In his new book, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America, Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul declares that the GOP brand “sucks” and is “broken.” From those big declarations, he goes on to discuss his personal affinity for nature (describing himself as a “tree hugger”) and his ability to find common ground with racial minorities (mainly through his opposition to the growing prison-industrial complex).
All of this is well and good insofar as Paul’s political ambitions are concerned, but what relevance does it have to the GOP’s future in the digital era? Let’s look at some ways that the Republican Party can become relevant as the Baby Boomers hand off the future to a new generation of engaged voters.
1) It needs to stop being viewed as staunchly conservative
Shortly after the 2012 presidential election, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked Americans: “Why the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections?” Despite Mitt Romney’s lackluster candidacy, only 38 percent of the respondents cited “needs a better leader” as the party’s chief problem; a clear majority, on the other hand, simply stated that the GOP was “too conservative.”
This is a particularly noteworthy statistic because, less than a quarter-century ago, the inverse could have helped explain the Democratic Party’s presidential woes. After all, Republicans managed to win five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988 largely because the Democrats had been effectively painted as too liberal.
The Democrats remained trapped in that cycle until the 1992 presidential election, when they nominated an avowed centrist (Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas) who tamed the strident grassroots base that had produced both dud nominees (Sen. George McGovern in 1972, Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988) and polarizing national leaders (Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988).
2) Stop swimming against the tides of history on LGBT rights
Supporting LGBT rights isn’t simply a moral imperative; from a practical political standpoint, it is also a tactical necessity. A clear majority of Republicans under the age of 30 support same-sex marriage, reflecting the larger seismic shift in public opinion that has occurred within the last few years.
Before 2010, national support for same-sex marriage lingered in the mid-to-low 40s, with more Americans opposing than supporting them. Since 2011, however, that dynamic has been reversed, with Americans consistently supporting the freedom to marry. Indeed, the number of pro-same-sex marriage Americans hasn’t dropped below 50 percent in three years, with the latest survey finding it at an all-time high of 60 percent.
Whether conservatives like it or not, Americans are characterizing the struggle of marriage equality as an important civil rights movement and understandably don’t wish to be on the wrong side of history. So long as the GOP brand is associated with tolerance for intolerance, it will be that much harder for men and women of goodwill to identify with it.
3) Stop alienating Latino voters
Pundits realized a long time ago that Latino voters were going to be a key swing bloc in future presidential elections. It’s hardly a coincide that the only Republican presidential candidate from 1992 to 2012 to do reasonably well with Hispanic voters was also the only one to win the popular vote—George W. Bush in 2004.
According to the last census, there were 50.5 million Latinos residing in the United States as of 2010, an increase of 43 percent from the previous decade (when they numbered 35.3 million). In fact, 56 percent of America’s population growth from 2000 to 2010 came from the Latino community.
Yet mathematical logic notwithstanding, Republicans are still struggling to shed their rigid opposition to immigration reform, a stance that aligns them against the 66 percent of Latino voters who consider immigration reform to be a top priority.
4) Apply your big government ideology consistently, such as with the prison-industrial complex
Although Republicans like to cast themselves as the party of small government, there have been glaring inconsistencies between their rhetoric and the causes they choose to champion. As a libertarian think tank the Cato Institute pointed out, police officers in Ferguson, Mo., blatantly disregarded fundamental constitutional guarantees like the right to private property or peaceful assembly… and, indeed, treated ordinary American citizens like bystanders in a warzone.
This is symptomatic of a larger “big government” problem, namely, that America has turned into a bona fide prison state. As the American Civil Liberties Union reports, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population (despite having only 5 percent of its total population), has had its total number of prisoners rise by 700 percent since 1970, and currently keeps 1 out of 99 adults behind bars (1 out of 31 are under some form of correctional control).
Considering that conservative intellectuals like to root their ideas in classical philosophy, it is hard to imagine a better illustration of the observation by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” Yet with the exception of Rand Paul, nary a Republican can be heard denouncing the Big Brother actions of our government when it comes to the prison-industrial complex.
5) Don’t settle for mediocrity
To explain this point, it is necessary to turn to the earliest chapters in the Republican Party’s history. Founded in 1854 as a vehicle for uniting the various factions opposed to the expansion of slavery into America’s newly acquired western territories, it rose to national power with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—that is, the election that triggered the Civil War—and maintained an unbroken lock on the White House for the next 24 years.
As the issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction began to fade from national consciousness, Republican leaders found themselves without a coherent ideology or cause to unite their followers. The final Republican president of this dynasty, Chester Arthur, was even chided for this by one of his “mysterious lady friends” (likely a prostitute) in a letter dated from 1882:
What is there to admire in mediocrity? Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind—a certain half-heartedness—in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?
These words are just as applicable now as they were 133 years ago. The Republican Party of today remains the party that formed around Ronald Reagan during his transformative election in 1980—socially conservative, economically plutocratic, and internationally bellicose.
Those stances may have garnered votes at a time when our political consciousness was dominated by the Cold War, rampant crime, and the post-New Deal welfare state, but it is increasingly out-of-touch in an era when the American military has notoriously overextended itself (see the Iraq war of 2003-2011), police brutality against racial minorities regularly makes the news, and our economy was brought to the brink of collapse because Wall Street ran rampant.
This isn’t to say that conservative ideas can’t be relevant in the age of Twitter. That said, the Republican Party definitely needs to overhaul its brand in order to start trending in the right direction.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)