Sarah Palin epitomized the failure of the Republican identity politics. Her personal style, her oddly-concocted populist bent, and her apparent disdain for intellectualism precipitated her downfall. She attempted to connect to the heartland of America with disdainful rhetoric about the rest of the country. In describing the conservative twist on the time-honored Democratic tactic, David Frum, a former Bush II speechwriter, remarked, “Palin symbolizes a party that doesn’t care about making the government work—so long as your heart is in the right place, so long as you have the right values, so long as you’re a good Christian, so long as you don’t kill babies, anybody can run the U.S. government. How difficult can it be?”
The presidential election underlined the deleterious effects of the GOP’s identity politics (I’ll emphasize that Palin does not deserve the lion’s share of the blame—she is rather a symbol of what has gone wrong). For years, the GOP had been a dominant force among those with BAs, yet Obama carried that group by 10 points. For the first time in decades, those with incomes over $200,000 favored Obama. These statistics alone should be a cause for concern, and the losing battle for minority groups, such as blacks and Hispanics, justifies outright panic.
Clearly, when the rich vote against their economic self-interest (at least in terms of tax policy), there is something far greater than opinion on economic policy at work. While Republicans may have abandoned their core values, more importantly they have created a flawed brand. They claim to represent the “real America” and emphasize social issues to an alarming extent. Once the party of an educated and geographically-diverse constituency, the Republican camp has shriveled to a predominantly white, Southern base, which will fail to remain competitive in future elections.
The current Republican constituency was molded and accentuated by Karl Rove’s political tactics. Rather than attempting to attract large swathes of moderates, the 2000 Bush campaign employed divisive tactics to ignite the support of an already loyal constituency and drive turnout. The result was an extremely narrow victory made possible only by the unique demographics of the time.
Since then, the political landscape and demographics of our dynamic country have changed. The identity politics of the past that emphasized social conservatism (often at the expense of the economic or security variety) can no longer be successful. The Republican Party must attempt rebranding to avoid being permanently cast as the party of “angry, old white men.”
Progress and innovation must start at the state level, where the young talent of the party supposedly lies. Republican governors must demonstrate the efficacy of conservative economic principles and prove to the rest of America that economic concerns trump social ones. Fresh faces, unmarred by recent electoral debacles, must lead the new front to capture the middle of the country.