With a profound philosophical rift emerging in the nation’s chief opposition party, intolerance and programmatic lack of empathy are becoming the hallmarks of a troubled Republican minority. Party strategists are now worrying that, whatever the benefit might be for “building the base”, a more hard-line, less flexible, less inclusive vision of Republicanism will hurt the party’s chances in national elections.
The two elements of the problem are crucial: Intolerance, because ideological conservatives have seized on Obama’s inclusive 21st century message of “change” as a touchstone they can use to signify a threat to all things traditional, American, and, if you will, read: white. No-empathy, because their positions routinely ignore the human element in issues of major political controversy.
Empathy vs. Non-empathy in Public Service
Empathy became a catch-word this summer, when Republicans sought to use the word to describe Obama’s choice of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court as a “racist”, because she might “empathize” with actual human beings making an argument before her. The term they were looking for, of course, was sympathy… empathy is not sharing a view, but sensing the shared humanity of the other, possibly of someone whose views are diametrically opposed to one’s own.
In terms of judicial talent, empathy is an absolute necessary quality, because it allows the judge to see not only the meaning of a law on paper, but the meaning of a law’s wording and effects in the lives of actual human beings. Democracy cannot be defended if there is not a respect for the rights of human beings living in the democratic society in question. But that’s almost beside the point: the Republican party is now grappling with an even more grave miscalculation.
An intelligent Republican strategist could point out to the party elders that an absence of empathy has a clinical definition: sociopathy. Republican leaders would do well to hear that comment before it is picked up by Democratic strategists and party leaders. One may be more or less indifferent to human suffering, or afraid of difference, but who wants to elect political leaders whose party aims bear resemblance to a profound psychological sickness?
Intolerance and lack of empathy are, however, different problems for the party: intolerance shrinks the tent, because specific groups are directly excluded, or feel they are, by coded language and by inelastic rhetoric on specific social issues. Lack of empathy, however, further shrinks the tent by signaling an unwillingness to stand by you if you need the support of the people you elected.
Exodus: Movement of the People
Republican party strategists are worried about the direction this ideological shift has taken: with long-time senior Republicans like Arlen Specter fleeing the party for fear of their political fortunes, the message of the moment is clear: the Republican party is banking on a hard-right leap of faith, ousting those not in line with the ideology and demonizing all other elements in society. This means that if the bet goes south, the party loses still more ground, with nothing to fall back on.
By the swearing in of Barack Obama as president of the United States, in January, strategists and pundits, even among Republicans, were beginning to question if the party would be able to adapt to the 21st century, demographically and ideologically, and survive, or if it would be marginalized as some other party moved in to take its center-right place on the American political spectrum. In the 2008 election cycle, the Republican party actually lost overall membership numbers, while Obama alone brought 13 million people into his campaign.
Part of the problem is that the Republicans are fighting to be the conservative party in a system not of their own making. The Democratic party fashioned, in large part, the existing system of public services and national government, through the New Deal and the 60 years of Congressional dominance, from 1932 through 1994.
To defend the existing norms would be the Democratic thing to do. So, ironically, it was Republican “conservative” propaganda that allowed Barack Obama to be the “change candidate” the entire globe was able to see as distinct and revolutionary. Obama’s message is new, and would bring change, but his politics is Democratic, and seeks mainly to continue pursuing the aims of the Democratic party historically, in an updated, more dynamic fashion.
The Green-Lib Coalition
What Republicans need to worry about is triangulation. They have been fighting a pitched battle against Democratic “liberalism”, while offering no coherent platform of public services or government accountability that is strictly “conservative” yet able to operate in the system that already exists. This makes them first of all a reluctant party of radical change, and second, a party at risk of being boxed out ideologically by more policy-oriented parties.
For instance, there is significant overlap between the policy goals of the Green party and those of the Libertarian party, despite deep philosophical differences on the role of government. A multi-state coalition among representatives of these two parties could forge a path for viable opposition to the two-party stranglehold on power. The effects would likely see one of the two major parties pushed into third place.
As the numbers stand now, a Green-Lib coalition might be able to shave as much as 10% off Democratic support nationwide, assuming Democrats or liberal independents —still wary of repeating the 2000 election, where a Green candidate effectively denied the Democratic candidate the White House— believed the coalition was big enough to keep the Republicans at bay. Republicans might lose anywhere from 20% to 35% of their support, as they struggle against Green-Lib claims that they are not rights-oriented and not green enough.
This may be a little bit like fantasy baseball, but there’s something to the idea: Bill Maher, a staunch libertarian and a committed liberal, clearly sides with Green party politics on a number of issues. His audience sees the world through a very complex, but real and palpable, Green-Lib prism of political choices. Voters are looking for something more “their own” nowadays, something different from and more personally relevant and attuned than the old prevailing norms.
The question of why or how a Green-Lib coalition might play out —and that is really just one example— will have a lot to do with what party is bleeding votes in what way, and why? Right now, the Republican party is bleeding votes because 1) Bush’s politics failed on a grand scale; 2) the party has acquired an air of radical intolerance; 3) the party appears to be “out of touch” with the average voter; and 4) because Obama’s 21st century message of dynamic vision, inclusiveness, public service and sustainability, is prevailing.
Those four factors all suggest a Green-Lib coalition would more easily capture would-be Republican votes —perhaps all of them independents— than Democratic votes, as the Democrats are now more united and more determined than at any time in nearly 50 years. Pres. Obama needs to make sure he keeps his own message, his own revolutionary pragmatist framework at the center of the Democratic discourse, because that is what brought over 65 million voters to his cause in 2008.
The Republicans do not have that luxury. They don’t have a nuanced, complex, adaptable message that fits so many competing interests. If the Democrats can hold onto that momentum, analysts now suggest, they have a much better chance to expand their electoral base and build reliable votes into every election for coming decades, in part due to demographics, in part due to changing attitudes on a range of social issues.
The Republican party wants to carry the conservative banner, but has had a difficult time explaining what conservatism means in modern America. As such, the party has opted for an explanation whereby modern America is the problem and conservatism is about stripping away layers of change, making social structures more rigid and shifting power back toward the top of the socio-economic pyramid.
In 2006 and 2008, this approach was roundly rejected by American voters, which is why Barack Obama won 16 million more votes than George W. Bush did in 2000 (69,456,897 [PDF] to 50,456,002). It was by far the most votes any presidential candidate has ever received, and well more than doubled his opponent’s Electoral College tally (365 to 173).
The Republican party’s shift toward corporate interests is not really a conservative political ideology at all, but a matter of fact for a party which is struggling to inspire small donors in large numbers. Money became key to political stature in the United States when the Supreme Court found that “money is free speech”, effectively allowing political parties to organize their philosophical platforms around fundraising.
Barack Obama, however, demonstrated that big-donor fundraising doesn’t necessarily equal political might. He won more support from a larger number of small donors (individuals giving under $200) than any presidential candidate in history, and in some months actually tripled previous records for fundraising. There is a new model for how to do political outreach, and the Republican party may not have the rhetorical or philosophical reach to do it well.
Wayward & Wandering
Despite some rhetorical hullabaloo this summer —about Sonia Sotomayor’s non-existent “racism” and healthcare reform’s non-existent “socialized medicine” agenda—, the party is still adrift, unable to bring together corporate interests, social ultraconservatives, Christian voters (many of whom favor the Democrats’ social justice positions) and rural voters (whose intermittent conservatism is often non-ideological).
The Republican party needs to be wary of its own strategy of paring down, peeling away moderate policy positions, marginalizing, driving away or even deliberately opposing moderate members of the party, and attacking values that huge segments of the population now see as integral to life in 21st century America. The strategy is a little like burning the village to save it.
On immigration reform, the Republican position is aggressive, hostile to human need or welfare, and undemocratic; it is likely to make anywhere from 10 to 40 million votes unavailable to them, possibly for generations. On healthcare reform, the 52 million uninsured will likely never support the Republican position, which amounts to a political declaration of war against that population. Assuming there is some overlap, we are looking at 60 to 80 million votes that the Republicans are throwing away.
And not every voter who believes in moderation is one of those 60 to 80 million; plenty of people will be turned off by the hostile grandstanding that pits Republican party politicians against the needs of those too powerless to defend themselves in the public sphere or to acquire healthcare coverage.
There are many conservatives whose view is that conservatism is moderate by nature, not radical, and the radicalizing elements in the Republican party may drive those conservatives toward the Libertarians or to Obama’s generally moderate pragmatism. There are a range of issues on which the Republican party’s inflexibility and lack of empathy hamper its ability to craft viable solutions that can win broad support.
Christian Morality in Public Service
A significant number of evangelical voters are outraged over the Iraq war and over the simultaneous inaction on humanitarian crises like Darfur. Global climate destabilization and energy innovation are increasingly seen as issues of Christian moral obligation, as poorer and underdeveloped countries are likely to see the most widespread suffering as a result of the current crisis. The Republicans are losing votes there as well.
As an example of how progressive values and Christian social policy are converging, especially on economic and environmental issues, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) writes, in its pastoral letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the US economy, entitled Economic Justice for All, that:
All people on this globe share a common ecological environment that is under increasing pressure. Depletion of soil, water, and other natural resources endangers the future. Pollution of air and water threatens the delicate balance of the biosphere on which future generations will depend. The resources of the earth [sic] have been created by God for the benefit of all, and we who are alive today hold them in trust. This is a challenge to develop a new ecological ethic that is both just and sustainable. (¶12)
The pastoral letter goes on to talk about the need to act in favor of basic Christian values of fairness and human dignity in economic policies, stating specifically that: “No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of the hunger, homelessness, insecurity, and injustice found in this country and the world.” (¶27)
The USSCB calls for the founding of a new “common moral vision” of society and its economic institutions, and adds that “human dignity, realized in community and in connection with the whole of God’s creation, is the norm against which every social institution must be measured.” (¶25)
Instead of constructive ideas, viable programs, plans to reduce the deficit while finding funding for much needed reforms, the Republican party is gambling on a logic of confusion: call the opponents the “Democrat party”, instead of the Democratic party, confuse the word empathy with the word sympathy, tell people that all government actions are by nature “socialist”.
That logic of confusion may have the desired effect of sowing confusion, but such an outcome won’t build support for a Republican party that is not offering viable ideas and seems wed to confusion. The Republican party has stripped away any sensible strategy for making a moral case for its leadership, in favor of a morally vacuous tactical assault on the image of Democratic politics; this opens them up to the charge that their own politics is devoid of a genuine moral vision of public service.
Rapid Third-party Rise
At the point where ideological radicalism starts to take precedence over the quality of public service a party can hope to deliver, philosophical splits become something far more concrete. Israel is a clear example: when the conservative Likud party began to move toward an ideological hard-line agenda, its most popular leader at the time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, split from the party, and founded a “national unity” centrist party, called Kadima.
Within months, Sharon’s Kadima party had won support from leading Labor party figures, adopted important left-of-center ideas, and comprehensively swore off associating with any far-right ultranationalist figures. The reason: even in Israel, where the population must live in actual physical fear for terrorist attack, on a regular basis, the bellicose and intolerant positions that came to dominate Likud were unacceptable to a majority of voters.
Principled pragmatism made them feel safer. In the aftermath of Sharon’s suffering a stroke, the next prime minister Ehud Olmert strayed from some of Kadima’s most centrist pro-peace positions, and launched two aggressive wars that earned Israel near global denunciation for attacks on civilians, the very thing Israeli politics is organized to oppose. For that reason alone, Likud was able to form a government in association with a far-right ultranationalist party which Kadima roundly rejects.
Sentiment there seems to be that a credible Labor party would be the standard second-place finisher to a credible Kadima. A new generation of leadership is taking over Kadima, and has expressed its determination that radical elements in Likud or among its ultranationalist coalition partners, not be allowed to guide national social or security policy.
There is a price to pay for ideological radicalization: the shrinking of the electorate available to the radicalized party. The lesson: even where Likud was able to form a fragile coalition government in Israel’s parliamentary system, its fortunes are gravely set back by ideological radicalization. The “third party” Kadima bloc is now likely to return to the majority, and the radicalized conservative party is essentially in competition for second place, with a disorganized Labor party, struggling to find its footing as well.
The question ultimately is: will the Republicans figure it out in time? If not, the Green-Lib coalition just might spring up. Likely not in 2010, or even in 2012. But if the Republican party loses more ground to the Democratic party in 2010, or in both 2010 and 2012, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the American electorate would not start searching for a viable opposition, to avoid a concentration of power that is generally seen by all as unhealthy for democracy.
It is unpleasant, if one is a Republican party leader, to contemplate the need to do business with and be cooperative in the policy goals of the current administration, which came to office on a wave of movement-level public support that opposed the party’s central ideas. But there may be no other way for the Republican party to show that its ideas, and its people, can work to the benefit of the nation, given the problems and the ethical tests of the 21st century.