Two intriguing articles came out this week, both with implications for whether or not the GOP will continue to face daunting demographic challenges at the voting booth.
On the one hand, The Economist reports that the heavily Democratic millenials “are turning their back on politics” and will be increasingly unlikely to vote and participate in traditional civic functions in the future. On the other hand, Politico reports that the GOP is literally dying off and could leave Dems with a 2.5 million voter advantage in the next election.
How can one read these tea leaves? Moreover, what can be done to keep the GOP from aging into oblivion?
The Politico essay argues that the Republican Party faces a perfect storm of challenges. Its base is “getting older and whiter” and the party attracts fewer and fewer first-time voters.
As the country urbanizes, many Republican enclaves are rural and in decline. Millenials, who first voted for Barack Obama, are a “reliable” bloc, voting two-thirds of the time for the Democrats. The Politico essay suggests that the GOP needs to find new groups to appeal to if it is going to win national elections.
The Economistis more concerned with civic engagement, or the lack thereof, in the United States. Millenials are “not running, but fleeing” electoral politics. How is a representative democracy to function when a large portion of voters, such as millenials, are well-educated and well-off and still choose not to participate in the traditional forms of social engagement, from public service to voting?
Of course, in a country of 300 million persons there will always be enough candidates to fill the one elected job at the White House and even the 535 elected jobs on Capitol Hill, but what about city hall, non-salaried government commissions, and vital voluntary associations? Will those who don’t vote also refuse to pay their taxes?
The Economist’s article makes a couple of key assumptions. One is that the GOP in particular is hard-pressed to attract the young, minorities, and many women.
Second, it notes that many young adults are willing to participate in a variety of charity and social action events, but millenials do this on a one-off basis (e.g. charity 5K) rather than by joining-and-serving (e.g. Rotary, church, American Legion). In other words, there is a lack of commitment to sustained effort toward the common good; social action must be an entertaining and sans commitment for me to engage.
What are GOP strategists and the party faithful to make of all of this?
Here are two general suggestions about the message and approach the Republican Party should take not only in its outreach and branding, but in its policy stances. First, it should not be ashamed to trumpet its historical roots in all that is good about America’s legacy and ideals. Second, rather than trying to appeal to targeted groups, the GOP’s message should be that it is the party for ALL Americans.
A fundamental battle in the culture wars of the past 50 years is this: are there elements of classical American identity and values that stand the test of time, or is America’s past (and its underlying values commitments) a myth covering up all sorts of immorality and injustice?
More specifically, was America a shining city on a hill? Are the values of the Founders such as ordered liberty, the rule of law, and the right and responsibility of individuals to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, applicable today? Is there an American character focused on individual freedom and responsibility that can be actualized through equality of opportunity (but not necessarily outcome)?
A simple, loaded question that gets at this might be, “Can the young Latino, or female, or black American say with pride that ‘George Washington is the Father of my country!’?” In other words, shouldn’t our shared values trump the race- and class-based politics of other countries?
Republicans should trumpet, “Yes!” to all of these questions.
The GOP is the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that believes in the values of the Declaration of Independence, the principles of the Constitution, and the ideals of ordered liberty, justice, and political equality. Republicans are proud of the men and women who founded this country, like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson while realizing that they were limited human beings.
It is because, as James Madison said, “men are not angels” that we have the system of checks and balances that we inherited from them. Most importantly, Republicans believe in America as exceptional: as a city shining on a hill.
A patriotic GOP message that is proud of this country, proud of the achievements of its past, and proud of the party’s legacy from liberating slaves to beating the Soviets in the Cold War, is the first step toward an upbeat message that will attract voters. Moreover, it is a message in stark contrast to that of many Democrats who seem ashamed of America’s achievements.
Second, the GOP needs to move beyond micro-targeting of small sub-populations and speak about a “politics for all.”
The Democrats strategy has been, at least since the Democrats’ novel coalition of labor and minorities in the 1930s, to divide Americans and pit them against one another. The Democrats’ strategy is to reinforce difference based on race, class, and gender and amplify it through a message of victimization. When people have been labeled and simplified into hyphenated categories, the Democrats then offer goodies from the public coffers. The message is simple, “Your group deserves something special.”
In contrast, the GOP must talk in terms of what is best for the entire country: all Americans, all citizens, all people … regardless of race, creed, socio-economic status, gender, age, or other identifying characteristic. We need candidates that do not have to finely tailor their message from one audience to the next but can speak to Americans more generally about what is in our common interest and what aligns with America’s values.
This is not to suggest breezy rhetoric that dodges the issues. Rather, it is the foundation for a policy agenda that can remake a Republican majority in the Electoral College by focusing on applied conservative principles such as enforcing the rule of law, public safety; transparency in government and how taxes are spent; protecting individual liberty and private property from the state; advocating the value of national service for younger Americans; pursuing America’s strategic interests and the safety of our friends and allies; punishing gross offenders who threaten our security; and rational economic policies that do not privilege any sub-population but rather invest in security and infrastructure.
The GOP need not die out: it needs to harness and then show off the dynamism, toughness, pragmatism, and idealism of its great leaders like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, and others.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.
TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.