There are two things you can say about this strange era of the Republican Party. Neither thing is good.
You can say that the dominant conservatism of the party is a serious philosophy of how to govern, and how we should live our lives, and that it’s gone far off the rails in the last while.
The second option is that it’s nothing more than a machine for extracting money and fealty from the rubes, and that a handful of party intellectuals are kept around for window dressing.
I’m a second option guy myself, but three days after the election, there are the barest hints of a serious rethink underway, one which might divorce ‘Republican’ from its current sickness and maybe, just maybe, give us the second major political party we need.
A few Republican writers are out there right now, saying what fundamentally went wrong for the Republicans was not driving away the Hispanic vote (though they did) or Mitt Romney’s weird change from severe conservative to Moderate Mitt (though he did), nor the wasteful spending of billions on television advertising while the ground game of getting out the vote was ignored (though they did and they did).
David Frum, whom I like unreservedly, and David Brooks, whom I do not, have reached the same conclusion. It’s still the economy, and the Republican Party still doesn’t have any answers.
The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.
Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.
Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.
And he concludes:
Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.
In other words, actually do what Republicans pay a lot of lip service to, but seldom get around to the mechanics of: out-compete the Democrats on ideas. I’m talking about the big stuff, the economy, health care, the environment, but the rot is so deep on the Republican side it even pollutes the mechanics of politics. You saw that in the election, where the Republicans ended up being the party of bloat – just throw money at the campaign and something will work.
Frum is even better. He’s out with an e-book (actually an e-really long magazine article) called ‘Why Romney Lost.’
America in 2012 had not yet emerged from the worst jobs crisis since the 1930s. And what was the GOP’s big job creating idea? To enact a 20 percent cut in income tax rates – exactly the same kind of tax cut passed in 2001 and still in place when the jobs crisis started. Was it so hard to predict that Americans would find unconvincing the idea that the cure for the disease was more of the same medicine that failed to prevent it?
Frum also has a great label for Fox News and talk radio, the conservative entertainment complex, and he makes a point of saying ‘Conservatives have been misled’ by the talking heads. Others – not everyone, not a majority certainly – are saying the same thing, that the Limbaughs and Hannitys have done conservatism and the Republican Party a lot of harm.
So what’s the path forward? I keep trying to imagine a fully functioning Republican Party, and am not quite there yet. But I like Brooks when he writes “use any tool.” That embodies a value I hold, and that I think is applicable in most situations. It’s the hacker ethic of using what you have at hand to accomplish something. It is fiercely pragmatic and, as such, incredibly mindful of reality, two things the modern Republican Party has not been at all.
A hacker Republican Party would take as its first, most important goal restoring work to the middle class, and in so doing rapidly closing the income divide. In order to get there, you have to accept that income inequality is killing us. It just is, and in particular it’s killing other conservative ideals; when a family falls further and further behind, when you can’t count on your job to provide adequate health care or security, of course you’re going to turn to the government. This is so blatantly obvious as to really not be worth discussing, but somehow the Republican Party has convinced itself that large numbers of people relying on government is some sort of European experiment in socialism, as opposed to what it plainly is – the last resort.
The hacker Republican Party would not try to coerce behavior. You don’t like abortion? Make sure contraception is abundant, and find ways to get it into the hands of people who need it most. Also, fix the economy for working people, and abortion may not be the only realistic choice they sometimes have.
The hacker Republican Party would be staunchly pro-science. That means cutting loose people who don’t believe in evolution, global warming and – in one pitch for a textbook I saw – some kinds of math. The hacker Republican tries to figure out how to make a buck beating global warming, or hacking an adaptation to it.
Because of its conservative roots, the hacker Republican Party would live by “measure twice, cut once” – but that’s not the same thing as saying ‘no’ to changes in society, politics, finance. It does mean place a lot of small bets and work by iteration. It embraces the notion of ‘makers’ (as in people who make cool stuff, not the horrid meme of ‘makers and takers’).
Most of all, the hacker Republican Party defines itself away from big corporate business. It treats large enterprises as systems to be hacked, to be used, but not to be trusted.
Of course, such a party would bear little resemblance to what we have now, but it might have one thing going for it today’s Republicans do not: it might persuade some people in the middle like me to pay attention, and then it might win some elections, which is very much in keeping with the prime directive of all politics – first, win.