2003 October 06 Monday
Will Republicans Follow Tories Into Marginal Status?

Peter Hitchens has an interesting essay in the British political magazine The Spectator arguing that the Conservative Party of Britain is paralyzed by deep internal divisions that can not be bridged.

The Tories are an impossible coalition of irreconcilables. No coherent government programme could ever unite them, always assuming they were able to win an election. Euro-enthusiast and Eurosceptic cannot compromise without betraying their deepest beliefs, and should not be expected to do so. Supporters of marriage and supporters of the sexual revolution likewise can have no common ground. Supposedly conservative thinkers such as David Willetts cannot earn the praise of Polly Toynbee, as he recently did, without also attracting the loathing of the many who think that children should have the right to be looked after by their own mothers rather than watch them marched off into wage-slavery. Enthusiasts for mass immigration, on the grounds that it expands the workforce, cannot be reconciled with those who fear that immigration on this scale will damage a good and ancient culture. Those who believe in rehabilitating criminals cannot reach an accommodation with those who believe in punishing them. Those who wish to legalise narcotics cannot make peace with those who wish to imprison drug-users. All parties are coalitions full of conflicts, but they need to have something fundamental that unites them despite their quarrels.

The Tory party have no such something. They are institutionally dead, having lost any serious political presence in many of the great cities of the country. They have ceased to be able to pass on their lore and language to a new generation, so that ‘Young Conservative’ has become either an oxymoron or an unkind way of describing a particular type of desperate eccentric.

Some of the issues that are splitting the Conservative Party also are causing divisions in the Right in the United States. Since Britain has in the past gone thru some changes in advance of the United States it is worth asking whether the Right in the United States will eventually suffer from splits that are as deep as those which have left the Tories unable to present a coherent agenda for governance and unable to get elected to power.

The Republicans have a number of advantages over the Tories. First off, the design of the US constitution allows greater opportunity for two parties to each exercise some power. The larger amount of power in state governments allows Republicans to demonstrate at least parts of their agenda in some states just as is the case with the Democrats as well. Given the regional differences in political leanings in the United States there are always areas where each party gets to be in power. The government of the UK is quite a bit more centralized with little devolved power to lower levels of government in the Conservative heartlands in England proper. The US constitution therefore provides greater room to allow a party that is not in control nationally to still show that it is capable of ruling. Also, with the constitutionally mandated split between the two elected houses of Congress and the elected President the voters can vote to split power at the national level between parties in the US, again allowing each party a better chance of staying viable.

Another advantage the Republicans have is the greater amount of Christian religious belief in America than in Britain. A significant portion of the Republican base are middle and lower income religiously conservative voters who are not going to vote for the party that tries to appeal to them with Robin Hood benefits (i.e. take from the rich to give to the poor) the way that the Labour Party can appeal to their equivalents in England. A left-wing party of the welfare state inevitably has to take positions on moral issues that will cause the religious conservatives in America to spurn them.

Another advantage the Republicans have is that even though the Left largely dominates academia in America just as it does in Britain there is greater intellectual activity and greater institutional support for intellectual activity on the Right in America than there is in Britain. Why the US should have right wing think tanks in such large number while Britain doesn't is a mystery to me (anyone know?). But the consequence is to provide a larger number of intellectuals to develop and articulate conservative policies.

A fourth important advantage is that nationalism is a much stronger force in the United States than in Britain. Partly that is due to the relative size in both and population of Britain versus the United States. Americans can feel like their government is, in a sense, more complete in what it is capable of. But also the appeal of the EU for the Left in the UK is that it is a clever way to use a higher level political entity to force elite will upon the populace from the top down. So the attack on nationalism in Britain is an extension of the Left's attack on anything that stands in the way of the Left's agenda. Americans have a sense of their place in history that makes it harder to undermine their nationalistic sentiment.

The Republican Party does have divisions on some of the same issues that the Tories have split on. Some of those issues (e.g. immigration) look set to grow in importance. But while some of the factions on the Right resent the way elected Republican officials cater to other right-wing factions the politicians on the Right have so far been wise enough to recognize that they need all their major factions. So we can read libertarians comment on their resentment of social and religious conservatives. Also, economic conservatives and libertarians oppose attempts to appeal to old folks with spending proposals aimed at them. Yet politicians recognize that there aren't enough libertarian or economic conservative voters to win elections and hence politicians continue to try to appeal to the various factions on the Right to put together enough support to win elections. Libertarians appear to be the faction least likely to recognize the necessity of these coaltions. But most leading figures in other factions do seem to recognize the necessity of making compromises with other factions on the Right.

Still, in spite of all these advantages is it possible that the Republican Party in the United States is still headed down the same road that the Conservative Party has been travelling in the UK? There is one really big argument for the decline of the Grand Old Party: demographics. In a nutshell, the kinds of people who are most likely to vote as Republicans are shrinking as a percentage of the electorate. Married women are more likely to vote Republican than single women are (economics rather than abortion is the biggest reason). Well, the rate of marriage is declining. Non-Jewish whites are more likely to vote Republican than any other race and, well, whites are declining as a percantage of the population. The largest rapidly growing group is Hispanics and they show no sign of shifting rightward (all Karl Rove and George W. Bush fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding). The aging of the population shifts people from the ranks of the wage earners and taxpayers into the ranks of the recipients of goverrnment social spending. Recipients of government social spending are natural Democratic Party voters. Also, the number of people holding strong Christian religious beliefs may well decline further.

So is the death of the Republican Party inevitable? Well, it might be able to respond to demographics trends by shifting leftward. After all, George Pataki was elected governor of New York and Rudi Giuliani was elected mayor of New York City in the 1990s running as Republicans. But such Republicans have a term used to describe them in Republican circles: Rino or Republican In Name Only. So if Pataki represents the future of the Republican Party then the party's ability to win at least some future elections will require Republican Party politicians to take policy positions that make current complaints of libertarians and economic conservatives about the current crop of elected Republicans and their support for increased spending seem mild in comparison. Demographic trends will most likely result in an unappealing pair of choices for the limited government Republicans: hollow victories or outright electoral defeats.

Update: A recent column by David Broder in the Washington Post provides a brief outline of just how bad the US government fiscal situation looks in future decades.

That sounds like scare talk. But the reality is that after 2013, things will get worse. The first of the baby boomers reach retirement age in 2008, and from that point on, Social Security and Medicare payments will explode, as the number of claimants rises each year. As Pete Peterson, the Republican former secretary of commerce, told the news conference where this report was presented, anyone who thinks those programs are solidly financed ought to think again. "To talk about a Social Security trust fund is a fiscal oxymoron," he said. "It isn't funded and it can't be trusted." Rather, the government faces $25 trillion of unfunded entitlement obligations.

The interesting twist in all this is that for someone who is in their 20s or 30s in the 2010s and 2020s the outlook will be rising taxes and reduction in government services that directly benefit them. The pressure to spend on seniors will tend to squeeze other forms of spending. So an increasing percentage of people in their young working years and middle age will see the government has a heavy burden that gives little back in return. This could push some people in the 20-50 age bracket rightward to embrace politicians who favor reduction in benefits for old folks.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 06 08:25 PM  Politics Anglosphere

Paul Cella said at October 9, 2003 1:12 PM:

Interesting. My inclination is not to put TOO much emphasis on demographics. There's that old saying that projections are not predictions.

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