The Decline (and Fall) of the G.O.P.?

News at Home

Mr. Toplin, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, is the author of Radical Conservatism: The Right’s Political Religion (2006).

It’s hard to believe that less than five years ago George W. Bush won re-election, and the G.O.P. secured control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Since that time, the Republican Party has gone through one of the greatest meltdowns in political history. Americans have been leaving the party in droves. And while Democrats have rallied around the impressive stewardship of Barack Obama, Republicans appear leaderless. Their public face has been represented in recent months by Dick Cheney, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and radio jock Rush Limbaugh, individuals with limited national appeal.

How did the G.O.P. disintegrate so quickly? Let’s count the ways.

The Republicans’ quest for ideological purity is certainly a major factor. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania cited this problem when he announced his switch to the Democratic Party. Specter complained that Republicans have been moving to the far-right for decades. Conservatives’ demands to “purify the party” in primary elections often cause defeat in the general elections, he noted. A day after Senator Specter made his decision public, one of the two remaining Republican senators from the Northeast, Olympia Snowe, confessed in the New York Times that, as a Republican moderate, she “sometimes feels like being a cast member of 'Survivor.' ” Snowe claimed her party “cannot prevail in the future without moderates.”

It should not be surprising that Arlen Specter did not want to face the G.O.P.’s true believers in the Pennsylvania primary or that Olympia Snowe feels like a lonely figure among zealous conservatives. For years, movers and shakers in the G.O.P. such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have tried to clean out the ideologically impure. Militants despised RINOs, moderates they characterized as “Republican In Name Only”

Long ago, the G.O.P. provided abundant space for moderates. In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke about building “Modern Republicanism,” a term that hinted of center-right politics. In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan stressed conservative principles, but he also tried to bring diverse political groups into the G.O.P.’s “big tent.” These days, gate-keepers want to ensure that only true conservatives enter that tent.

When G.O.P. leaders now talk about their party’s values, they often invoke the term “conservative.” But when Democrats speak of values, they hardly mention ideology. Democrats rarely talk about promoting a “liberal” agenda, and they cite the less controversial identity of “progressive” much less than Republicans mention the term “conservative” (“Progressive” appeals to Democrats because 67% of Americans now have a favorable impression of the word). Democrats emphasize pragmatic rather than ideological approaches, a strategy that better suits the public’s temperament.

Association with ideology has been hurting G.O.P. candidates for several years, but the party’s leaders seem reluctant to adjust. They speak often of reasserting their fundamental commitment to conservative principles. To compromise seems like an abandonment of the right’s political religion. It represents heresy. Few spokesmen for the right are willing to consider the painful lesson of Arlen Specter’s defection. Instead of acknowledging a need for adjustment, they say “good riddance” and urge renewed commitments to partisanship.

The Republicans’ stands on social issues hurt their standing with voters in recent years. G.O.P. leaders tended to move their party in the opposite direction of public opinion. New surveys suggest that Republicans’ positions on emotion-laden topics will likely create difficulties for their candidates in the future. America’s younger voters are generally more tolerant than older ones. A New York Times/CBS News poll released in April, 2009 showed, for example, that 57% of Americans queried who were under the age of 40 supported same-sex marriages. A few years ago opposition to gay marriage led many Americans to vote Republican, but this issue appears to be losing force. Republicans have also been closely identified with anti-abortion stands in recent years, yet surveys show that less than a quarter of Americans adamantly oppose the procedure. The G.O.P.’s resistance to forms of stem cell research during the Bush years and coddling of people who want “Intelligent Design” taught in the public schools gave an impression that the party was hostile to science.

On many other critical issues of the day, Republicans appeared to offer only fearful warnings and negative votes rather than thoughtful ideas and practical remedies. As evidence mounted about the dangers of global warming, lots of G.O.P. leaders acted like the manufacturers of cigarettes, claiming that scientific evidence on the subject remained a matter of “debate.” When the Obama administration proposed strong new measures to deal with the health care crisis, influential figures in the G.O.P. offered few alternatives. In the face of an extraordinary financial crisis, Republicans recited the old mantra of lower taxes and less government, endorsing points that George W. Bush promoted vigorously during his eight years in Washington. It seemed the G.O.P.’s major strategy for challenging Obama’s plans to rescue the economy was to resurrect an old bugaboo, the warning about “socialism.”

Republicans have also been losing ground in matters of demography. Their shrill complaints about immigration sent Latinos into the arms of Democrats. The G.O.P.’s inattention to women’s issues, stands against the “choice” of abortion, and enthusiasm for military action abroad left many feminine voters uncomfortable in their ranks. Barack Obama enjoyed a huge advantage among the under-thirty voters in the 2008 elections, a troubling sign for Republicans who want to win the hearts and minds of young adults in future elections.

The G.O.P.’s “tent” no longer seems very large. It attracts southerners, evangelicals, and white men, especially. America is turning increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial, but crowds at Republican meetings often look like an assembly of Anglo-Saxons. Women are growing more prominent as political leaders, but most of them are Democrats.

Can Republicans learn from their faulty reading of the public’s changing sentiments? Can they develop better skills at political compromise? Will they abandon their commitment to militant conservatism and achieve, once again, identity as champions of the moderate right? Can they do a better job opening their arms to citizens of diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, and sexual identities, making their party look more like America?

Historians often suggest that the American political tradition is essentially pragmatic. Parties and leaders adjust with the times. Politicians are determined to win, and success in local and national elections calls for the constant monitoring of voters’ attitudes and frequent changes in strategy. That is the tradition, but Republicans have not provided much evidence recently that they are eager to honor it.

Sooner or later, an appeal to pragmatism is likely to resonate among leaders in the G.O.P., and the party will tack towards the middle. If that expected development fails to occur, a third party may emerge in the style of moderate, Eisenhower-style Republicanism. That new party could present a formidable challenge if the G.O.P. continues to appear radical and marginal to a majority of the American electorate.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Barry DeCicco - 5/26/2009

Last I heard, Dale, 9/11 was not the cause. Bush was embarked on a financially corrupt course long before that.

I do urge you, however, to please keep saying '9/11!' at *every* opportunity, and use it as an excuse for the Bush administration.

Barry DeCicco - 5/26/2009

"The GOP ought to expel senators like Snowe,..."

From your lips to God's ears.

Dale R Streeter - 5/9/2009

"George W. Bush and the Republicans may have espoused this but the reality was the GOP conversion of the Clinton balanced budget into massive deficit spending while increasing the size and power of the government."

Does anyone recall the events of September 11th and its aftermath? Does increased national security, whatever one may think of its necessity and extent, come without cost?

Robert Brent Toplin - 5/8/2009

If you want a purely and zealously conservative G.O.P., that is an effective strategy. If you want to build a more moderate G.O.P. that has a future in America's Northeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain states, and the Pacific Coast region, that approach to Snowe and others like her could provide lots of G.O.P. time in the political wilderness. -Robert Brent Toplin

Robert Brent Toplin - 5/8/2009

I think you identify an excellent example of the kind of Republican that could serve as a model for today's G.O.P. Sen. Howard Baker was a savvy and moderate and open-minded leader, the kind that is in short supply in G.O.P. ranks today. As for the NY Times new op-ed contributor Ross Douthat, he is very good at criticizing fellow-conservatives (and Republicans) for their excesses, but when trying map out an alternate course he often seems a bit fuzzy. I do not believe he has been successful (so far) in describing a clear third approach.
Regarding your commitment as an independent, you make a strong case. It is interesting, though, that the Democratic Party has created such a large tent that there is a lot of room inside these days for people of diverse interests. Almost by default, Dems were able to grab lots of independents and even lots of moderate conservatives. The point: independents may be able to find the can have more influence over the course of politics by working inside that party rather than outside of it. -Robert Brent Toplin

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/7/2009

Senator Snowe is a total liberal, and should feel quite lonely behind her Republican label. The GOP ought to expel senators like Snowe, so they do not hold committee chairmanships some day, and "ranking member" chairs while they wait. They do enormous damage in such positions.

Andrew D. Todd - 5/5/2009


I don't know if you have ever heard of the Swedish Pirate Party.

Under Continental European proportional representation rules, the Pirate Party, and its various national affiliates, are on the verge of gaining parliamentary representation, at about the five-percent level, meaning that they will often have to be propitiated in order to assemble a majority coalition.

In other words, they are doing surprisingly well, coming essentially from nowhere. They are very twenty-first century, and all-- they don't really make sense in terms of the conventional left-right spectrum of twentieth-century politics. But if you take the internet as a basic economic reality, and build from there, they make quite a lot of sense.

Really a lot of stuff has been happening, off on the sidelines of politics. The flavor of these "side events" is very much like what was happening in the 1760's, on the eve of the American Revolution. Recorded music is acquiring the same kind of political importance that tea did. The recording industry has sued something like thirty thousand people, mostly teenagers, for sums on the order of a million dollars each, which of course they don't have. However, putting huge numbers of people into desperate straits is a proven method to make a revolution. The Democrats are "Old Corruption" in this respect-- they take way too much money from movie impresarios and suchlike. I don't know if you will agree with my conclusions, but I suggest that you do need to become familiar with the unfolding evidence. The Techdirt site, cited above, is about as good a place as any to start.

Maarja Krusten - 5/5/2009

Clarification: I wrote:

"Baker mentions the need to emphasize liberty, among other concepts; Douthat mentions the need to address, even criticize, party orthodoxy. Those are two concepts which, depending on the context, can pull in opposite directions (e.g., in the application of litmus tests)."

I should have written "Liberty and orthodoxy are two concepts which, depending on the context, can pull in oppossite directions (e.g., in the application of litmus tests.)" Obviously, I did not mean that *addressing* or even *criticizing* party orthodoxy (what Douthat appears to be advocating) may create an inner tension when a party points to liberty as a cornerstone of political identity.

I'm interested in management science as well as politics. I mentioned above the advantages of a relaxed, "I hear you, dude" approach to questions. People are people. Management gurus, such as the authors of _Driving Fear Out of the Workplace_, point to reduction in "undiscussables" as an indicator of how well a workplace operates. Undiscussables are cultural or envioronmental factors which some employees believe to exist. They may discuss them quietly at the "water cooler" but never feel free to bring up the issues in group settings with managers, e.g., at staff meetings. Management experts say, better to air 'em out and even to reward rather than shoot the messenger. I'm left wondering if a different approach by his surrogates and advocates would have helped W. Too late now. We'll see how the other side does, now.

Maarja Krusten - 5/5/2009

Thank you for your kind words. A party's base may be comfortable with a fixed table d'hôte menu but Independets tend to walk out of the restaurant and look instead for places that offer some a la carte dining choices. Apealing to both types can be a challenge.

I myself am an Indepedent, although I once called myself a Republican, from the time I cast my first vote (for Richard Nixon) until 1989. Since 1989, as Independents do, at all levels, down to the local, I've voted sometimes for candidates of one and sometimes of the other party.

Not only do I not have a strong stake in how either party does, but I'm old enough to have seen both handle cycles of success and defeat. I'm primarily interested in how advocates for both parties try to hold their base but also appeal to Independents. My interest in such matters probably was triggered by the years I spent as an employee of the U.S. National Archives, reviewing the conversations recorded on the Nixon White House tapes to see what should be released to the public. Fascinating mix of politics and governance in those conversations.

Ross Douthat, the new conservative columnist on the NYT's editorial page, observes today that "the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today."

Former Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (in whose office I briefly worked during the summer of the Watergate hearings, for which he was Vice Chair of the select committee), offers his views in today's Washington Post. He refers to the continuing power of "The core Republican beliefs in less government, lower taxes, more liberty and greater security in a dangerous world."

Baker mentions the need to emphasize liberty, among other concepts; Douthat mentions the need to address, even criticize, party orthodoxy. Those are two concepts which, depending on the context, can pull in opposite directions (e.g., in the application of litmus tests). It was the failure to address the reconciliation of those opposing dynamics that hurt many of W.'s advocates during his administration, including here on HNN. I've sometimes wondered how things would have worked out, had the principals or their surrogates taken a more relaxed view of explaining their goals. Instead of the clenched teeth "you're either for us or against us" vibe, what if the public would have heard explanations with undertones of "dude, I totally get why you're asking about that, I've wondered about that myself. FWIW, here's how I see it. . . . ").

The people spoke last November. Now its the turn of the advocates of the other party, to answer questions and explain goals!

Robert Brent Toplin - 5/4/2009

Responding to the changing mood of the country represents "spineless bending with public opinion?" To take public opinion seriously does not necessarily mean giving up all ideals and principles. Don't politics involve BOTH principles and compromise? -Robert Brent Toplin

Robert Brent Toplin - 5/4/2009

Good point. There is a big difference between rhetoric and practice. In this brief reference I am just talking about the proposed remedies -- they sound like the old prescription. -Robert Brent Toplin

Bob Huddleston - 5/4/2009

"... Republicans recited the old mantra of lower taxes and less government, endorsing points that George W. Bush promoted vigorously during his eight years in Washington."

George W. Bush and the Republicans may have espoused this but the reality was the GOP conversion of the Clinton balanced budget into massive deficit spending while increasing the size and power of the government.

Bob Huddleston

Robert Brent Toplin - 5/4/2009

Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful observations about the independents' points-of-view. -Robert Brent Toplin

Maarja Krusten - 5/4/2009

For a voice from the inside, consider what former Rep. Jim Leach (who served in Congress as a Republican) said recently. Mr. Leach said “The Republican Party was founded as a party of individual rights and individual initiative. It led the fight to end slavery, give women the right to vote, expand national parks and break up corporate monopolies. Today the party is more movement-oriented: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-tax cut and anti-U.N., with recent pandering in Texas and Alaska to irrational secessionist anger. Arlen Specter didn’t fit.

He’s not the only one. Many traditional Republicans respect movement values but do not support efforts to impose them on society as a whole. They are instinctively pragmatic rather than ideological, tolerant rather than supportive of state regulation of values. They can vote for Democrats when given compelling choices, but for a variety of reasons they aren’t comfortable with either modern conservatism or old-fashioned liberalism.

An increasing number of Americans simply don’t feel at home with either political party. It is not that there is a groundswell for a third party; it is that they want people in public life to calm down, to work together, to put the national interest above politics and self.”

With a whopping 38% of the people self identifying as Independent in recent polls, both parties need to consider how best to appeal to such people. It's not as easy as one might think because Independents cherish individualism but may not all define individualism the same way. Some appear to be resistant to litmus tests as being antithetical to individualism.

As a longtime HNN reader, I think George W. Bush was not well served by most of his advocates in the blogosphere. Sometimes I cringed at what I read during the last four years, shaking my head and saying, no, no, you're hurting him, not helping him. While advocating for the party in power, many writers came across as too demanding of conformity to their views, lacking in introspection, unwilling to criticize their side (a trait which actually can signal confidence rather than weakness), and dismissive of questions raised by Independents. They seemed to struggle in dealing with people who do not fit neat pigeonholes, a number which Leach suggests actually forms a significant part of the voting public.

Given what Leach describes, it will be interesting to see how President Obama's amateur, that is, citizen, advocates handle the challenge of dealing with Independents and generally with people who raise questions in the blogosphere.

James W Loewen - 5/4/2009

This catalog of Republican blunders and limitations is accurate. However, all it will take for a reversal is for a Republican leader to step forward, like Newt G. did in 1994, with some ideas and sound bytes. Why are Democrats so vulnerable? Prof. Toplin implies the answer himself: "“Progressive” appeals to Democrats because 67% of Americans now have a favorable impression of the word." The public, Toplin included, perceives Democrats as spineless, bending with public opinion. Many voters not only do not find that behavior ingratiating, they do not trust such people.