Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Advice for the Republican Party

It might seem the height of presumption for a confirmed non-Republican to be offering the party advice, but since everyone else is jumping on this particular bandwagon ...

Everything I've read about the Republican Party's search for answers to its defeats on the presidential and senatorial fronts says the discussion is taking place along two lines: "we need to reach out to minorities", and/or "we picked lousy candidates".

This tells me the party doesn't understand people like me, and I daresay I'm not as far from the mainstream as usual.

Yes, the party put forward lousy candidates (Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, anyone?). The subtext of "lousy candidate" that folks bandying about that excuse want to convey is, "These people did not truly represent the party." The thing is, people like me believe those "lousy candidates" did truly represent the party. Those candidates weren't thrown into the race haphazardly. By and large, they were put forward, after due consideration, as the best representatives and standard-bearers of the party's values (that the party could convince to run, anyway).

Put another way, voters can accept one bad apple as a fluke. If there's more than one, and the rot in them all smells the same, we're going to wonder whether there's something wrong with the orchard. So far, the Republican Party seems unwilling to accept that its orchard is tainted, deeply so.

As for the "we need to reach out to minorities" argument, that's not so much a flaw as a strategy to compensate for a flaw. It might be a good strategy to pursue with some, but people like me are going to see it as a deeply hypocritical and cynical endeavor. We aren't going to reward the party for making the right noises when it hasn't had a change of heart.

The Republican Party, as all the demographic analysis I've read shows, is essentially white and male. There would be nothing wrong with that except that the reason it's white and male is that its policies repel the majority of women and racial minorities, who can see that the policies enshrine the prejudices of conservative white men. Whether the subject is rape, immigration, or entitlement reform, the Republican Party ends up favoring white men at everyone else's expense. That's the elephant in the room that this election lit up in a spotlight.

If the Republican Party wants to turn its fortunes around, it's going to have to talk about that elephant. I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon. Many of the voters who make up the party are not willing to admit the elephant is there. To do so would call into question those voters' own values and characters. They would have to confront the possibility that they are not heroic underdogs fighting to save the nation, but rather are ... well, a lot less than heroic.

Before it reaches out to constituencies its number-crunchers identify as crucial to its future, the Republican Party must search its soul. A majority of its members, average citizens and politicians alike, need to understand just how intolerant, mean-spirited, and flat-out ignorant some of its policies are.

It's the nature of conservatism to value what was. A healthy society needs conservatives to ground itself, to promulgate values and ideas and traditions that have proven their worth over their time. The trouble with today's extreme conservatives, the ones who control the Republican Party, is that they've lost sight of why certain values and ideas and traditions are worth cherishing. Instead, they simply focus on holding onto the trappings of the past without regard for whether those trappings actually reflect values worth cherishing.

What, for instance, is the reason to oppose gay marriage? (For the record, I'm neutral on the subject: I genuinely neither support nor oppose the movement.) If Republicans could make cogent arguments for why it harms others, that would be one thing — but they can't. Instead, all their arguments come back to "our parents' generation didn't do it", "I just don't feel comfortable with the idea", and "my religion forbids making homosexuals feel welcome". Lost in all that noise is the question, "Isn't it a good idea to celebrate the love of two human beings?"

What exactly are Republicans fighting to preserve on the gay marriage front, and is it worth preserving? They certainly have not found an argument that makes any sense to me, and I think I'm in the majority on that score.

Other issues are more contentious; there's genuine room for argument and disagreement on abortion, on the role of religion in the public square, and probably on other issues about which I haven't thought. The problem is that taken in toto, the world view Republicans espouse isn't an especially welcoming place: there's a tendency on economic issues to say "anything business wants is okay" and on social issues to say "if you deviate from the norm we define, we're coming after you". These positions aren't backed up by arguments that induce the rest of us to embrace these positions, to cherish them as valuable. Instead it seems to be the Republican view that their way of looking at the world is obviously the only way and opposition to that viewpoint is meritless.

Republicans aren't interested in persuading. They simply want to dominate.

Republicans were rebuffed on the national level because they no longer promote values a majority of the rest of us respect. Until the party comes to grips with that truth and genuinely embraces different values, or finds a way to convince the rest of us its values are worth embracing, it won't find better candidates, and its efforts to reach out to other constituencies simply won't work.

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