Mitt Romney did not lose the presidency last night because he was too “moderate” or because he was “severely conservative.” He did not lose because hurricane Sandy stopped his momentum or because he coasted to the finish line or because he did not press harder on questions about Benghazi. Romney lost because the Democratic Party enjoyed a six-point advantage in party identification last night, nearly as wide a gap between the parties as its seven-point advantage in 2008. Whether this is the emerging Democratic majority that John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted eight years ago, or whether it is merely an ad hoc coalition in support of Barack Obama’s unique candidacy, is a question that only time (and another election or two) can answer.
What is clear is that the Republican Party has painted itself into a demographic corner. Hispanics have turned decisively against it, and the young have too. On Fox News last night, the Democratic pollster and consultant Pat Caddell said the Republicans’ “branding problem is reminiscent of the Whigs.” Exactly so. If the party does not adapt to the shifting demographics of the American electorate, it will become a permanent minority, if not extinct.
The party—and the conservative movement for which it serves as the electoral arm—must be reformed. But where to begin? I am only a poor literary critic, not a political pundit, but I have some ideas. The Republicans are the party of married churchgoers at a time when marriage and churchgoing are in decline. Hence (at least in part) its declining share of the vote total. It can’t suddenly cease to be the party of married churchgoers without betraying itself and its core constituency. Marriage and churches are among the “mediating institutions” that conservatism most warmly affirms, because they stand between the individual and the encroachments of the state. To defend them is to defend freedom. (Calling the GOP the party of married churchgoers is just another way of calling it the party of freedom). Besides, to change course at this stage of history, to abandon the party’s core, is hardly guaranteed to arrest the decline.
If the Republicans are going to be the party of married churchgoers, though, they need to change their tune on two key issues. They must drop their opposition to same-sex marriage, and they must quit obsessing over illegal immigrants. These two issues alone are almost entirely responsible for the Republicans’ image and reputation as the party of old white men.
What conservatives do not seem to grasp is that same-sex marriage is not an issue for gays only, but also for the young, who support it overwhelmingly, without question. And if the GOP really is the party of marriage, shouldn’t it be in favor of extending the goods of marriage to as many as possible? If marriage is everything we conservatives say it is, why should we want to deny its moral benefits to gays? The point is to stand for marriage, for an institution that promotes human freedom, and not to barricade ourselves behind the status quo ante. That’s how the party of freedom becomes the party of reaction.
So too on immigration. What many on the right have failed to understand is that demands to tighten the border, loud howls of outrage over any proposal to grant amnesty to “illegal aliens,” are deeply offensive to Hispanics and likely to estrange them from the Republican Party for a generation. Tom Wolfe explains why. Like many on the right, he had always assumed that
Mexicans who had gone to the trouble of coming to the United States legally, going through all the prescribed steps, would resent the fact that millions of Mexicans were now coming into the United States illegally across the desert border. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I discovered that everyone who thought of himself as Latin, even people who had been in this country for two and three generations, were wholeheartedly in favor of immediate amnesty and immediate citizenship for all Mexicans who happened now to be in the United States. And this feeling had nothing to do with immigration policy itself, nothing to do with law, nothing to do with politics, for that matter. To them, this was not a debate about immigration. The very existence of the debate itself was to them a besmirching of their fiction-absolute, of their conception of themselves as Latins. Somehow the debate, simply as a debate, cast an aspersion upon all Latins, implying doubt about their fitness to be within the border of such a superior nation.
The voices of immigration restrictionists on the right have pushed Hispanics into identifying with their ethnic group rather than encouraging them to identify themselves as something else instead—as churchgoers, for instance.
The Republican Party cannot win by playing the Democrats’ game of identity politics, but perhaps it might improve its chances by emphasizing a different kind of identity altogether—not identification with the special-interest groups that make up an unsteady coalition, but with stable institutions like marriage and church that enable men and women to be free.