November 10, 2008

Palin 2012? Not Likely: The Evolution of the GOP

As much as the last US elections might have been about change, one thing hasn't changed at all. We are still a nation with only two viable political parties, Republicans and Democrats, and one of those two parties was essentially ground up into something that looks like red sausage. It's now eating itself and, at the same time, trying to figure out what it's going to do next. Personally, I didn't vote for anything or anyone Republican in the last election, nor in the one before that, nor even in the one before that one. The Republicans don't represent anything in which I believe, so I don't have any motivation to vote for them. In fact, they've long since turned themselves into the antithesis of anything for which I would personally stand. They've become the party of social cruelty and culture war. The last election pointed out to them, I think, that there are a lot of people like me out there.

In looking forward, one of the memes that keeps bubbling to the surface is "Palin 2012." Really? This is a good idea? Palin, after all, was brought into the campaign for two reasons. The first was in an attempt to attract support from supposedly disenfranchised Hillary Clinton backers, and all evidence points to her failing miserably in this mission. The second reason was to "energize" the base — the gaggle of socially arch-conservative, religiously motivated and anti-intellectual voters that would normally vote Republican no matter what but for whom McCain himself held little to no appeal. These aren't people who were going to vote for Obama on election day; the danger was that they wouldn't vote at all. Palin's run at vice president was a success on this count, but as we saw, success in this case doesn't look much like victory. Assuming no dramatic swing back to the far right — and the evidence seems to suggest a generational change is at work against such an event — Palin isn't likely to win a nomination in 2012, let alone a general election. This has less to do with her portrayal as a bit of Alaskan fluff by the media. What has become the Republican base is simply shrinking. People are fed up with the fostering of a divided society whose leaders are terrified by progress and insistent upon moral absolutes in all things, that demands absolute freedom for markets even as it erodes the liberty of individuals.

What, then, might be the future of this party? If it doesn't lie with Sarah Palin and her "you betcha, gosh darn golly Joe Sixpack drill baby drill and buy your own damned rape kit" ideologies, then who might carry the torch forward?

We're beginning to see some clues, particularly from the coasts — places in which Republicans haven't been doing very well at carrying national elections for the past couple of cycles and which are generally written off and derided by their base. The fact is, though, that these are also places with the weight of population in their favor, ignored at the peril of ever having influence in politics. The rigidly dogmatic social stances of the GOP as it has been — the GOP of the base — is likely going to have to change if they're going to play in such places as a national party. For instance, even though Proposition 8 passed in California and gay marriage got banned, the fact is that a margin of about 20 points in a 2000 attempt at banning it has shrunk to one of only 5 points this time around. The trend there is clearly, powerfully, away from unreasoning traditionalism and toward increasing tolerance of diversity.

We'll take our first clue from the Governator, California's own Arnold Schwarzenegger. In today's LA Times, Schwarzenegger had this to say about Proposition 8's passage:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sunday expressed hope that the California Supreme Court would overturn Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage...

Schwarzenegger publicly opposed Proposition 8, which amends the state Constitution to declare that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

On Sunday, he urged backers of gay marriage to follow the lesson he learned as a bodybuilder trying to lift weights that were too heavy for him at first. "I learned that you should never ever give up. . . . They should never give up. They should be on it and on it until they get it done."


This is the same Ahnold who had Republicans so excited not long ago that there was talk of amending the US Constitution to allow for citizens not born in the United States to become President for the first time in our history. Has the confluence of these messages sunk in yet, one wonders, with whatever passes for GOP leadership? Touting Palin and similar far-right candidates might play well in particular congressional districts and maybe in population-poor places like Oklahoma and Wyoming, but on the national level it's a sure path to failure.

A second clue comes from the East Coast, particularly from New England. In the Boston Globe, Republican columnist James Peyser talks about "How New England's Republicans Can Hit Restart":
...The number of Massachusetts Republicans in the US Congress remains stuck at zero. The party's US Senate candidate polled less than a third of the votes, winning only one town in the entire state. Come January, there will be not a single New England Republican in the US House of Representatives...

The underlying problem for Republicans is the absence of a compelling conservative vision for the future that is aligned with New England's more tolerant and civic-minded political sensibilities...

Today's conservative agenda includes a censorious social policy that panders to the Christian right, a guns and butter fiscal policy that would make Lyndon Johnson blush, and a Wilsonian foreign policy that is increasingly untethered from the national interest...

A new Republican vision should focus squarely on the future, with a sense of hope for what lies ahead. Any conservatism worthy of the name honors tradition. But there is all the difference in the world between careful stewardship of our heritage and rigid traditionalism... Unfortunately, the loudest voices of conservatism on the national stage today are more likely to bemoan America's decline than to praise its potential. They are also increasingly known for their resistance to science, technology, and change. This rejection of hope and progress runs against the grain of the American spirit and is a formula for even more electoral defeats...


In short, the religious moral absolutists, the Luddites and Creationists, the culture warriors, the Palin/Limbaugh/Coulter far-right wing of the GOP needs to be jettisoned if there's going to be a nationally viable GOP at all. What makes America great, and what excites the electorate, isn't feverish clinging to 18th century absolutism, it's the looking forward to the future, the change, the advancement. It's optimism, not fear. It's opening up the culture to the next leap in its evolution, not huddling in our caves and hoping that the thunder god doesn't hurl lightning bolts down upon our miserable heads. The base is not enough anymore, and good riddance to its dominance.

I've never been one to be in favor of a political system that provides a realistic choice between only two parties. When push comes to shove, I would like very much to see a more parliamentarian system in which there are numerous parties spanning the political spectrum that must forge compromises and alliances in order for government to function. In my ideal world, America would have at least a dozen parties from which voters could choose and complete dominance by any one party would be a vanishingly rare event. Such a system, I think, would better insure that all voices were heard and create better representation for all of us, wherever we might fall across the spectrum. But that's an ideal world that seems incredibly unlikely to come into existence within the lifetime of anyone reading this. It would seem that, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to have only one more party than a one-party state. If Republicans want to preserve even that much diversity, though, it's incumbent upon them to start becoming less ideological and more representative.

The dinosaurs of the extreme right wing aren't going to be much of a part of this sort of outcome, unfortunately for them but much to the joy of those of us who are sick and tired of seeing the populace turned against itself. The purveyors of fear and ignorance are due for a return back to the fringe of political discourse which, in truth, is where they've always belonged. It is in our own best national interest as Americans that the GOP does this in the course of expanding its appeal and becoming a national party. It will help insure that we all do better, that our country does better, that we move forward into something like a hopeful future — even if we as individuals still disagree with some of the party's new platform enough not to vote for them.

Can the GOP run Palin in 2012? Absolutely. It's their prerogative to do so if they wish. Anyone can go to the dance and choose to be a wallflower if they so desire. If they want to move forward and so move the nation forward, though, they'd be well-advised to listen attentively to other voices within their own party. The message coming from the coasts, delivered by people like Schwarzenegger and Peyser, is loud and clear. If the national GOP doesn't want to hear it, if they prefer to stick their fingers in their ears and keep doing the same things that have resulted in the results of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, then the electorate is also free to shake its collective head and hope that the GOP enjoys its exile in Oklahoma.

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