Republicans in Margaritaville

Politics, US culture, US Politics

I love Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.”  Not for the tune though that’s fine, it’s always been about the lyrics for me.  I enjoy hearing the evolution of the singer’s viewpoint, the self examination, the final conclusion.  Reading Republican commenators these days is like listening to the “Margaritaville” applied to real life.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that the Republican brand is in trouble.  Senator Obama leads handily in the polls with the word landslide being bandied about.  Democrats will certainly add to their margin in the House and Republicans would be estatic to keep Senate losses down to five.  Crowds and political ads are both getting ugly as every move the RNC and Senator McCain tries backfires.

The NY Times did an article over the weekend discussing the challenges the GOP faces in the comming weeks and how they got to this point.  The quotes were interesting.  Former Republican Senator John Danforth was quoted saying

“This is a year where everything that could go in Obama’s favor is going in Obama’s favor,” he said. “Everything that could go against McCain is against him. It’s absolutely the worst kind of perfect storm.”

You see, “it’s nobody’s fault.”

Other commentators have not been as generous.  They point to huge gambles McCain, the most egregious being selecting a little known governor who is in the middle of an ethics investigation as his running mate.  She invigorates the base, but as Governor Palin whips up crowds, moderates are turning away and Obama’s numbers have been swelling.  In other words, “it could be his fault.”

But staunch conservative David Brooks was very direct in his analysis over the weekend, and he’s not blaming 2008, but the entire philosophy of the GOP.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

George W. Bush restrained some of the populist excesses of his party — the anti-immigration fervor, the isolationism — but stylistically he fit right in. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book, “Rebel-in-Chief,” Bush “reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don’t live along the East or West Coast. He’s not a sophisticate and doesn’t spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn’t come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven’t.”

The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.

The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.

Conservatives are as rare in elite universities and the mainstream media as they were 30 years ago. The smartest young Americans are now educated in an overwhelmingly liberal environment.

This year could have changed things. The G.O.P. had three urbane presidential candidates. But the class-warfare clichés took control. Rudy Giuliani disdained cosmopolitans at the Republican convention. Mitt Romney gave a speech attacking “eastern elites.” (Mitt Romney!) John McCain picked Sarah Palin.

Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable. Her convention and debate performances were impressive. But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the “normal Joe Sixpack American” and the coastal elite.

She is another step in the Republican change of personality. Once conservatives admired Churchill and Lincoln above all — men from wildly different backgrounds who prepared for leadership through constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking. Now those attributes bow down before the common touch.

And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission — because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away.

As a former Republican who left the party in disgust some years ago, this sounds about right to me.  I was tired of branding experts as “elitist” when they don’t agree with you.  I don’t like the idea that thinking an idea through is not as good as shooting from the hip.  I can’t tolerate the mindless focus on non-issues like gay marriage when the country has real problems.  I hate that racial animosity towards minorities is considered a political tool to bring in votes.

I keep hearing the song and picture Republicans singing:

Yes and some people claim that theres a woman to blame
And I know its my own damn fault

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. nimh  •  Oct 14, 2008 @10:12 am

    It’s weird though – the more these cultural cross-currents change the party political landscape, the more the inner contradictions should rise to the fore. You’ve got a party that increasingly puts all its cards on cultural appeals to working class voters even as it staunchly pushes for free-market policies that harm those same workers. And you’ve got a party that’s increasingly making inroads among higher-income voters even as that, too, involves more and more people voting against their own economic self-interest.

    You cant help thinking that sometime soon, something’s gotta give. Maybe when the acute distaste of Bush-era politics has receded somewhat again.

    The intriguing question is whether the Republicans, once they’ve successfully shut themselves out of a huge chunk of higher-education voters, will eventually end up adjusting their economic prescriptions to a more populist course as well? Is there any chance of Sam’s Club conservatives taking over?

    It seems pretty unthinkable for now, mostly because of the underlying lie of the Republican Party’s current cultural appeal. They appeal to working class voters through the culture war stuff, but the politicians who make the appeal are all marked by a deeply ingrained devotion to (big) business interest politics. I mean, like you say, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, for chrissakes, as heartland populists?

    That’s maybe more their current problem than anything else: the fakeness of their appeal. It was always fake of course (Bush the elite scion turned Texas rancher), but somehow the fakeness seems to have taken on a critical mass, or maybe it’s become spotlighted acutely because of the country’s economic woes. But you cant help thinking that soon, they’ll have to make a choice.

    Really go for a semi-rural, heartland working class identity, which involves ditching the Mitt Romneys of this world once and for all? Become the Huckabee party, say? Or pull back from the brink of ideological reinvention and gradually try to win back lost territory among the career classes, once the shadow of Bush has receded?

    I guess the latter is the more likely scenario. They’d even stand a chance, given enough time, if a new Democratic administration opts for a liberal enough government course and starts shedding some of those libertarian-minded voters again. (Although they are currently buoyed by Bush’s and the Republicans’ impopularity and the country’s economic troubles, the Dems face a mirror dilemma in the long run, after all.) But the alternative is in a way more exciting.

    In Europe at least, there’s a real market for culturally conservative, but economically leftwing politics, which just isnt offered anywhere in the traditional party landscape. It would be interesting, in a way, to see someone try that hybrid. Ross Douthat put it this way: The point “is that the GOP is now a working-class party … and that it needs to start acting like one if it’s going to rebuild its shattered majority.”

    I guess one of the main obstacles is money. The Republican Party increasingly fishes for voters among the small-town working class, but for its funding still very much depends on the big money, corporate class. Huckabee’s primary candidacy, I guess, illustrated the risk of choosing the small-town identity for good: he didnt do badly in popular appeal, but raised close to zero money compared to the other candidates. So basically, I guess, until Sam Club’s conservatives invent their own Obama-type revolution of small donor funding, it’s not going to happen.

    The most promising starting ground for such a revolution, meanwhile, are conservative christians, the network of churches; there’s a lot of culturally conservative voters there who wouldnt at all mind a Clintonian MOR economic policy to go with their opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But the road to rooting a new brand of economically moderate or populist, working class conservatism in that community is for now still blocked by the power of the religious right’s establishment. This establishment is so thoroughly wedded to Reaganomics as natural partner for their religious movement that they even turned their back to Huckabee’s candidacy, and did so right from the start. Anything less than radical Reaganomics is suspicious to them.

    The fact that Huckabee nevertheless appealed to so many Christian voters shows that the hold this establishment has is eroding, but again, his inability to raise any significant money seems to demonstrate that the time just isnt ripe yet. At least on a national level; we should keep an eye on where state Republican parties in the South and Midwest are heading in the next decade…