What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word “Republican?”
If you can’t think of anything positive, you’ve identified the primary problem facing the GOP in the 2010s. Despite the GOP’s recapturing of the House of Representatives as well as numerous governorships and state legislatures, the party’s public image has yet to fully recover from the beating it took during the Bush era. The 2010 midterm results were brought about by economic malaise and frustration with President Obama, not by the public’s re-embrace of Republican ideology.
It’s still quite possible for President Obama to be re-elected in 2012, and it’s not hard to envision the GOP losing the House in two years as well. For all the chatter about America supposedly being a “center-right” country, the reality is that the country will not truly be “center-right” until Republicans finally challenge the stereotypes that have existed about the party for years.
There are communities all across America filled with people who react with horror and disgust when they hear the word “Republican.” Despite Scott Brown’s historic Senate victory a year ago this month, his party’s losses in the Massachusetts midterm elections demonstrate that the Bay State is one such community. As Boston Phoenix political reporter David Bernstein noted on November 8, “To most Bay Staters (in fact, most New Englanders), ‘Republicans’ are anti-intellectual, vitriolic, reactionary, ‘Party of No,’ Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Tea Party, Southern ideologues. ‘FOX Republicans,’ if you will.”
Republicans can spend all day denouncing these stereotype as false, or lambasting media, academic and entertainment entities that are viewed as perpetuating these stereotypes—but wouldn’t it make more sense to simply shatter these stereotypes?
Republicans need to ask themselves the following questions:
1. Would supply-side economics be held in contempt by large numbers of Americans if Republicans and conservative-leaning media entities made a point of demonstrating that supply-side economics benefited the vast majority of Americans, not just the wealthy?
2. Would the notion of Republican anti-intellectualism have such currency if Republicans and conservative-leaning media entities did a better job of spotlighting the right’s intellectual class? The recent Fox News special The Right, All Along: The Rise, Fall & Future of Conservatism did a commendable job of reminding viewers of the right’s intellectual heritage, but the broadcast was the exception to the rule.
3. Would the idea of Republicans being scornful of science even exist if Republicans and conservative-leaning media entities had more prominent figures who regarded environmental science as something other than “the new refuge of socialist thinking,” as Rush Limbaugh called it in his 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be?
4. Would the concept of Republicans-as-theocrats be as strong as it is in the minds of millions of Americans if Republicans and conservative-leaning media entities were more vocal in embracing a federalist approach to social issues, as Jonah Goldberg recommended in Reason Magazine last year?
The Democratic Party can only prosper if Republicans fail to address the underlying, long-standing issues that still make so many Americans uncomfortable with the GOP: the idea that Republicans lack empathy, don’t give a damn about anyone who’s not already a billionaire, loathe gays and single mothers, secretly desire Christian Shari’a, believe mankind plays no significant role in climate change, are obsessed with spending trillions to democratize the Middle East, regard public education as a wasteland and are generally selfish, uncaring jerks.
There’s nothing wrong with demonstrating empathy. “Compassionate conservatism” may have been an empty slogan, but if Republicans and conservative-leaning media entities don’t do a better job of showing that the GOP is not as hard-hearted as it’s often made out to be, the 2010 midterms will go down in history as a fluke.
The last decade was an awful one for the Republican Party. Twenty years after Ronald Reagan’s ten-point victory over President Carter, George W. Bush—the man who was promoted in some conservative circles as Reagan’s true ideological heir—barely got past Vice President Al Gore in the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. Four years later, Bush beat Senator John Kerry by three points, hardly a “center-right” blowout. Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in 2006 and surrendered the White House in 2008. Were it not for pro-GOP momentum generated by the Tea Party movement, as well as the aforementioned public frustration with Obama, the party would still be a sickly elephant ready to be put down.
Too many Republicans still think of themselves as representing the country’s natural majority. This mentality leads to laziness, shortsightedness, arrogance and a failure to recognize and fix key problems. Republicans would be much better off thinking of themselves as a minority group, one that must confront and overcome stereotypes in order to obtain success and social acceptance. Before Republicans can change minds, they must first change their own.
(Cross-posted at Notes from D.R.)