Issue #25, Summer 2012

Can the GOP Evolve?

To read the other essays in the “Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics” symposium, click here.

It’s 2024. The vast majority of baby boomers have arrived at retirement age. The pre-baby boomers are rapidly passing from the scene. (The youngest of them, born in 1945, are about to turn 80.) The long-predicted crisis of the American fiscal system has arrived.

The political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined politics as a contest over “who gets what, when, and how.” Over the next dozen years, as the gap between the revenue lines and the expenditure lines of the federal and state governments widen, that definition could aptly be amended: Who gets disappointed—and by how much? Will baby boomers receive a less generous deal from Medicare than their parents did? Will the huge promises to public-sector retirees be honored? Or will other programs for younger people be squeezed? Will we sacrifice America’s military presence in the world? Or will we exact more in taxes—and if so, what kind of taxes, and imposed on whom?

These harrowing questions have disconcerting political implications for the country’s two great political parties.

For Democrats, the trends pose a stark distributional question. The younger people of the 2020s, survivors of the Great Recession, will in the aggregate be poorer than their elders. Should these younger workers be taxed or see their own social services squeezed in order to support Medicare and public-service pensions in their full amplitude?

For Republicans, the trends pose a coalition-management question. Throughout the Obama years, Republicans built a powerful coalition of the rich and the old. The coalition was built on two principles: militant rejection of any and all new taxes, and unyielding defense of existing government benefits for those at or near retirement age.

But as Medicare costs rise, the no-new-taxes/no-cuts-in-Medicare combination will become increasingly difficult to sustain. Already, polls show that Republican voters (as opposed to activists) prefer tax increases on upper-income earners to Medicare cuts. So long as the choice between taxes and Medicare cuts remains latent, the preferences of rank-and-file Republicans may not matter much. But as budget gaps widen, that tension will surely come to the fore.

The trend, as they say, is the trend only till it bends. Yet it’s also true that 12 years is not so very far away. Let’s hazard two plausible scenarios.

1) Reactionary Democrats. Democrats depend hugely on public-sector unions for votes and money. Suppose the party decides to make a priority of protecting their interests and those of their retirees. Democrats may call for higher taxes on the rich to pay for these benefits, but that math does not suffice. The non-rich young will also have to pay.

But the young of the 2020s will not only be poorer than the elderly. They will be ethnically different. Whereas public-sector retirees will be whiter and blacker than the total population, the young of the 2020s will be more Hispanic and Asian. Age competition will also be ethnic competition.

Could that competition be the force that shakes loose Hispanic and Asian voters from the Democratic coalition? Asian voters in particular are better educated, more affluent, and more likely to be self-employed—prime candidates for Republican recruitment. The Conservative parties in Canada and the UK have made great inroads among Asian voters. (In the Canadian election of 2010, the Conservatives won a plurality among voters who speak Chinese at home.) Could a reactionary Democratic Party at last do what George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” tried and failed to do in the 2000s and move large numbers of people of color into the GOP column?

2) Upper-class Republicans. If the fiscal squeeze tightens enough, Republicans will be forced to choose between their limited government ideology and their older voting base. If they choose their ideology, they will need to locate some new voters in upper-income America. They will need to draw back to the Grand Old Party the kind of voters who defected to Barack Obama in 2008: affluent professionals, especially women, in major urban centers. This was the kind of Republicanism practiced in the 1990s by governors like Christine Todd Whitman, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, and George Pataki. Such a Republicanism would not need to jettison its pro-life message, just de-emphasize it, as Democrats have, for example, de-emphasized their message on gun control.

At the beginning of the Tea Party era, there was much talk that Republicans might switch to a more economic, less culturally exclusive message. That talk came to nothing. Instead, Republicans infused cultural exclusion into their economics, drawing a sharp distinction between the “earned” benefit of Medicare and Social Security and other programs that serve supposedly less deserving populations: food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Yet it does not have to be this way. The GOP can remain a culturally conservative party without needing to endorse vaginal inspections of women or miring itself in fights over birth control. The coming generational shift within the GOP on gay rights points the way to such future change.

Such a GOP would look more like conservative parties elsewhere on the planet—and less like the Southern Democrats of the 1950s. And while some Republicans might dismiss those non-U.S. conservative parties as squishy, it’s worth noting that at least some of them—notably the Germans and Canadians—managed successfully to complete the fiscal consolidation that in the United States still looms terrifyingly ahead.

Of course, this is not the only option for the Republicans. But it’s the way that remains truest to what is most useful in the GOP, as the party of enterprise, opportunity—and freedom.


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Issue #25, Summer 2012
Post a Comment

Derek Pearce:

One quibble-- in Canada's case, most of that fiscal consolidation came from the responsible, sensible stewardship of the Liberals who governed before the current Conservatives took over.

Anyhow, here's hoping the GOP will quit being so downright psychotic sooner rather than later.

Jun 14, 2012, 9:00 AM
Truthful James:

Frum (and Democracy) view the centralization of authority -- and the weakening of the States -- as inevitable. I do not. The Democrat Party views all problems as common across the fifty states and solvable only through the arrival of money passed through an incompetent and wasteful National government.

Democracy's emphasis on interclass mobility is righteous; it neglects the necessity of geographic mobility to other states with other opportunities. Not mentioned is the necessity in a Republic of a functioning family unit to relieve greatly the cost of governance.

The central government tempts the states and municipalities not to tax their own citizens but to rely on its largesse filtered through the bureaucracy. This is the antithesis of the Republic which was originally formed in 1787.

Jun 14, 2012, 12:21 PM

Frankly, I see things shaking out almost exactly the opposite of what you postulate here, Mr. Frum.

1. While it is true that the ultra-leftists consider tampering with Social Security & Medicare as being heretical, the truth is that Democrats in positions of power, from President Obama on down, have been talking entitlement reform for quite some time. Obama knows which side of his bread is buttered - he won't sacrifice the Millennials to satiate a class of pensioners who never vote Democratic anyway. Simpson-Bowles and the Grand Bargain were both Obama projects to start with.

2. Is where you truly start whistling past the graveyard. The Christianists have worked way too long to turn the GOP into their catspaw to ever relinquish power, and they are far too well organized to be shunted aside by any Centrists. Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki are about as relevant to the GOP of today (or tomorrow) as Theodore Bilbo or George Wallace are relevant in today's Democratic Party. Last point but an important one: the GOP does not believe in Evolution, Mr. Frum - Evolution is a Socialist-Islamist plot, don't you know?

Jun 17, 2012, 8:47 PM

Mr. Frum,

While Dixie remains the deciding vote in the Republican party, there is no way that Asians are going to be attracted to it. They might be affluent, but they're not stupid.

If the best ambassadors the GOP can offer are Piyush "Bobby" Jindal and Nimrata "Nikki Haley" Randhawa, then try again.

If two Asians have to disavow their heritage repeatedly and in public to get elected, and still endure racial slurs, what's the takeaway for the rest of the community?

The Democrats may suffer from a lack of imagination, but at least they ain't the GOP.

Jun 17, 2012, 10:28 PM
TJ Parker:

The GOP will rid itself of the homophobes? I'll believe it when I see it. Personally I think we just have to wait until they all die off in a few years.

Jun 18, 2012, 12:07 AM
Rhonda Pearson-Wallace:

David, you most likely heard of the situation in Michigan where Republicans barred a legislator from speaking after she used the word 'vagina' in a floor debate on an anti-abortion bill.

This is today's GOP. My GOP.

It isn't getting better. It's getting worse. Much worse.

In a mere twelve years, you think it likely that this party of ours will, from within itself, find a means to become a socially moderate, fiscally conservative ruling party that knows how to compromise with the opposition to achieve shared national goals?

I fail to imagine how, and I rarely have a failure of imagination.

Jun 18, 2012, 2:54 AM

"This is today's GOP. My GOP.

It isn't getting better. It's getting worse. Much worse."

And it's got a long-term sustaining power from both the organized 'christian' right and the backing of the financial elites.

Jun 27, 2012, 10:22 AM

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