Friday, October 15, 2010

Moving the Dial

Everyone tells the Republicans that they need to do something to appeal to women and minorities.

But how? There are two ways. You can do it by moving towards them. Or you can move them towards you.

Practical politics, we can assert, is a combination of the two.

The problem is that, until you've done it, the task seems unsurmountable. Take Latinos and blacks.

For Latinos, we are told, the big issue is immigration, and why not. All recent immigrants to the United States want to bring the rest of their family over. But for Republicans, that desire runs up against the fact that we can't just open the gates and let everyone in, and we can't just issue a blanket amnesty for illegal aliens. So how do Republicans reach out?

For blacks, the big issue seems to be racism, that behind every white face hides a southern sheriff. And blacks are heavily invested into patronage politics like affirmative action. Republicans are voters that don't like patronage politics.

Recent history tells us that people become Republicans when they stop thinking of themselves as hyphenated Americans. Yet a century ago, William McKinley won the 1896 election with a Republican coalition of business, labor and urban immigrants against a Democratic coalition dominated by rural, religious, easy money voters. Where did the hyphens go then?

For the last ten years, the Republican Party has been the party of economic conservatives, the religious, the married, the male, the white and the private sector. The Democrats have been the party of women and minorities, the educated elite, crony capitalists, the single, the secular, the moderate, and the young.

Now things are changing. Writes Matthew Continetti, in an article about Sarah Palin:

Over the past two years, Pew and Gallup surveys have tracked the public as it has moved to the right -- not on just one or two issues but on a whole constellation of them. Even on the controversial topics of abortion, guns and same-sex marriage, Palin is not as far away from the center as some suppose. A May 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that a majority of Americans identified as "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice." In October 2009, Gallup measured record-low support for gun control. The public is divided on same-sex marriage, with about half the country joining Palin's (and Obama's) opposition.

The fact is that political parties are not like armies, directed from the top. They are shifting coalitions of voters, and they respond to changes in the political weather without quite knowing what is going on. The Tea Party movement seemed to come out of the blue and seems to be directed at least in part by a lot of conservative women. Where did they come from? To what extent is the Tea Party influenced by the Koch brothers and Dick Armey? Who knows?

What we do know is that the dial is moving. More people are persuaded by the conservative agenda than two or four years ago. Probably they are not persuaded by conservative ideas so much as frightened by President Obama's ideas and the clear feeling that things aren't working like they used to.

What we can be sure of is that the party alignments of 2100 will be different from the party alignment of 2010, just as the party alignments of 2010 bear no resemblance to the party alignments of 1896.

And anyone that tells you how to move the dial ought to know better. Sometimes you can move the dial; sometimes the dial moves itself. Sometimes the dial even moves you!

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