The Republican Party has suffered a historic electoral defeat and has entered a period of healthy self-examination and self-criticism. In the midst of our self-flagellation a couple of topics might be worth considering. First, what does it mean to be a major American political party? Second, are Republicans willing to take those actions required to keep the GOP a major American political party?
In the United States, major political parties could be considered umbrella organizations that exist to unite reasonably like-minded pools of voters in order to build a large enough coalition to gain working control of a government. Since each of the political parties consist of varying groups of voters with different and often conflicting priorities there are natural policy and philosophical differences or fault lines within each party. This makes the construction of a comprehensive party platform and its application to the issues of the day somewhat controversial internally.
However difficult the determination of a uniting party philosophy the key point is that it must allow both the pools of voters within the party to be generally satisfied that the party represents them, and must have a broad enough appeal to the electorate as a whole to give the party an objectively reasonable change to win control of a given government.
If that basic concept of an American political party is somewhat reasonable then what does this mean in practice? It would mean in practice that a party would be a bit of a balancing act, seeking to keep the larger part of party’s base satisfied enough to stay with the party while figuring out ways to attract new pools of voters to the party to create the coalition needed to govern. It also suggests, perhaps more pointedly, that a party must be willing to risk irritating or even alienating some segments of its own voter pools in order to attract larger or growing voter pools.
For a party’s opinion leaders to fail to understand these basic concepts could lead to a party that fails at its core purpose: to assemble enough pools of voters who support enough but not necessarily all of the party’s positions to allow that party to run a government for a time and enact as must of that party’s philosophy as 51% or more of the voters will allow without voting that party out. In fact, failing to understand the idea that a party needs to have a broad enough pool of possible voters could lead the party to becoming something wholly different – an ideological movement perhaps, or aligned ideological movements more geared towards being right and total victory rather than winning and enacting parts of a philosophy that that public at large supports.
Looking back it could be argued that successful political movements in decline are least likely to accept the concepts above. Instead, their opinion leaders tend to believe their particular movement is, to steal a phrase, “the end of history”. As such their applied philosophy tends to become more static, more dated, and their desire to accept or even believe changing voter concerns calcifies. Democrats faced this problem decades ago as the Roosevelt coalition disintegrated, and died, and spent years in the wilderness.
This is natural perhaps. It would seem that when a great movement is successful at partially redefining American politics this movement develops a intellectual and political class forged in the grinding years on the trail to power. As time passes and the culture and demographics change this class might have a tendency to look backward at the great successes and think ‘give us another chance, more volume, the old ideas still apply to the voters, they just don’t know it’.
One could better understand this sort of thought coming from the left, which has a long history of dangerously utopian thought. However, the right allegedly has a better understanding of the failures of human nature. Regardless of any fantasies of a static electorate changes in culture and society are always occurring – new worries, problems, or opportunities that require a reapplication of core principles to real life. These changes may seem slow at a given moment, but just underwater the currents are often quick and as Republicans have seen have a way of catching a party off guard, even with plenty of warning. While a party’s core philosophy does not always have to change to address these changes, the application of this philosophy in concrete and real terms must change to meet the popular needs of the time. It is death, certain death, to try to beat back popular cultural trends to match outdated philosophical applications.
What does this mean to the Republican Party? It means recognizing that time did not stop in 1984 (thank all that is holy considering the fashion of the time), 2000, or even yesterday. The end of history did not occur. It means remembering that ‘the party’ is an umbrella organization that can’t satisfy all of it’s voter pools all the time, that it is in the party’s interest to not be the prisoner of a given pool if at all possible, and that to keep the party thriving the party must always be on the hunt for new, growing voter pools even if that means current voter pools losing some of their influence. It means making the tough mental leap that the job of a political party isn’t to apply it’s philosophy to the issues of a given day then to stop thinking about the new concerns that emerge as time passes, but instead to encourage the kind of intellectual rigorousness and debate that will constantly suggest new applications of philosophy that satisfy new needs. New applications of a core philosophy are sometimes an uncomfortable thing for many people. They tend to cause infighting, intrude on closely defined turf, and generally stir the pot. The Republican stew is burning. It needs a good stir.