now quite conservative boomers trying to find the right formulation, and one formulation that’s posted and reported these days is this – “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong… nor will we let you!”
Every baby boomer on Facebook has seen that one pop up a few times a day recently, and that gets to the heart of the matter, to what divides conservatives and liberals, or progressives, or whatever they’re calling themselves these days. Those words posit that life is a zero-sum game, that the success of any other diminishes your success. Finding a way to make all sorts of people successful dilutes the whole notion of success, which means that all the talk about income inequality and the social safety net is nonsense. Any attempt at strengthening the weak necessarily weakens the strong, and they’re getting damned tired of that – and of course any attempt at strengthening the weak weakens the nation too. If anything, the weak should be systematically humiliated, because if they can’t cut it that’s their own damned problem – and that leads to all the talk of Makers and Takers – while there’s a totally different assumption one can make. That would be that life’s not a zero-sum game, that the more people who become successful, the more successful everyone becomes, even the rich One Percent crowd. Hell, there’d be more customers for all the goods and services that few can afford now, and the economy would boom. The successful might want to chip in a bit more, as an investment, to assure millions of more customers line up to buy whatever nonsense their corporation is trying to sell. That’s why Henry Ford appalled every conservative in America and decided to pay his workers two or three times what anyone else was paying – so they’d be able to buy the cars Ford was cranking out. He was creating a market, and made himself a fortune. Had Ford decided to say he’d keep it all, every penny, we’d still be riding horses. Life, then, isn’t a zero-sum game. Strengthen the weak and everyone wins, and those at the top, who pay a bit more in taxes, get back far more than they’ve ever paid in. It all depends upon the assumption you make.
That also doesn’t matter. The underlying game theory isn’t the point in politics. The point is winning elections. There’s no way to implement either argument unless folks send you to Washington, and that’s the problem that the Republicans face now. In the brief period when the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, with Obama in the White House, they couldn’t stop the Affordable Care Act. That passed, and they still don’t have the votes to repeal that thing that rests on the theory that life isn’t a zero-sum game, that strengthening the weak is good for everyone, even the strong. All their focused strategic nastiness did them no good at all.
They tried to refocus that, but that didn’t work out:
The Republican Party’s image has changed little in the year since GOP Chairman Reince Priebus published his prescription for broadening the party’s appeal despite its investment in outreach to the racial minorities, women and gay voters who backed Democrats decisively in 2012.
“The issue that remains an open book for the Republicans is: What is the character of the party?” said Ari Fleischer, a top aide to President George W. Bush, who helped author the report of the Growth and Opportunity Project – “Are we a more inclusive and welcoming party yet?”
As the Republican National Committee opens its winter meetings Wednesday, the party is counting on the political geography and expected lower turnout of the 2014 midterm elections to give them control of the Senate. If that happens, Fleischer said, it would be a “false narcotic” for the larger problems facing a party that has lost the national popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
Yes, all the new voter-ID laws and restrictions on early voting, and Sunday voting, and all the gerrymandering that created hundreds of safe Republican districts and a few very large Democratic districts where those folks could be isolated and contained, will only work for so long. Sooner or later they’ll be outnumbered:
Since losing the 2012 presidential election, Republicans have continued to slip in public approval. According to a recent Gallup poll, 32 percent have a favorable opinion of the GOP now, compared with 43 percent immediately after President Barack Obama’s re-election. Democrats were viewed favorably by 42 percent, also down from a year ago. … Nationally, Obama carried 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. In New York, it was 89 percent. In Florida, it was 60 percent.
There’s a trend here, and at Salon, Brian Beutler argues that it’s worse than they think:
The Republican Party’s total failure to make even cosmetic changes to its image and policy agenda last year has at this point become the kind of cliché-cum-running joke that often attaches itself to accepted truisms in American politics. Like chucking about Bill Clinton’s inability to contain himself in the company of women, or noting that Dick Cheney actually ran the show during George W. Bush’s first term, observing that Republicans have failed to moderate or reinvent themselves after losing badly in 2012 is the kind of thing even sympathetic political wise men can say to signal that they get it. That in what was a tough year for President Obama, Republicans screwed up too.
Of course they did, but they couldn’t help themselves:
When it became clear about a year ago that Republican leaders would have a much harder time advancing immigration reform than they realized – that GOP activists and conservatives were livid about the idea that Republicans were going to help illegal immigrants gain citizenship – it started to look like the party had an insoluble problem on its hands. Watching Republicans attempt to broaden their appeal to growing, traditionally Democratic constituencies has been like watching someone try to cover a bedroom floor with a poorly cut carpet, fastening it into one corner but pulling it out of the others in the process.
They can’t connect with traditionally Democratic constituencies without breaking connection with their reliable supporters. They can tug in every possible direction, but at some point they need to acknowledge that the carpet’s too small.
For a long time now, people have argued that the solution to the GOP’s problems will resemble the slow, painful, but steady moderation process Democrats went through in the 1980s and through the Clinton presidency. The adherents to this theory include Barack Obama himself, as he told the New Yorker’s David Remnick during an interview for a new profile:
“There were times in our history where Democrats didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the concerns of middle-class folks or working-class folks, black or white. And this was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party—to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit. And I think that the Democratic Party is better for it. But that was a process. And I am confident that the Republicans will go through that same process.”
If the theory were correct, you’d think repeated election defeats would have set the process in motion already. Maybe a third defeat, in 2016, will catalyze a more rapid transition.
The theory isn’t correct, because the problem the Republicans face isn’t much like what the Democrats once faced:
Democrats didn’t have an easy go of it, exactly, but they were able to modify their positions across a range of issues without, for instance, creating a left-wing-primary perpetual motion machine, or giving rise to a permanent population of resentful protest voters. Maybe Republicans can do the same. But the 2013 experience suggests they are so in hock to aging, white, conservative reactionaries that taking on new debts with minorities, gay people, and single women and so on entails the risk of defaulting on the old ones.
Another way of saying this is that Republicans have depleted most of their crossover potential. And that’s a pretty novel problem for a modern American political party. It’s manifest in the GOP establishment’s pusillanimous relationship with conservatives. They didn’t cry “Hallelujah” when “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson preached a bigoted sermon about gay people and the Jim Crow South, but they also notably didn’t treat his remarks as an opportunity to instigate a Sister Souljah-style confrontation with the right. To the contrary, they rallied to Robertson’s defense and to a defense of conservative revanchism in general. And when they have mustered the courage to confront the extreme elements in their party, it’s been over tactics, money, campaigns, rhetoric and other shades of window dressing. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will (finally!) criticize moneyed pressure groups for misleading voters and attacking Republicans, and they’ll dump on unrepentant hard-liners when they say insensitive but revealing things about gay people, poor people and ethnic minorities. But they haven’t cut the Gordian knot by admitting that these people’s motivating beliefs have failed or been rejected by the public. It’s a consultant-class conflict, not the deeper turbulence that would accompany an ideological course correction.
Beutler doesn’t see that happening:
If being more welcoming to women and minorities is too difficult, then Republicans can try embracing ideas to help the poor and middle class first. But that just proves political memories are short-lived. Republican leaders settled on immigration reform as their one big overture precisely because they thought it would be the easiest gesture to make to the voters who rejected them without antagonizing the ones who didn’t. The GOP donor class hates taxing wealthy people to subsidize takers, but supports immigration reform uniquely among social issues for opportunistic reasons; and of all the Republican Party’s potential growth constituencies, working immigrants are the most sympathetic to conservative voters who oppose abortion and marriage equality out of religious principle.
So immigration reform is the greatest common factor – and that has been on a breathing-machine for half a year and counting.
Meanwhile tax increases and new social spending are completely out of the question. House Republicans have basically admitted they won’t hold a vote on Senate-passed legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination against gay people. And as for women?
“A faction of conservatives will introduce a resolution at this week’s meeting of the Republican National Committee urging GOP candidates to speak up about abortion and respond forcefully against Democratic efforts to paint them as anti-woman extremists,” CNN reported Tuesday.
Yep, the current thinking is that the centerpiece of all Republican efforts going forward should not be the repeal of Obamacare, but rather, the end of legalized abortion, because women and their doctors can’t be trusted with such decisions, even if some women will die – and they’ll probably add a platform that opposes all birth control and anything like family planning – to show how much they respect women. And that’s underway:
A Republican member of Congress says in a recently released book that a wife is to “voluntarily submit” to her husband, but that it doesn’t make her inferior to him.
Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R-N.M.) memoir, “Just Fly the Plane, Stupid!” was released last month. Its publication and his acknowledgment in the book of the controversial nature of the submission debate come as the Republican Party reevaluates how it talks to and about women.
In the book, Pearce recounts his rise to owning an oil-field service company and winning election to Congress. In the book, the Vietnam War veteran says that both the military chain of command and the family unit need a structure in which everyone plays his or her role.
He said that, in his family’s experience, this meant that his wife, Cynthia, would submit to him and he would lead.
This is a mess, and Ed Kilgore summarizes it this way:
Anyone who reads a lot of political commentary is aware there’s a broad division in opinion about what’s going on in the Republican Party these days. One camp holds that all the radicalism and restlessness associated with the Tea Party Movement (and before that, the Christian Right) is ultimately insignificant because the GOP is an elite-driven, business-dominated enterprise that’s willing to let conservative activists and their rank-and-file foot soldiers have the keys for a joy-ride now and then, but is ultimately in charge and is ultimately pragmatic and “centrist” in its outlook. The other camp holds that the mirage isn’t radical grassroots power but elite control and “pragmatism.”
The real mirage is the whole idea that the pragmatic folks are in charge:
This should be kept carefully in mind when more difficult issue-position maneuvers – i.e., over entitlements, poverty programs, abortion, foreign policy, same-sex marriage, taxes – are put out there as potential image-changers for the GOP. If GOP elites, with the full backing of the business community and many conservative religious leaders in tow, can’t succeed in convincing “the base” and its ideological shock troops to pursue the ripe, low-hanging fruit of a bigger share of the Latino vote with immigration policies accepted by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, why does anyone imagine the tougher cases are going to go well?
There will be no eventual move to the center, because the party has no center anymore, and the blogger BooMan puts it this way:
I think the Republican Party has outlived its usefulness. I don’t see it morphing back into something socially acceptable to decent people. I don’t see it organically fixing itself the way you would expect a losing party to. It just needs to die. I don’t see why the GOP should even be considered a major party in Massachusetts or California. Why attach that label to yourself if you’re running for office in those states?
Let the South and the prairies have the GOP. Give everyone else something real to choose.
Sure, but John Sides sees how the Republicans could actually win in 2016:
It is far too early to do a formal forecast for 2016. The economic and political conditions in that year will be paramount. But given that at least some in the GOP appear pessimistic as of today, it is worth asking: If economic and political conditions in 2016 were the same as they are today, what would happen? So assume that Obama’s approval rating is about 41 percent. Assume that GDP has grown 1.6 percent in the first two quarters of 2016. And, of course, no incumbent will be running.
Based on those assumptions, the model predicts that the Republican Party has a 64 percent chance of winning the presidency. That is far from 100 percent, of course. At the same time, it doesn’t suggest much cause for GOP pessimism in January 2014 – maybe even some Democratic pessimism, in fact.
Yeah, but if Republicans do retake the White House, Jonathan Chait predicts they’ll simply stop being Republicans then:
Liberating themselves from austerity will allow them to back away from their brutal campaign of confiscating food stamps, Pell grants, and low-income tax credits, and still hand out tax cuts for the 1 percent. Tax cuts for one and all! That, after all, was the Bush formula: small elements of programmatic reform for low-income workers, stapled onto the agenda of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, all costs deferred.
A Republican Party that reprises the Bush era was a grim and unfathomable prospect in 2008, and is not exactly palatable now. But in the wake of the party’s thrall to Ayn Rand and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, a return to Bushism sounds almost comforting.
And where will that leave all the aging baby boomers now arguing on the now teenager-free Facebook? If the Republicans aren’t going to be grumpy old men – aging, white, conservative reactionaries – what are all the other aging, white, conservative reactionaries out there supposed to do? But Chait is wrong. People become what they were supposed to become all along, sooner or later, and then they’ll never change again. As it is with your old junior high friends, so it is with the Republican Party.