Reihan Salam says that most Republicans have no idea how much the American social landscape has changed. They should learn from Obama’s Google-like appeal
Britain’s Conservatives might be plotting a triumphant return to power but America’s Republicans are in a state of utter collapse. And it’s not just because the tide is turning after two terms of George W. Bush. For better or for worse, the Cameron Conservatives have adapted to a more culturally liberal, urban, diverse society. They have reconciled themselves to the welfare state in a way that Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher never did. Republicans, in contrast, are labouring under the illusion that America remains the yeoman democracy of yesteryear, full of plucky individualists. Slowly but surely, American politics is catching up with the country’s demographic transformation. American exceptionalism — the many quirks of geography and culture that conspire to make US society something of an anomaly among advanced market democracies — is all but dead.
Consider that few of America’s 300 million people live in wide-open spaces. Most are, like Europeans, crowded into vast conurbations that slink up and down the coasts and along a handful of interstate highways. Thanks to robust population growth, this urban America is getting denser all the time. It’s true that America is multiracial. But then again, so is Europe. And America’s minorities tend to see government as a benevolent force, which is why they tilt towards the social democratic Left. The explosive growth of higher education and the concomitant emergence of a mass upper middle class has given America a large and growing constituency of ‘postmaterialist’ voters who care less about taxes and more about expressing their liberal values.
But isn’t the American welfare state smaller? Not if you factor in the invisible welfare state of tax subsidies. The main difference is that our welfare state channels money through private firms, and it is more generous to the middle class than to the poor. Polling evidence suggests that American voters are increasingly receptive to making our welfare state more like European welfare states, complete with some form of universal healthcare. The idea that Americans are instinctively laissez-faire is appealing to American conservatives, but it is mostly bunk. Had Ted Kennedy been elected president in 1980, we’d likely be talking about how America has always been dirigiste, as demonstrated by Hamilton, Lincoln and Henry Clay. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and Ronald Reagan helped usher in a golden age of entrepreneurship and innovation.
But Reagan’s domestic project — of cutting taxes and continuing the wave of deregulation kicked off by Jimmy Carter — had an unintended side effect. By lowering the top rate of tax, Republicans made it safe for suburban professionals to become ‘postmaterialists’. So to win elections, Republicans increasingly relied on supermajorities of working-class whites. This worked brilliantly for a time. Working-class whites gave George W. Bush his victories in 2000 and 2004. The trouble is that working-class whites are a shrinking slice of the population, and they are increasingly receptive to the often crude economic populism of the Democrats, in no small part because Republicans failed to grapple with the downsides of the wealth boom they helped spark.
On 13 May, the Democrats had their own Crewe and Nantwich in Mississippi, where Democrat Travis Childers soundly defeated Republican Greg Davis. This is despite the fact that President Bush carried this district comfortably in 2000 and 2004. The Republican defeat in Mississippi comes after two other defeats in conservative bastions in Illinois and in Louisiana. To be sure, special elections in the United States tend to be less significant than by-elections in Britain. Yet the Mississippi race was also a testing ground for Republicans hoping to beat back a resurgent Democratic party. Decidedly unsubtle television advertisements attempted to link Childers, a conservative white Democrat from a humble rural background, to Barack Obama and to Obama’s erstwhile pastor, the eccentric black nationalist Jeremiah Wright. It was the kind of culture war appeal Republicans have used with great success in the Deep South for years. This time, however, it fell on deaf ears.
Just as Tony Blair flummoxed even the most skilful Tories, Obama — a candidate many in the Republican establishment believe to be deeply vulnerable — seems strangely invulnerable to criticism. It often seems as though the Obama movement has managed to transcend mere politics. His candidacy is being marketed, as political strategist Patrick Ruffini has observed, as a high-end consumer brand. The halo of progressive cool that surrounds, say, Apple or Google or the Prius is Obama’s greatest weapon. That is precisely why traditional attacks against Obama backfire. They seem somehow gauche, and thus they prove more damaging to the attacker than to Obama himself.
One is reminded of how, in the bad old days, Tory ideas on asylum-seekers or Europe or tax proved popular until they were identified as Tory ideas. Something similar has happened to the Republicans. Thanks to a toxic combination of Iraq and economic anxiety, the Republican brand has been thoroughly contaminated. A Pew Research Center survey in late March found that the number of registered voters who identify as Republicans has dwindled to 27 per cent against 36 per cent who identify as Democrats. Once you take into account independents who lean towards one party or the other, the numbers look worse still — 51 per cent for the Democrats, 37 per cent for the Republicans.
Few Republicans fully appreciate the scale of the disaster to come. Assuming John McCain manages to win in November — an unlikely prospect, but certainly possible, particularly if he manages to transform Iraq from a liability into a strength — he will preside over a far more Democratic Congress. Moreover, he will face a Republican right still unchastened by a crushing defeat. It is all too easy to imagine McCain limping across the finish line, only to end his political career as ignominiously as John Major. Saviours like Mitt Romney will preach a return to Reaganite fundamentals, or Mike Huckabee could turn the Republicans into a southern white evangelical rump. Then again, some as yet untainted figure could force a radical change in direction, one that would put the Republicans in tune with the America that frets about traffic as much as taxes, and insurance premiums at least as much as Iraq.